Blog # 73…September 2017

A headline in Saturday’s Globe and Mail read   “How art can nourish a community” referring to Gallery 1313 which opened in 1997 in Parkdale.  I know this blog is often Toronto-centric, so here's some local context - Parkdale is in the downtown west end of the city, an area plagued by drug use and crime. A number of things have contributed to a shift in the past 20 years, but the Gallery was early on the scene and has maintained its presence as a safe and positive space that nourishes the healthy aspects of the community. 

As well as being open and welcoming to the public (as opposed to when it was a  jail) it has an active outreach to local schools, providing a place to exhibit the work of artists of all ages and from near and far.
Recently, members of the large Tibetan diaspora in the neighbourhood flocked to see the work of Tashu Norba, one of their compatriotes who lives and works in Amsterdam.

The Aga Khan Museum is embedded in another neighbourhood feeling some change.   On the northeast edge of the city, originally developed in the last century as an industrial/business area, it's now home to thousands of folks, many of them newcomers. The Museum, opened in 2014, is set amidst beautiful gardens and reflecting pools and shares the site with an Ishmaeli cultural centre and mosque.
On a recent visit we were treated to a wedding party strolling around the grounds, the women’s gowns glittering and reflecting in the pools.

In the spirit of connecting cultures through art, the current programme features several Canadian artists.  i have now seen, a poem by Parliamentary Poet-in-Residence George Elliot Clarke explores identity as an indigenous black.

And...a whimsical piece by Babak Golkar titled, The Fox, the Nut and the Banker's Hand catches our eye, makes us think and reminds us of what cross cultural pollination is bringing to Canadian art.

But the most brilliant exhibit is outside…Skate Girls of Kabul consists of large cubes with portraits of young Afghan girls with their skateboards. Their faces reflect joy or  shyness as they peek out from their helmets (worn over headscarves) or confidence as they don knee pads over their traditional leg coverings. Skateistan is an NGO operating in Cambodia, South Africa and Afghanistan, empowering youth and children through skateboarding and education. A great idea!

Many thanks to Norm Nicholls for the photos.
Blog # 72…August 2017

I was in Quebec recently and was reminded of how much value they place on artisans and the work they do.  In Iles de la Madeleine, where we spent a few days, I noticed the term Economusee kept popping up and when we visited a fromagerie, I got to the bottom of what it meant.

The Economusee Network Society was established in Quebec in 1992 as a means of recognizing and promoting the work of artisans.  Operating in the field of crafts or the agri-food sector, participants use authentic know-how in the production of their commodities.  They also open their workshops to the general public so they can share their passion and knowledge and sell products made on the premises.

We saw cheese being made (and tasted it too) at Fromagerie Pied de Vent - they produce three speciality cheeses, which contain no chemical additives, with milk from one herd of cattle fed only hay and feed available on the islands..

We also visited Le Fumoir d’Antan where three generations of Arsenaults  have been curing and smoking seafood since the 1940’s. with kippered herring a speciality.

Les Iles de la Madeleine are a sand archipelago so sand is everywhere (causing serious erosion problems on causeways and cliffs, but creating exquisite beaches). Artisans du Sable put it to many creative uses, mixing it with an agent to give it structural integrity. One series of objets that particularly appealed to us were funeral urns,shaped a bit like a wasp's nest and with the signature footprint motif.

These three examples of Economusee are but the tip of the iceberg. Since its beginning twenty- five years ago, as well as a number of locations in Quebec, the movement has spread in Canada to the Martiime provinces, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. There are Economusees in Northern Ireland and the Republic, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland  and the Faroe Islands. Products range from maple syrup to bread, berr and wine to beef, garments knitted or made from woven material, articles made from wood, ceramics or metal. There's even a taxidermist. This international network of like minded artisan-entrepreneurs share marketing initiatives, tourism campaigns and are strong regional economic generators.

Visits are currently being made to Haiti to explore the possibilities there. It's a fascinating movement, and a refreshing alternative to our highly mechanized ways of production and consumption.

Blog # 71…July 2017
I’ve noticed, maybe you have too, how many blogs I’ve devoted to art and indigenous people.  The relations between us, both past and present compete with climate change to be at the top of my personal list of stuff that absorbs me. Thought I’d switch it up and do something else this time…but guess what, not gonna do it (remember Dana Carvey doing GW?…and that reminds me, a major digression here, I'm loving Al Franken’s book, Giant of the Senate).  But back to blogging…

I was lucky to be in Ottawa recently, the jazz festival, Canada Day - people wearing red maple leaf shirts over their saris and caribou antlers on top of turbans…all of us crowding together, mostly happily, to huddle under umbrellas and jump over muddy bits.

What struck me most though, was time spent in the new gallery of Canadian and Indigenous Art at the NAC. I’m not sure about the name of the gallery, which seems to imply that indigenous art is separate rather than part of Canadian art. On the other hand, and probably what the curators were thinking, it features and dignifies indigenous art which has historically been relegated to folk arts and crafts. Whatever its name, the gallery succeeds in telling a new story about art in Canada.

A caption attributed to Louis Riel reads, “My people will sleep for 100 years but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirits back.” Voices and images from Kent Monkman, Rebecca Belmore, Alex Janvier and  Daphne Odjig  call our attention to indigenous life’s  joys and sorrows, balancing and enriching our own view of our history.

Daphne Odjig was born on Manitoulin Island in 1919 and died in 2016 - that's right she was 97.  A member of the Indian Group of Seven (take a look at Blog # 48) her many accomplishments and
honours include being chosen as one of 4 international artists to paint an homage to Pablo Picasso for the Picasso Museum in Antibes and being commissioned by El Al Airlines to create The Jerusalem Series.   There’s a rich collection of her work to see online; I was particularly touched by a piece from 1975 titled Mother Earth Struggles for Survival.

With the giant slice that broke away from the Larsen C ice shelf recently another alarm bell sounds, echoing Daphne’s concern from more than four decades ago, As well as informing our past, indigenous artists warn us about the future.  “Alarming messages can be paralyzing and counter-productive” writes my favourite Elizabeth Renzetti.  And she in turn quotes George Marshall, whose book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, who says that a more positive way to mobilize people may be what he calls “a narrative of positive change.” He describes this as telling compelling stories about how people can come together in pursuit of a more just, equal and not so sweltering planet.

I’ll leave you to think about that and about our Iraqi refugees who arrive in Toronto next Tuesday morning.  It’s been a long wait for them and will be a steep learning curve for all of us.

June 28th

As Canada's 150th anniversary approches, nostalgia reigns... I'm no exception.and couldn't resist sharing this image from the summer of 1967 when Canada and I were both 50 years younger.

Give a thought on Saturday, about ourselves, our country and the original inhabitants who have shared it with us so generously.

And if you're in Montreal, the McCord Museum has an exhibit of Expo/67 uniforms, including this one.
Blog # 70…June 2017

Hard to keep up and balanced with all that’s going on in the world, isn’t it???   As there’s more and more to cry about, I find myself more and more appreciating a good laugh. And I love encountering people who are smart and know how and when to be funny, offering a fresh view and putting serious matters  in perspective.

Reading always helps me centre myself so it’s not surprising that I’ve found some solace in some new books that take us backstage to look at current issues and help us make some sense of them. 
The first is by Scaachi Koul, who uses her razor sharp humour to share the fears and indignities she felt every day growing up as an outsider in Calgary. The essays in One day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter take us from rape culture to racism with many stops in between to occasionally laugh in the midst of misery. The current influx of refugees and migrants offers Canadians a chance to broaden our notion of what and who we are and struggle to accept people who look, dress and act differently.  Scaachi’s glimpse of how it feels to be marginalized in a white culture points out how some feelings are common to us all whatever our situation.

I remember Al Franken from Saturday Night live and was curious to see how he’d handle his entry into US politics.  Elected as the Senator (D) from Minnesota in 2008 - reelected in 2014 - Al is a serious advocate for the citizens of his state, with an eye on national and global issues.  He’s particularly passionate about the environment and the health of rural dwellers in his state.  Although he’s never lost his comedian’s view of the world, he’s totally conscious that he wants to be effective in his current position and avoids easy cheap shots at the current administration.  In Al Franken, Giant of the Senate he explores truth and laughter in his serious role representing Minnesotans on the national stage.

And as science is buffeted by deniers, two physicists, Neil Degrasse Tyson  (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry) and Lawrence Krauss (The Greatest Story Ever Told…so far) do us the favour of  making their knowledge and views available in language  clear and often funny -  treating us as equals in a curiousity about the mysteries of the world.

Those are recent books; I have some old standbys when I need a laugh, My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome and just about anything by SJ Perelman or David Sedaris.  I hope you have yours too, keep them close, I have a feeling we’ll be needing them more and more.
And, after almost two years, here’s a tiny bit of movement on the file of our refugee family…stay tuned.

Blog # 69…May, 2017
I don’t know about you but what’s going on in the world has me perched much of the time on a knife edge between optimism and despair…BUT… the Greens got 3 seats in BC,  a David and Goliath situation, but look what happened there.
I heard someone say recently (if it was you, please let me know and I’ll give credit where it’s due) “Artists form part of the fragile barrier standing between authoritarian control and open democracy.”  They also serve us by exposing conflicts among our values and making us think.  Many of us are searching for ways to stand up for important gains in freedom and fairness in the world that are slipping away and we need all the help we can get.  Being aware and keeping from being overwhelmed is about all I can manage some days.
As I write this, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood (she’s everywhere these days and always makes me laugh as well as think) speaking about The Handmaid’s Tale - just released on a network that I don’t get but I did read the book.  It’s a prescient warning about the encroachment of dystopia, and is having a surge in popularity along with It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Ms Atwood’s book is by far the most recent, having been written in 1985, the others in the 30’s and 40’s. How useful are these pieces in informing us, mobilizing us, giving us a chance to speculate on how we’d behave IF…

Reading them now has a certain urgency because that IF has come scarily close and some of what seemed unimaginable a few decades ago seems to be here and the rest looming and threatening out there, no longer unthinkable.  Reading current media can be equally frightening, surrounding us and involving us in a giant game of True or False.  We’re losing independent news sources presenting contrary or subversive opinions just when we need them most, so these works from decades ago are important visions of what that IF might look like.

Playwright Robert Schenkkan believes he has a responsibility to influence not just curate.  He wrote his current play Building the Wall in the last week of October 2016, sensing a crisis. “ I don’t see… a struggle between left or right or liberal or progressive or Republican or Democrat.  What we’re experiencing is an attack on fundamental American values.” Schenkkan (who’s a Pultizer winner) hopes his play will ignite a genuine dialogue across the political spectrum. He made his main character a Trump supporter, very careful not to make him a one dimensional stereotype. “It’s all too easy to dismiss people you disagree with as foolish or not having a grasp of the facts or being bigoted or predjudiced or whatever, that’s not helpful.”
Building the Wally is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere and will be produced in Ottawa by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades November 30-December 9. He wants it to be widely viewed so if you have a local theatre group, mention it to them.

Blog# 68…April 2017
Photo by Ed Burtynski

 Ed Burtynski makes art to call our attention to industrial waste, beautiful images until we look more closely and realize what it is and what's caused it.




Other  artists show us the beauty that can exist in food that’s been discarded. The aim is different here -  to encourage us to see this food as useful rather than repellant.                                     

Anyone who knows me even slightly gets it that wasting food makes me nuts.  I just heard on the radio that, in Toronto, we waste 1,000,000,000 pounds of food every year. That’s one billion pounds of food that could have fed someone right here…we don’t even need to go into the starving folks around the world. Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the world is discarded -some of it due to the shape, colour and appearance of fruit and vegetables that don’t make the cut for supermarket standards at the food terminal. Some of it is due to the sheer abundance of food here that leads us to over order in restaurants and over buy in stores and markets.

Toronto’s Second Harvest does a pretty good job with re-directing some food from the waste bin to hungry mouths while it’s still fresh and good. And they have a new website – – that can respond to calls from smaller stores and deliver to smaller agencies.  Good for them, I wish we could do more as individuals, buy and order just what we need (helps with those weight concerns too).  Enough scolding...think about  making soup with left over vegetables and smoothies with fruit.

And moving west to Edmonton...a while ago I discovered that their Arts Council had established an artist-in -residence at city cemeteries to console mourning families and friends.  Now, they've introduced therapy dogs at the airport to comfort anxious travellers.  Bravo Edmonton, will be watching for the next thoughtful initiative.