Aug 19, 2009

Art: Love It. You Gotta.


I'm sitting in my garden, swatting away the wasps (or rather, blowing on them gently so as not to irritate) and enjoying the cool morning breezes after a string of deadly-hot, gorgeously-summery days. And yes, I'm on the computer. But really, what better office than one that afford a view of an English garden and the sounds of chirping birds?

Like many, checking Twitter has become a regular part of my day. It's actually become the norm, and one of my main sources of information. Whenever I'm curious about what is going on at an exact moment in time, anywhere across the globe, all I have to do is take a quick look at the "twizipper," as I call it, and I'm updated with a myriad of bits and bites -everything from mundane, me-spouting techno-narcissists to breaking world events to opinions, causes, and links to nutty, inane videos. I've been very interested to read (and enjoy) the tweets of artist Damien Hirst. You may recall that Hirst is the artist famous for his exhibitions of animals suspended in formaldehyde. He is also the artist behind the diamond-encrusted skull, though I find his paintings the most beautiful. Reading his tweets -and the links leading to his most-hilarious, smart blog -I've begun the realize the fun that can be had with a medium like Twitter to share, communicate, connect, question, and contemplate. I really wonder what someone like Warhol would've made for it; his "15 minutes of fame" dictum seems to have shrunk to 140 characters.

Anyway, taking a look through Hirst's blog again this morning, I was reminded why art -and artists -continue to inspire and inform the different aspects of my life. His stream-of-consciousness entry about art and its essential meaning -part truth, part seeking, all sarcasm -will, I am sure, seem different at night than it does in the morning light (by which I mean, more menacing and less airy -which is probably as he intended it). But there is also a definite spirit of playfulness with these entries -the M&Ms, the chewing gum, the bladder-related silliness. It's as if he's reducing the high-falutin' ways art is thought of (capital "A" art -as in, "I am an Artist!" -come on, we all have a friend who's pronounced or written those embarrassing words) while at the same time forced a re-think of what true art is, how we perceive it, how we interact with it, and what it means to us in daily life. This is, at least to me, the entire point of Hirst's career.

"Using your brain to make art is so last year!" he writes. Oh, Damien. You make me think, laugh, play, and look at the world -online and otherwise, inner and outer -in entirely new ways. Now I want to get my hands filthy in paint and conte. Think I'll hold off on the skull-creating... at least for now.

Addendum: Damien Hirst enough actually re-tweeted the link to this posting yesterday. A squeak of joy erupted from the patio once I realized this. It was enough to scare the wasps off, however temporarily. Thank you, Mr. Hirst. Wow. Thank you.

Addendum #2: Damien isn't Damien. Aaah, now it all makes sense. Don't care. Still flattered.

Aug 17, 2009

Play On, Bruce...

Today I read a worrisome message on actor Bruce Dow's website that basically states he is unable to complete his season with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It wasn't owing to any fallout or firing, but rather a simple matter of health. Bruce suffered from what he terms a "minor accident and a moderate illness" earlier this year, and though he thought he was in the clear, it turns out he wasn't, or isn't. He's had to withdraw from the remainder of the season, and his roles in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To the Forum and West Side Story as a result.

For audiences, sure, it stinks. But for the performer, it has to hurt, a little -or a whole lot. Being taken out of something because your body can't take it is painful -not just physically, but emotionally. You know you need to sit and recuperate, but your whole essence, built for performance and entertaining, is screaming to get up and strut your stuff. Alas, the body breaks down, and when it does, must be allowed the time and space necessary for healing. At such times though, it's to know what kind of message the universe is trying to send you. I shouldn't be doing this? I should take a break? I should re-group? Hmmm.

Whatever the case, there's no denying Bruce is a talented guy. Through the years, I've enjoyed his work in shows like Guys and Dolls (as Nicely Nicely Johnson) and Into The Woods (as the Baker). This year I had the good fortune of seeing the very first preview of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum at the Festival -and Bruce was fantastically engaging as Pseudolus, the slave who pines for freedom.

As well as being a talented performer, Bruce is also a lovely guy. We've met on a few occasions, and he is every bit as sincere as you might imagine. In theatre, this is no small feat. Where egos are frequently huge and artifice is often carried off the stage and into real life, Bruce is a refreshingly open, honest breath of fresh air. In our brief conversations, I got a keen sense of just how much he loves theatre and feels blessed and honoured to be doing the very thing he loves. I can barely imagine how challenging it will be for him to sit still and get better. But he better do just that.

Bruce, you are one of Canadian theatre's treasures. Speedy recovery and good thoughts.

Aug 16, 2009

Dance! Clay! Play!

Today I bicycled down to my local summer jazz festival. This little girl caught my attention -and I imagine, the attention of the other onlookers, too. She did some fantastic free, interpretive dance to a jazz trio (a vocal-less jazz trio, I should add), shaking, twirling, hopping, and bobbing her head. It was incredible and inspiring to witness her visceral reaction to a form of music many people find obtuse and difficult.

Watching her also brought to mind the hoary old argument of to-have-kids or not-to-have-kids. I've heard a lot of this sort of thing lately, and though I've already made my choice, in no way did it take away from my enjoyment of watching this little one rejoice in the incredible flexibility of form and the wonder of sound.

Part of the jazz fest included a street dedicated to artisanal work. There was a section where children could craft their own clay sculptures. Tiny creatures, some imagined, some real, all done with the delicate grace only young fingers possess.

Looking at the sculptures, the dancing figures, the tiny hands on balloons and the wide eyes staring agog, amazed, delighted at the sounds floating through the air, I can't say I felt any worse in my choice to remain childless, but I also acknowledge the special magic and unique, open energy children bring. They remind us to stop, to smile, and most importantly, to play.

Aug 15, 2009

War Is Over (?)

I only knew Billy Bishop's name -the fact he was a World War One ace flying pilot, the fact was Canadian. I didn't know anything else. Lessons learned in grade nine history have long since faded and all that's left are the names, really. If you put a photo of Bishop in front of me, I probably wouldn't recognize him.

Eric Peterson
and John Gray take this into account. Their 1978 theatrical work, Billy Bishop Goes To War, has something for both the history buffs and the ignoramuses -it's educational and simultaneously entertaining, engrossing, and deeply moving. Peterson, best-known among a generation of Canadians for his television work (on shows like Street Legal, and more recently, Corner Gas), has always done theatre, as he told me recently. Toronto's Soulpepper has snagged him, fortunately, to be in a number of their show this season -including a devastating turn as the super-desperate Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross this past winter, and a befuddled, mourning uncle in Of the Fields Lately. Last year he was the menacing, coolly cruel patriarch in The Company Theatre's production of Festen.

So Peterson isn't just the cutesy-grumpy guy you might know from television -the guy has range. He is also a wonderfully engrossing performer. For the length of Billy Bishop's running time (over two hours, with one intermission), he, along with just the accompaniment and occasional narration of co-creator John Gray, weaves a compelling, fascinating portrait of a multi-layered man nearly forgotten in the sands of time.

Billy Bishop (for those of you who've forgotten your history lesson) was one of the most decorated Canadian soldiers of the First World War. A classic screw-up at home (in school and in life), Bishop was shipped overseas when he was conscripted. He started out in the cavalry, and eventually soared -literally and figuratively -as a member of the Royal Air Force, and is credited with an astounding 72 in-air victories. The piece aptly expresses Bishop's doubts -in himself, his mission, his superiors -and Peterson is effective in conveying the nervous energy of a man at odds with himself and his times. He also neatly portrays the growing contradictions within Bishop's personality: the bloodthirsty hero of the sky, versus the awkward, goofy Canuck kid.

My seatmate, who is in the army reserves, was in awe at the combined efforts of Gray and Peterson to weave a compelling, moving story out of such simple elements, as was I; with just a few trunks (marked from the locales the show's played in), as well as toy planes, an armchair, some old photos, an army uniform and a piano, the pair magically transport the audience to the interior of a man at odds with himself and his place in history. Gray provides some nice low-tech sound effects -heavily breathing into his mic at points, pounding out morose-sounding chords at others -while Peterson demonstrates Bishop's incredible airborne feats through sheer physicality, standing on the arms of his easy chair, arms aloft. What makes the piece particularly interesting is the fact it skips between time periods, allowing for an elastic understanding of history and our place in it. When the show first starts, Peterson and Gray come out, ostensibly as themselves, taking bows, but with the former dressed in pajamas and slippers, it's as if Peterson is aware he's playing Bishop reflecting back on his life -and on a younger self (actor and serviceman) most of us can relate to -medals or not.

Billy Bishop Goes To War
is more than a simple history lesson; it's a meditation on the nature of conflict, within and without, on the idea of freedom, intimate and epic, on the terrain of country, physical and emotional. Together with director Ted Dykstra, Eric Peterson and John Gray have crafted a moving, memorable piece of theatre that moves far beyond names, and yet, I came away with a whole new appreciation of Billy Bishop, and indeed, of Canadian history. Bravo.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Aug 13, 2009

Sex Advice? Ask Grandma

I smiled when I saw this:



The description had worried me somewhat; would it be patronizing? Idiotic? Mean-spirited? Would it make this poor grandmother look ridiculous and outdated in a "pooh pooh, look at my granny" way? Turns out, none of the above is applicable. This is a loving, respectful tribute, and indeed, very playful... dare I say frisky.

I grew up not knowing either set of my grandparents, so I tend to live vicariously through other peoples' -in person, or, in this case, online. Believe it or not, this would be just the type of thing I'd want to discuss with my baba. Absolutely love it. Well done.

Totally unrelated: I just came home from watching Billy Bishop Goes To War, with Eric Peterson and John Gray. J'adore. More tomorrow. Segue: I'm sure their grandmothers -Bishop's included -would have more than a few interesting, playful insights to share. Who knows, perhaps they did... really, there must be a play in this somewhere.

Aug 9, 2009

Making Time

Work work work work work work work.

That's all I've really been up to the last little while. I'm fortunate that I adore what I do, though I'm still navigating the for-work/just-fun bleed-overs that inevitably occur when one loves the arts, and happens to report and write on them.

This past week, I read, with great interest, the increasing rarity of freelancers taking vacations, which was good timing, considering I'd been thinking the exact same thing for months now. The last time I took a real, honest-to-God, non-working vacation, was 2002. Yikes. While I love stay-cations -and lord knows they're getting to be the norm now -I am hungering to go away. I love what I do, I love the people I get to interact with, but... I just want to turn off the mind (and the computer) for a while and re-connect with the stuff that inspired me to go into arts reporting in the first place.



Yesterday I rang up a friend. We'd talked about going to the Art Gallery of Ontario's Surrealism exhibit the last time we'd brunched, which was in... eeek, May.

"We said we should go when it was opening, "she mused, "and now it's going to be ending!" Yes, ridiculous.

Sp we both agreed to make the time to get together and go art-ying.

Making time -for friends, for art, for life and for one's self -is so vital these days.
It's getting harder and harder to do, and yet it as the days and weeks rush by, it becomes more and more important.

I may not be able to up and take off for the month-long break I'm hankering after (but Eastern Europe, I hope to see you in the spring). So, in lieu of that, I'm hoping to make time -for friends, family, art, me -amidst the rush this week. Walking, workouts, lunch, coffee, painting, drawing, and, would you believe, writing -the kind I have been doing now and again, just for me. I want to make time for the things and the people I care about -now, more than ever, crappy summer weather be damned.

For now, back to work.

Oh yeah: featured painting is by favourite artist and mondo-personal inspiration Louis Le Brocquy. I plan on seeing his work in-person someday in the near future, and not merely spread across my laptop's screen. Yes indeed... I'll make the time.

Aug 6, 2009

He Understood. He Really Did.

This is turning into the summer my youth died.

First, my favourite singer as a child passed away last month, and now comes word my favourite filmmaker as a teen is gone.

John Hughes died today at the far-too-young age of 59. Filmgoers of a certain age and generation will remember him for classics like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Weird Science. he also wrote or co-wrote the hugely successful Home Alone series.

Hughes was the man behind two of my favourite films: Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I felt a real kinship with the awkward misfits and gawkish outsiders that populated Hughes' world. He was a champion of the underdog, but not in a patronizing, grossly over-moralizing way. Some of his characters -and lines -may have veered into cartoon territory at points, but those of us who went off to our local mall cinemas back then didn't care; Hughes spoke for us through Andie and Ducky, and Ferris and Cameron.

As an entirely-non-confident teen girl, I especially appreciated his casting of Molly Ringwald in so much of his work; while pretty, she wasn't model-esque and perfect in appearance, and she never came off for a minute as being pretentious. She seemed... awkward and unsure, kind of like me, still feeling her way into her own physicality and personality. Her portrayal -as well as the writing -of Andie in Pretty In Pink was spot-on when it came to exploring the crap of being the lone daughter of a single parent with limited resources. I could relate to Andie's embarrassment at where she lived, her awkwardness going after the rich boy, her pain in missing an absent parent, and her exhileration in moments where self-expression triumphed. It was simply a wonderful film for me, and a real moment that marked my path through youth-dom.

Then, of course, there was Ferris Bueller. The character -indeed the film -was a radical departure for Hughes' style, in that it portrayed a popular teen -someone who came from the supposed "right" side of the tracks, who was well-liked, and generally set up to be hugely successful in life -going about his day avoiding the drudgeries of school. It played like a teen fantasy, with an air of high-class awesomeness I still adore: Ferris, Sloan and Cameron take a classic Ferrari to downtown Chicago, where they go to the Art Institute of Chicago (where, among other works, they admire Seurat's famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the process), visit the stock exchange, have lunch in a super-posh restaurant and join a street parade. Not too many teens have tastes that sophisticated (I did, natch -which made Ferris that much more awesome to me. I half-expected a scene in which he went to the opera!).



Ferris is wise beyond his years, bored of the high school scene, bored with unchallenging work, and eager to challenge the impotent idiocy he sees surrounding him. Sure, there is a huge streak of nihilism to Ferris... but there's something incredibly likeable about him too. He's faithful to his friends. He's willing to take the fall. He probably did marry Sloan. And he probably sang in many more parades. The sheer joyousness with which Ferris approaches life is awesome. No wonder Cameron says "he can do anything...". Yeah dude. That's the point. Now go do it yourself, the movie -indeed, Hughes' career -urged. Go. You're you, that's awesome, go.

There's something fabulously celebratory about Hughes' work, a quality I still find captivating, even now, more than twenty years after seeing his work for the first time. His observations, written and directed from a teen point of view, were unique for the moment, and so tied to a specific time and place. But like a lot of good art, they're also timeless. Like many today, I feel like I'm mourning a friend. And I'm mourning the man who understood what it was like to be a teenager. He really got it. There will never be another John Hughes. Thank you, sir.

I do have a test today. That wasn't bullshit.
It's on European socialism.
I mean really, what's the point?
I'm not European. I don't plan on being European.
Who gives a crap if they're socialists?
They could be fascists anarchists.
It wouldn't change the fact I don't own a car.
-Ferris Bueller