Sep 19, 2011

Funnies

It's an old adage but it's true: when you can't cry, you have to laugh.

The last few weeks have brought a myriad of mixed feelings and reactions at being back in Canada. Joy, because of proximity to things fuzzy and familiar, relief at being near an ill family member, and sadness at being away from a place I feel at home in. There have also been liberal dollops of self-pity, confusion, and a keenly gnawing restlessness. Questions surrounding worth, direction, relationships with artistry, family, and community, and a larger, more silent quest for meaning amidst the madness. Dear Mid-Life Crisis, you're early by a decade.

The best part of these days have been the nights -and no, not because I've developed a taste for seedy bars or taken on a profession involving garment-shedding (yet). The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have become the colorful, leaping Castor and Pollux of my moping, grey-hued psyche. Watching the Emmy Awards lastnight, I was struck by the role the programs, and in a larger sense, comedy itself, has played in my life the last few years. If it's true that laughing at the devil makes him flee, it's equally true that humor puts pain (be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or all three) into the Magic Bullet of human experience; laughter gets mixed up with all those other very un-fun ingredients, resulting in a gooey concoction called Hilariously Tolerable, also known as Smiling Feels Good, also known as I-Can't-Go-On; I'll-Go-On, a phrase Sam Beckett knew a thing or two about.

Once upon a time I loved physical, old-timey comedy with a sharp edge of commentary. As a teenager, I had stacks of VHS tapes of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and later, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. I was an avid watcher of Conan O'Brien in his first incarnation on NBC, and I used to howl away many a late night as he brought out Heavy Metal Inappropriate Guy, the Masturbating Bear, and Andy's Little Sister Stacy (a young Amy Poehler, who made such an impression that to this day I can't look at her without remember how she looked with braces, spitting out "I love you!" to an awkward, creeped-out Conan). I also adored the Saturday Night Live era of Wayne's World, Sprockets, and Tales of Ribaldry. Weekend Update With Dennis Miller was my first real introduction to the world of timely-commentary-meets-comedy.

Having turned into a verifiable newshound over the last few years, my taste for newsy comedy has grown, but I've never quite abandoned my long-standing love of the absurd, either. I didn't pay much mind to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report until I was forced to face the the steaming pile of ugly adulthood presents. Suddenly, jokes about stuff on the news made a whole lot more sense. After 9/11 especially, this kind of humor became a necessity for me -and, I suspect for many like me. Nothing made sense except comedy.

Watching the Emmys lastnight, I realized just how aware the TDS & TCR teams are of their collective role: to make us pie-eyed schleps smile. That is no small task. At the end of everyone's crappy/annoying/busy (or wondrous/lovely/easy-peasy) day, we want to turn on the telly and see someone make funny about all the bad stuff in the world and in their every day lives. There's a relief in that -a kind of tonic to the bad forces at work, the stuff you and I feel we can't control -that someone is there to say, yes, it sucks, but here, we're going to give you a side of Marshmallow Fluff with your soft graham crackers. Stuff like wars, political corruption, media incompetence on a macro level, and cancer, chemotherapy, and confusion on a micro one (if there's such a thing as those first two even existing in micro terms) gets shrunk down to bite-sized pieces. We want it. We like it. We want more.

So I believe Jon Stewart when he says (insists) that his role is, first and foremost, to make people laugh. It's hard. The world's a pretty crappy place. We all know that. But it's heartening to know that he and Stephen Colbert make it just a bit brighter for some of us four night a week. Things frequently don't make sense in life, but if there's one thing I consistently take away from these programs, it's that there's a joy at work in the world, one that feeds on not putting anything in place, but in finding the right angles to point at the chaos and shriek, THIS IS NUTS, funny faces in place, absurd narrative in play. To The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I say: thank you x a billion, and, I owe you each a large tray of cookies. Marshmallow Fluff on top, if you really want it.

Sep 16, 2011

Bravo, Olar!

Art Battle is many things: dramatic, thought-provoking, theatrical, joyous, challenging, surreal. It's also a great place to see the work of emerging artists.

My eye was recently caught at the last Art Battle by Iulia Olar, a Romanian-born, Toronto-based artist who was participating. Her gorgeous, vibrant cityscapes were joyously retina-ripping, and I felt honored to be witnessing the creation of not one but two beautiful renderings of Toronto's skyline.

The way Iulia paints - a mix of focus, intuition, feeling and detail -reflects a deeply poetic sense of both her environment and the people in it. Her dance between brushes and palette knives, wielding one, then the other, with a seamless integration of head and heart, smuding here, dabbing there, was a magical thing, akin to the spinning tango dancers I'd see Sundays in Union Square. As with so many arts, either a person has a gift to develop, or they don't. Learning the steps, mixing the colors -they take practise, of course -but it's up to the individual to properly use those energies, with a mix of pinpoint precision and passionate abandon. Iulia does both.

So it was an honor to have this Q&A with her, and to learn more about someone whose talent is bursting with the living of life, moment by moment, stroke by stroke.

How did you first get interested in painting?

I came to Canada as a poet, with three books in my luggage. After three years I realized that I wouldn't be able to write anymore, so I decided to express myself through painting.I started to paint on September 19th, 2009: I went to the store, bought canvases, paints, brushes, and took books from the library... and here I am! I have to admit, I took one year of drawing lessons -that was a long time ago -but never, ever did I paint. I want to remain for as long as possible a self-taught artist. It's so natural and much less stressful.

I also have a wonderful husband, a wonderful son and a wonderful friend. They encouraged me from the first moment. Terry Mardini (my friend) bought over forty paintings -and she exhibited them in her apartment. What a friend! I am very lucky.

Believe me or not, every time I sell a painting I say :"Forgive me, Vincent!" (Vincent Van Gogh). That's my story with painting . You know, I see myself doing this for the rest of my life.

How does being involved in Art Battle help your artistic development?

I consider participation at Art Battle a unique experience that every painter should have. You can test yourself and the public's reaction towards your art, right on the spot. There, you have to give your best in twenty minutes. Leonardo Da Vinci spent seven years giving us the Mona Lisa -and only a few rich people benefit from that type of art. It's not possible (to work that way) anymore. The modern artist has to be there for the people, right away -there is no time to wait.

Who are some of your favorite painters and why?

I adore Vincent Van Gogh. He felt that is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. Because he risked his health and his life for his work: "I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process." Because he sold one (one!) painting in his entire life but, this, couldn't stop him from painting. What an artist!

Why acrylic paint? Would you consider other media?

I like acrylic because it's an extremely liberating medium. Its versatility is actually its best quality; use it like oil paint, watercolour or gouache. Acrylics gained my favour because they offer many advantages: great colour, a fastness that doesn't fade or yellow or harden with age (or crack), it dries much faster then oil paint too, so it's great for studio work. I use more acrylic paint because I don't feel like considering other media... but who knows? Maybe in the future.

You seem to do a lot of cityscapes; what's the attraction, creatively?

As an artist, you must learn to trust your own feelings, judgment and analysis about what you like and why. Ambivalence in your approach will lead to an ambivalence response from the viewer. You don't have to please all the people by somehow finding the average line.

Yes, I can say, Toronto's skyline attracts me because of that insolent CN tower that lances my sky. Sky bleeds, suffers. People stay at home. Nobody to be seen on the streets. The water: second reality, refuses to capture the mirror image, makes another one more subtle.

This theme reveals my love and my hate, my choleric side. A solitary seagull flies -the guardian of the city. The strong colors I use add life and dynamic they are projections of the people not of the town itself. I also paint flowers, landscapes, family members when I am in the "quiet mood"

What's next in terms of your work and where can we see it?

I have plans to create a website where I'll post all my work and keep in touch with friends, and try to participate as much as I can in public events, art galleries, etc. This is a never-ending story for me and I feel very engaged with every single detail. I start to count my life in days that I paint well. Who knows one day I'll have my own studio, students and I will make my art my entire occupation.

Sep 9, 2011

Healing Hearts

September 11th, 2001 is indelibly burned into my memory -and the memory of millions of others. We all remember where we were, and what we were doing.

It's hard to try to describe that kind of event with any level of appropriate respect, let alone render it into a creative form that might make any kind of sense.

Toronto-based artist John Coburn didn't set out to try to 'make sense' of what he saw during the awful weeks that followed that day. What he did do was sketch, in his identifiably detailed, careful way, life in and around Downtown Manhattan. His sketches became a book in 2002, Healing Hearts, and close to three thousand copies were distributed to families who'd lost loved ones in the Twin Towers. A related, feature-length documentary is in the works, too. It will aim to explore the many stories depicted in the book and feature interviews with those directly involved.

But to get a true sense of John's work and the people involved in Healing Hearts, I highly advise taking a trip Downtown to see his work. A selection of originals are currently being display at Sciame Construction (at 14 Wall Street) through September 15th. With the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday, the significance of John's lovingly detailed images become all the more powerful, their depictions more, not less keen over time and memory.

Speaking with the artist was a moving experience; his love of New York City is obvious, and his grief over what he saw still vivid. We shared favorites restaurant spots, transit tips, and great places to sketch and write. Then we shared where we were on 9/11.

What's your history with New York City?

I've been going down for the last thirty years. I first went at nine with my family, and I did my first little oil painting of the Statue of Liberty as soon as I got home. At 17, I went down with my art college and got hooked on it, so ever since, I've been drawing and working out of there. For anyone who spends time in New York, it always sits fondly in their mind -it's always floating around.

How have you seen New York change?

I certainly cherish the fact that I was there in the late 1970s into the 80s, when it was still seriously had that edge -you know, the East Side and Times Square and all that - it had that strange edge, you really did have to stay on your toes. But it's still good ole New York, that's what I love about it: it's this big churning machine of love and strangeness.

Explain how Healing Hearts came about.

It started from when I was inside St Paul's Chapel [located across from what was the Twin Towers] and the chaplain looked down and saw me drawing. We chatted and he said, "I see people scribbling down addresses a lot -so cherish this. What's going down on paper is picking up the vibe of love and care everyone's reaching out with."

When you're sitting there minute after minute, hour after hour, that life and spirit and energy somehow gets translated onto paper and it's really the first time I ever thought of art as maybe... there is more meaning to a piece of art than an attractive picture on a wall. So when that chaplain said that, in a tiny way these drawings could deal with the theme of healing, he felt people could look at (them) and in their interpretive sense, get enough from their own imagination to see into what's going on.

I met a woman named Rosemary Cain in the Salvation Army tent near Ground Zero. [Rosemary is the mother of FDNY fireman George Cain, who perished on 9/11.] I had these original drawings, which I showed her, and I said, "If I managed to put these into book, would you even want to receive it?" She pulled a photograph of her son out of her purse and handed it to me, saying, "John, if your little book can help people remember my son George, I think it's worthwhile." That one conversation was the only way this book ever happened.

How hard was it to complete?

It was so emotional for anybody to get through a day. When I was about to surrender, I ran into [artist] Bryan Chadwick, a Canadian guy who's been in New York now for 30 years. [Bryan wrote the forward for Healing Hearts.] I showed him these drawings and said "Brian, people think we should try to do something, but how am I going to get this into book form?" We were in his Soho kitchen. "Put down your coffee, we're going to Midtown," he said to me.

We went up to Lexington and 42nd, to a boutique agency. The ad guys were in a boardroom, they saw the drawings and were tearing up and said, "This is how we'll give back. We are honored to design this book." They did a masterfully sensitive job. They created a little treasure. And it was printed for free, and sent by Fedex for free. It took 300 people to make it happen.

How did families react to your work?

I was invited to have this show in New York of these original drawings by Mary Fetchet, who is Founding Director of Voices Of September 11th. Mary and I met over course of year, after she lost her son Bradley, a 24 year-old who worked in finance. She started the foundation, and every year at the anniversary, she's held events for families to get together share what they need to share.

There's also a woman by the name of Selena Dack-Forsyth who lost her 39 year-old son Arron in the attacks. She told me, when 9/11 happened, she had called up a fire chief in the Ground Zero area, saying 'I need boots. I need to go in and help find my son.' The fire chief spent 40 minutes on the phone gently sharing with her this wasn't possible to do.

A year-and-a-half later, when she received Healing Hearts, she sat down and read it cover to cover, and said, "Your book brought me to the site and gave me what I wanted to do that day. I was able to see and feel these moments inside St. Paul's, and the people on the site."

I also received many letters from families thanking us for doing it. A lot of them said, 'The starkness of the pictures of airplanes in the building -we don't need that -we need to see that people cared.' My brother and I, who put the book together, heard from British families who lost relatives in 9/11. A lot of them had never been to New York, ever, and couldn't afford to fly over, but all of a sudden, they flipped through a book that showed how much people cared.

How has Healing Hearts changed the way you approach art?

It's a reminder of the struggle to survive on this planet as an artist. When you sit and you have one mother tell you an ounce of how this might've heaped a bit, that right there makes thirty years of struggling make sense. It gives me the encouragement and the respect to continue on as an artist.

I went into a firehouse in Little Italy -Engine 55, on Broome Street. They lost five guys. I drew outside for a few hours, and the Captain came out, saw the drawings, and said, "These are really beautiful. Would you like to come in and draw a shrine to the five guys we lost?"

After that, they invited me in to have ravioli with them. I drew the guys around table. It was late, and they said, "Hey, you're a ways from home -you are welcome to sleep upstairs." It was just one journey after the other. As you finish one drawing, someone else is standing beside you saying, "Can you please come and see this?"

Pen to paper in New York City, 2011: what goes through your head?

If 9/11 had never happened, I would still be drawing, whether it's cafe architecture or some tree in a park. I would still be doing this because I thrive on people and architecture, especially big cities and big vibes, but yes, with the history and what I've gone through doing Healing Hearts and meeting families and New Yorkers in general, it does make me again appreciate the fact that I am able to put some lines down on paper that might be appreciated next week, next century.

That's what artists are about: writers, filmmakers, and artists like to put little treasures together and have them appreciated years from now. I'm just so grateful.Photo credits:

Top photo from my Flickr Photostream.
Pen and ink drawings by John Coburn, taken from the book Healing Hearts.
Art photos courtesy of John Coburn.