Month: December 2010 (Page 1 of 2)

It’s My Life. Don’t You Forget.

Finding old photos deemed long-lost is both dizzyingly joyful and weirdly alarming. I found myself experiencing this tailspin recently as I inadvertently came upon photos from more than a decade ago; visions of past lives, selves, dreams, ambitions and moments came flooding back. It made me feel old and young, all at once.

I have little use for nostalgia; I’m not the sort of person to long for a time to return, or to wallow in the tail-chasing uselessness of regret. But I wonder about the effect the internet has on our collective memories. People are quick to throw up albums of their latest outing/party/dinner/etc, without considering that they just might be giving a part of themselves away forever. And while they’re busy photoshopping and uploading and updating and IMing their adventures, there’s a whole world around them that keeps going. I don’t want to live my life online; I want to live it … living.

After the funny, familiar, forgotten feelings passed, I wondered about scanning a few photos to share. Would I? Should I? Is it anyone’s business? How much does sharing my past propel me into the future? or trap me in the past? Does the relentless documentation of the mundane boil down to simple narcissism? the primal urge to connect? a bit of both? Have Warhol’s fifteen minutes been shrunk to mere pixels and megabytes, mp3s and mp4s? I grapple with these questions daily, judiciously weighing what to share, what not to share, how best to do it, and when to walk away entirely, and, you know, live my life somewhere other than online, or in the media at all. I can’t help but wonder how my artwork’s being influenced by all this reflection, however, or its symbiotic relationship with a larger popular culture where exposure and revelation seem to overshadow not just nuance, but the blood-and-guts beauty of day-to-day living.

As such, I’ve being paying a heap of attention to the news around Patti Smith’s memoir of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘Just Kids’ won the U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction in November. Patti was recently interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who, responding to his humorous query about her punk, anti-establishment ethos, said, softly but firmly, “I like my award.” As if there was any question she might throw it back. The award is a testament to Smith’s mastery with words. The book is a hypnotizing blend of moving personal experience and a recollections on life in late 60s/early 70s as a struggling young artist. Famous figures like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed (among many others) float in and out, but what kept my interest flowing was Patti’s poetic, flowing prose shot through with equal parts youthful zeal and lived-in wisdom. There’s an old-soul quality to her work that in no way lessens her roaring passion or stirring memories of her personal and artistic development on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

Owing to this unique combination of flavours, ‘Just Kids’ has become one of my very-favorite books, ever. I devoured whole chapters across many late evenings when I began reading it, connecting deeply with certain aspects: involvement with artists; finding one’s own artistic voice; sacrificing for vision; growing confidence; growing old; shifting priorities; retaining authenticity. As I noted the end drawing ever nearer, I wound up slowing my voracious, passionate pace, instincts automatically kicking in to postpone the inevitable final page. Time -with anyone, with any place, with any memory, with any project -is always finite. Patti herself acknowledges this as she writes of the last time she met, and spoke with, her longtime … what? Friend? Lover? Mentor? Soulmate? All of the above. ‘Just Kids’ describes a life well-lived indeed, but it also bravely crosses into some personal, painful hinterlands.

That Patti was so baldly, boldly able to share a very, deeply personal part of her life with the public, without being saccharine, sentimental, or sensationalist is awe-inspiring. And yet, it feels natural. Patti honored the beauty of life she’s experienced, in all its gut-wrenching, thrilling, horrifying, glorifying majesty, by writing this book. She also honored Robert’s request. Nothing about ‘Just Kids’ feels forced, cheap, or exploitive. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s deeply moving and desperately personal. I’m a deeply private person myself (despite all my online activities might imply) and I am really not sure I’d ever be able to write something akin to ‘Just Kids’, nor am I sure I’d want to. I don’t be able to make the kind of promise Patti made with Robert before he died about writing a memoir of their lives, partially because I don’t think I could ever do those kinds of relationships justice in written form, and, frankly, I’m not sure certain things are anyone’s business.

I do, however, have photos and old journals; I have memories that flicker in and out, and boxes (and boxes!) of poetry, photographs, drawings, and paintings. This – -my life – – is the foundation of my art, and the art of many, past and present, whom I admire. Translating it all into something I feel comfortable sharing, without it seeming narcissistic, saccharine, or relentlessly navel-gazing, is a challenging, if inevitable, opportunity to open a door into a new world. It’s like trying to get into the best, most dreamy spot in the world, but there’s a guard dog outside, and you only know it’s there by its breath; it might bite you, it might let you pet it, but you have to get past it, blood, treats, cooing, and all.

Ultimately, the best art requires a certain degree of nakedness. And nakedness requires bravery. Patti was brave enough to be naked -in ‘Just Kids’ unquestionably, but also through her thirty-plus years of poetry, art and music. I’m gradually learning to go naked too. Damn it’s cold. But I’m getting used to it… maybe.

Laughter In The Dark

The man behind one of my favorite movies of all time passed away today. I write one, but really, it’s a collection. Blake Edwards‘ influence was so massive in my life, it’s easy to lose track of what he did, when. Reading the excellent obituary in the New York Times, I’m struck by not only his influence cinematically but in a larger cultural sense.

Laughter was one of the foundations of my childhood. My memories of life as a little one are coloured by giggles, smiles, and sometimes, hard-to-control howling fits that frequently happened at the worst possible times (ie church, funerals, big weddings). Humour may be personal, but its effects are universal. When I was a kid, I had a direct through-line to experiencing primal emotions with somewhat astonishing rapidity: sadness came just as fast as fits of hilarity, to be quickly replaced by joy, anger, fear. Like some manic depressive hobbit, I’d cry if someone snapped at me and laugh until my stomach ached at the silly antics of the Marx brothers and, of course, Inspector Clouseau -whom my buddy hilariously imitated, felt moustache, fake accent, and cocked eyebrow in place. Forget The Pink Panther cartoon; I’d seen the real thing (thanks to my super-duper VCR) and I was hooked.

The 1964 movie A Shot In The Dark ranks as one of my favorite comedies. It’s a blend of child-like lunacy and very-adult sexiness. The story of Maria Gambrelli and the corrupt Parisiennes depicted within Edwards’ world delighted me, and indeed, still does. I didn’t get that sexual references as a kid, nor did I care -and really, it didn’t matter. I knew it was naughty without being gross, and I liked the kind of glamorous world Edwards seemed to be both mocking and milking in his work.

That intriguing mix -playing the game of high society/fame/notoriety/in-crowd while simultaneously, unapologetically riping it to shreds -found incredible expression through his famous early work, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961 -written by Truman Capote), through the Clouseau movies, into the mad, surreal world of The Party, and even into Edwards’ angry, cynical S.O.B. (the sight of Julie Andrew’s slurring “I’m going to show my boobies!” is one I’ll never forget); it also seeped into 1982’s Victor/Victoria, a movie I loved so much I wore out my tape from repeated viewings.

It was probably there that my fascination with gender began; what constitutes “female” / “male”? And why should it matter? Edwards’ work was, and remains, curiously subversive; it’s shrewd in its expression of the in-crowd as being both deliciosly desirable and disgustingly debauched, hailing and applauding the “new” and “daring” so long as it doesn’t threaten their power structure or upset any positions or expectations. Phooey to that, his work said, lightly, if with a knowing wink, ever well-dressed and classy.

What appealed when my cinematic appetites were still budding was the mix of madcap comedy and flair for the aesthetic, along with the unmissable trait that smart and beautiful were natural soul-mates. Elke Sommer’s Maria (in Shot) wasn’t stupid -just good at seeming like she was, especially to smitten men. In Victor/Victoria, Julie Andrews exuded a different, if no less potent form of sex appeal that clearly had roots in the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. She played a poor pretty woman pretending to be a rich man who went onstage to be a glammy hot woman. (Oh, and she/he wound up having a macho-man fall in love with her/him.) It was funny; it was touching; it was in Paris and featured beautiful costumes, and amazing music. Casting Music Man Robert Preston as “Victor’s” impressario was genius. And yes, it was entertaining as all hell, but there existed within Victor/Victoria some important questions -ones we’re still grappling with, singing about, dancing around, and celebrating.

Blake Edwards will be remember in many different ways, by many different people. I remember him as being the filmmaker who taught me some of my earliest lessons about the nature of art, comedy, and what exactly Groucho Marx meant by not wanting to be a part of any club that would have me as a member. Amen to that, and thank you, Mr. Edwards. I’ll be watching A Shot In The Dark tonight, on my old VCR, laughing, smirking, and remembering.

December, Baby

Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I’ve been thinking I am the actual age I’m turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I’m focusing on the champagne that’s being uncorked at the end of the day. It’s a start, right?

I’ve also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I’m overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It’s cheering and surreal, all at once.

Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world… well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn’t put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.

At some point, I knew my hands weren’t made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn’t dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I’d write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.

While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I’ve done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I’m especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim‘s interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there’s a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you’ll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim’s tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn’t know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.

That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would’ve been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I’d been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he’d been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.

My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother’s smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I’d heard of Francis Albert. I’d heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin‘s work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs … that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like “Lonely Town”, “Angel Eyes” and the famous “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.

Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don’t succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn’t sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!, Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.

I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love –love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:

Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory… I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.

Maybe that’s why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies… we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.

Swirling

A little piece of inspiration, amidst the Christmas/holiday nutties.

The ocean has always been a source of inspiration for me. When I lived in Dublin, I used to have to take the DART south for work twice a week; I loved being along the Irish sea and looking out at the swirling waves. It was a hell of a public transit ride for a wide-eyed Canadian girl more used to seeing concrete and tracts of homogenous suburban town-boxes along commuter routes. I marveled at the many people who simply fell asleep on the ride. How can you miss this?, I thought. Maybe it’s something you get used to, and sick of, the way us Canadians are about snow and winter scenes.

On the (few) days the sun shone in Dublin, the watery landscape turned into a glinting kind of jewel; I only wish I had been painting then. Still, I had my trusty Minolta with me. The photos I took are languishing somewhere in Ireland. I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again; the feeling of seeing that dance of sky and sea will be with me, though, forever. Another ride along the DART is inevitable, both physically and otherwise.

Watching The Wheels


Thirty years ago today John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman.

Along with local events, memorials, specials, a loving tribute, and, of course, music, everyone who was alive then remembers where they were, and/or what they were doing. Because the shooting happened in the evening, I only heard about it the next morning. As a child, I grew up thinking of John as an acidic solo artist with a strange wife who was once in a cool band that wrote really catchy tunes. He was the guy with the crooked smile who had strong opinions and an unusual voice. He wasn’t Paul’s cute, smooth operator but rather, an eccentric, subversive bad ass whose influence, I later realized, was much, much bigger than I could ever fully understand.

Even now, I can’t wrap my head around it -this amazing life, this unique voice, this consummate artist, this motherless hell-raiser, this husband, father, icon, Beatle, not-Beatle, this gifted man creating and defining a new universe, happily moving between the world of stardom and the gritty 70s streets of New York City. I want to think of him holding his infant son’s hand walking through Central Park; I want to think of him smiling and chatting with a friend of mine who’d regularly run into him in the neighbourhood; I want to think of him snuggling with Yoko, or playing the piano, or singing, or jamming with his bandmates, or going to see new bands, or drawing, sketching, jotting down words and ideas and speaking out on things he believed in, even if it made him unpopular. I want to humanize him, even while paying deference to his status and acknowledging the long, skinny shadow he casts, even -or especially -now.

John’s passing was different than that of Elvis Presley (whose death I also remember); Elvis was, and will always be, the quintessential rock and roll icon. Trying to humanize him feels, for me, rather difficult, even when I’m told stories by those who knew the Memphis Flash personally. Elvis wasn’t as direct (or angry) when it came to his art, and besides, I didn’t grow up with someone named after him. My best friend growing up was named after a Beatle; it wasn’t John, but easily could’ve been.

I don’t remember his reaction that fateful day thirty years ago. All I remember is pulling on my ever-uncomfortable tights the morning of December 9th and hearing the news, repeated over and over, about how Mark David Chapman called out to his “hero”, about the blood, about the mounds of flowers placed outside the Dakota. And “Imagine” was played over and over, along with so many beloved Beatles hits. I didn’t get it, but I couldn’t get over it.

By the time I reached my late teens, I asked for, and received, the CD box set of John Lennon’s solo work. Now, many years later, I still listen to them, on and off, and try not to think about “what if” -because really, that feels like a creative and spiritual dead end. Patti Smith, reflecting on the passing of her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe, then later brother, mother, and husband, said she didn’t like to think of death as a “loss”, but rather, as a “gain” -for what the deceased offered the world during their brief time.

And so to John Lennon I say: thank you, times a million. You are here, and you are everywhere, and even if I didn’t know it that cold December day, you were right there with me, and you still are with us, all of us, as we shiver, and cry, and laugh, and sing, and paint, draw, and go about our lives. You’re not here -but you are.

Imagine; I have. And it’s good.

Raising The Bard


Toronto’s amazing, inspiring Art Of Time Ensemble has been presenting its unique vision of music, dance, theatre, and literature now for twelve years. They’ve featured the works of Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Gavin Bryars, Erich Korngold, and many, many others in concerts that combine music, art, theatre, and dance, to create a hybrid form unto itself. What’s more, the Ensemble has involved some of Canada’s biggest names from the arts world to accomplish their task of shedding light on old and new masters alike.

Their incredible rendering of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (which I wrote about back in March) was so popular, it was presented as part of this year’s Summerworks Theatre Festival, and is on track to be part of Soulpepper Theatre Company’s season in 2011. The Art Of Time toured with former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page plus songstress Sarah Slean; award-winning author Michael Ondaatje is among their most devoted followers and has, on occasion, participated in concerts doing readings. He says of them:

Art of Time leaps over the usual barriers of culture. So Schumann and Tolstoy can rub shoulders with Ginsberg and our best contemporary musicians. The result is entertainment that is often thrilling, often full of insights—as in the old values of art that delight and instruct.

I’ve spent many happy evenings at their shows, scratching head, cradling heart, listening; the phrase “human being” never seemed more real and alive than at an Art Of Time show.

Their next work, coming up this week, is called If Music Be… -a tribute of sorts to William Shakespeare, featuring, among many others, the poetic footwork of Peggy Baker and the acting talents of Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock, plus, as ever, the expert musical accompaniment of the Ensemble themselves. The last If Music Be… was presented in Toronto in March 2008.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around Shakespeare and the blend of Bard and Ensemble with two key figures for the evening: Andrew Burashko, who is the group’s Artistic Director, and actor/director/dramaturge David Ferry, who directs If Music Be…, which runs at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre December 9th through 11th.

Why Shakespeare?

Andrew:

I’ve always been in awe of Shakespeare’s limitless play and poetry. To me he represents the most dazzling example of virtuosity. Also, he has influenced so many artists and inspired so much diverse art – high and low – music, theater, literature, dance. In that sense, he is the perfect subject for Art of Time – a subject that connects so many of the artistic disciplines.

David:

Well as many of the authors quoted in this piece say, (Shakespeare) invented us in so many ways; he created arguably our sense of the human being.

How difficult was the process of choosing accompanying music?

Andrew:

It was actually the reverse: I began with the music and dance inspired by Shakespeare, and then selected the sources that inspired the music and dance. To over-simplify, I thought it might be fascinating to see/hear this amazing stuff together with the source material. In other words, to show this music and dance on the heels of the actual scenes that inspired them – to see the Shakespeare as he wrote it, followed by interpretations of the same material in the forms of music and dance.

How would you describe the connection between Shakespeare and music?

Andrew:

I guess the most obvious would be the music and richness in his language, but even more than that, his ability to express the ineffable – to tug at the heart strings by transcending the limitations of words.

You have an eclectic mix of artists taking part; how much did their talents shape the program?

Andrew:

Everything begins and ends with the content – the material. I chose the artists I thought could best deliver the material. I thought of Peggy (Baker)’s piece before I thought of Peggy. In fact, I was surprised that she wanted to dance it herself. She’s been slowing down – cutting the more physically demanding pieces from her repertoire as a dancer. I wasn’t expecting her to be up for it.

David:

Peggy is a long-time collaborator with Andrew, as is James Kudelka. My suggestions were (actors) Tim (Campbell), Marc (Bendavid), Cara (Ricketts). Ted (Dykstra) and Lucy (Peacock) have done the material before.

How does this version of If Music Be… differ from the one you directed a few years ago?

David:

The core material is the same, with some modifications and the structuring of the material. Also, this time actors will not read but have material memorized, (which allows for) different staging. (There are) some music changes as well, (like the) addition of the Wainright pieces and Dykstra song. The relationships with the actors are deeper, as relationships are wont to grow with time.

Andrew, you come from a very music-centric background, David comes from a very theatre-centric background. Do you meet in the middle (or not)?

Andrew:

David is someone I like and respect. Also, he really gets what Art of Time is about. I compiled all the material and asked him to come in and put everything together in terms of staging and flow. He’s not messing with the content at all, and I’m staying out of his way in determining the show’s overall look and feel. I would love for all these disparate elements to come together to form a whole – that’s his job.

For people more familiar with Shakepeare done at places like the Stratford Festival, what does If Music Be… offer?

Andrew:

This show is just as much about the work Shakespeare inspired as it is about his own work. In that sense, the audience will exposed to a lot more than Shakespeare. It’s a look at his work and what it led to down the years.

David:

I like to think of the evening as high-class Ed Sullivan: a great variety of fine artists that make for a stimulating, thought-provoking, accessible and entertaining night at the theatre.

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.

David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.

In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Feel / Reveal


Watching pieces of the movie Frida recently, amidst bites of crostini, answering emails, and half-sketching, was a strange experience -and not just because of the multi-tasking.

When I saw it in the cinema in 2002 I was bowled over by the mix of images, plot, and music within Julie Taymor‘s vision of the Mexican painter’s life. My initial viewing was at an early point in my own personal explorations into drawing and painting; after years of photography, including nearly two years spent in Ireland and England with an ancient, beloved manual-forward SLR camera, I thought it might be a good idea to strip the technology away to get to the heart of art-making. And so the drawing/painting/sketching odyssey began, and photography, however slowly, fell by the wayside, paralleling the dwindling of film stock and the rise of mobile (and, for that matter, internet) technology.

It was during a recent dinner party at my home that I felt a deep twinge of nostalgia for my old snapping days. I brought out the old Minolta at the request of one of my guests, a photo enthusiast. The weight of the camera, the ka-chunk of the shutter, the cylindrical beauty of the lens, the quasi-surprise of the prints… it was all magical to behold after so long away from it. Yet spying the light meter again created a small panic, a palpable sense of, what am I doing?! It was a curious mix of panic and passion.

Aside from the heart-stopping, beautiful viuals, what I love so much about Taymor’s film is that Frida’s struggles and doubts over her own artistic voice aren’t ever glossed over; in one scene, when she and husband Diego Rivera go to New York City so the latter can complete a commission for the Rockefellers, a reporter asks her, “Are you an artist too?” She demures -and keeps on stabbing her brush at the canvas. Yes, no, maybe. I don’t know. Keep on keepin’ on. Even when bed-ridden, she continued her output, never labelling herself or her work. Just doing it.

I’m a longtime admirer of Frida’s work -“admirer”, actually, feels too mild, but “fan” feels too slavish. She takes her place, like Patti Smith, in my mental curio cabinet of beautifully imperfect heroes: shriekingly female but defying categorization, always personal but ever-cryptic, physical but very heady, hugely experimental but deeply traditional. A mass of genius in contradiction, Frida’s work, like Patti’s, has the power to bring me to tears, and frequently has.

The timing of Taymor’s movie on television was curious on a personal level (never mind Taymor’s directing Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, opening next month on Broadway. More on that in a future post.). I’d been berating myself for not being productive enough artistically lately. I should be drawing/painting/etc is a frequent mental mantra. It’s feels like a hard thing to go off and do, and yet it shouldn’t be. That old want-to-be-doing vs should-be-doing battle is raging. The other reason productivity falls away is that I have a genuine sense of not knowing what I’m doing, that it’s all for naught, that it’s all horribly amateur and pointless and stupid. That voice of doubt is sometimes louder than the calm, quiet one that asks me to keep going.

And so, it was appropos that, looking through a bookshelf for something else entirely, Peter London’s No More Secondhand Art (Shambhala Publications, 1989) popped out at me. I opened it, as if my magic, to a page with the following header: “Am I Good Enough?” That would be my other mantra, a much older one that applies to several areas and pursuits. But I was fascinated by London’s dissection of this question to self as applied to art-making, one that works whether you love drawing, painting, photography or performance:

We can never win the encounter with such a question, because the very underlying assumption of “Am I —— enough?” is a faulty appraisal of the human condition and a false understanding of what it does take to engage in creative enterprises… Rather than paralyzing ourselves with the existential bone-crusher “Am I good enough?” we would do better to ask ourselves question that invoke no comparisons. Instead, we could become interested in describing the new terrain being uncovered or invented.

I dream of the day that voice stops -or at least softens. I dream of the day I’ll have the most precious things any artist could ask for -time, space, resources -to do what I want most to do, when my heroes smile and say, see? It wasn’t so hard after all. Because really, it’s not.


Paintings:

Top: The Two Fridas, 1939.
Bottom: Viva la vida, 1954. Frida Kahlo’s last painting.


Photo credit:

Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch, 1932.

Sashay, Art, Eh

One of the many things I learned reading Patti Smith’s beautiful memoir Just Kids was that she loved Vogue Magazine as a child. Patti, the (I had supposed) anti-fashion poet? Trying to categorize her is impossible, and, I realize (as with many of the women I admire), that’s just how she likes it. Appearing on the cover of her first album in a man’s shirt (which she got, natch, from the Sally Anne) and rocking a strong, sexy, androgynous look ever since, Smith is one of those figures who stops me in my tracks on many levels, including how I think about fashion.

I had a conversation with a journalist-friend recently about the connections between culture and fashion, how one feeds into and is frequently informed by the other, but how frustrating it is that followers of each so rarely cross into other worlds. Save for the Gaga/Madonna/McQueen/Bjork/Warhol / Jacobs / Murakami types who a/ are super-rich b/ super well-known, and b/ don’t seem to care about categorization (in a more flamboyant if no less effective way than Patti), each world lives in a separate, distinct fifedom of fabulous, heady, arty, blissful ignorance. And that doesn’t seem right. Creative = Creative. And opportunities need to be created to foster that sense of the grandly creative and visionary -in any medium – and to properly to nurture and promote it. Enter Ukamaku.

My visit to the head office of the Canadian online fashion site inspired on various levels; partly because it was exciting to meet the people sewing/making the items -I consider them artists in their own right -and partly because, the way the items were displayed, it was, to my eyes, a mini-gallery of ideas and influences, the way any good exhibition is. And Ukamaku’s office itself is gallery-like: housed in a sprawling linked series of buildings featuring loft-like spaces with plenty of natural light, white-washed walls, and high ceilings and wood floors, it provided the perfect backdrop to the creations of people like Heidi Ackerman, Andy Hall, Paris Li, Breeyn McCarney, and David C. Wigley, among others.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around fashion and the founding of Ukamaku with a few of its principal players recently. It struck me, reading over their thoughts, that these ideas could just as well be applied to the art world -be it performance, visual arts, music -as to fashion. Let’s stop the lines and categories, says me. I think after reading this you might agree too.

Why did you start Ukamaku?

Chris Tham, Communications Director:

Ukamaku stemmed from our interest in creating an affordable eco-friendly brand. After looking at the costs involved with designing, manufacturing and marketing a fashion label, we decided that our talents and specialities aren’t enough to cover the different aspects involved. Talking to other designers gave us the same impression. We finally realized that instead of designing and manufacturing, we could help designers with their sales, and marketing their labels with a focus on e-commerce.

George Ng, Operation Director, also Founder/Owner:

We (George and Chris) started Ukamaku after seeing a need within the fashion industry. We realized that although designers are good at fashion design, some require additional help with marketing – e-commerce in particular, due to the cost and training involved. Based on our individual interests in fashion and in e-commerce, we decided to start Ukamaku.

Who do you think it’s for?

George Ng:

We created Ukamaku with two different groups of people in mind. First, Ukamaku targets customers who like purchasing high quality goods at a price that reflects the quality. These customers are people who want unique items that aren’t mass produced (i.e. custom made clothing or jewelery). Customers who want to support Canadian designers are also part of this group.

We also created Ukamaku for independent Canadian designers. Canadian designers wanting to sell their items beyond their physical market boundaries. They want worldwide marketing for their items. Ukamaku gives them the opportunity to enter a new market at a faster pace and an affordable cost. Designers no longer need to spend time creating their own websites, online marketing and shipping. Ukamaku covers all of these for them.

How do you choose designs / designers to feature? How much is it about being ‘trendy’ vs being simply unique & well-made?

Marcus Kan, Fashion Director:

We first look at their quality and designs when choosing designers to showcase on our site. We try keeping a balance between trendy and simple fashion pieces to fulfill our customer’s needs. Many of our designers do not mass produce their products, allowing our customers to purchase unique fashion pieces with high quality materials. A designer with a good reputation in the industry is desired by Ukamaku. However, we believe that new emerging designers are equally as important. We will working alongside the new designers to help improve their reputation within the industry.

The term “locavore” is being thrown around a lot in Toronto food circles -how much do you think it can (or should) apply to fashion as well?

Marcus Kan:

There are many hidden gems in the Canadian fashion industry. However, these designers do not seem to be able to gain their deserved exposure. We firmly believe that Canadians should play a role in supporting these designers. With each person pushing these designers a little bit forward, the Canadian fashion industry can be well known to the public, with some designers becoming household names. In turn, the exposure of Canadian designers would allow Canadians greater options to purchase Canadian designs.

How much do you see
ethical sourcing and production becoming the norm in Canadian fashion and overall in the fashion world?

Chris Tham:

There is a belief with the general public that Canada is environmentally friendly and an equal opportunity country. Many of our designers use environmentally friendly materials to produce their collections. We think they represent Canadian fashion very well. Being a Canadian company, we’ll continue supporting the designers in using eco-friendly materials for their collections. Hopefully one day, when people think Canadian fashion, they’ll think of trendy eco-friendly clothing.

Where do you see Ukamaku in five years’ time?

George Ng:

Similar to the meaning of Ukamaku – “That’s It!” -we’d like to see Ukamaku as the main source of Canadian fashion. We want customers to find Canadian fashion items on our site, and designers finding their customers through us. We’d love to run more fashion related events, not only in Canada, but outside of Canada to showcase the many talented designers we have in Canada.

Photo credits:
Top photo of 1950 Vogue Magazine cover from Make The World A Prettier Place.
Ukamaku office and designer photos courtesy of Magnetic Creative.

It’s Time

I felt the need to share this on World AIDS Day. It’s a simply-done work about the numerous NYC-based artists who’ve died of AIDS. Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe are just a few of the names here.

Yes, there are millions who’ve died, many of whom never achieved the fame many of the people in this film did, any who will die nameless, faceless… but to us North Americans, the victims are far away, out of our reach, outside our scope of experience. Aren’t they? This film (and accompanying website) “Last Address“, challenges that attitude.

With simple shots of New York life, including birds, cats, people, roads, traffic, etc, the film shows the abodes (with addresses) of all the artists who died. The absolute ordinary-ness is striking. These are people, not statistics. People like you and I.

Ordinary people get AIDS. We are all ordinary, and we can do something that is ordinary, logical, and .. ridiculously right: demand a cure. It’s overdue.

Painting: © All rights reserved by Keith Haring.

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