Tag: drawing

Personal Essay: Embracing Community, In All Its Forms

Sala Palatului, Bucharest, Enescu Festival, crowd, audience, culture, hall, auditorium, performance, music

At Sala Palatului as part of the Enescu Festival 2019, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Since the start of the coronavirus quarantine in March, I’ve returned drawing and painting more frequently, activities I adore but didn’t always devote the proper time or energy to in past, so-called normal times. I first explored these pursuits close to two decades ago as a natural extension of my engagements with photography, dance, theatre, and writing. At once technical, instinctual, emotional, and sensual, I think of drawing and painting as extension rather than escape, an experiment without a definitive end point. This attitude was encouraged by my instructor, a professional artist and professor at a major Canadian art school, who strongly discouraged the use of erasers in those preliminary sketching classes. “Be open to everything,” she would say in her soothing caramel tones, “don’t be so attached to one road or path, or to things being perfect.” It’s an easy credo that is hard to put into actual practise, whether in pencil or any other creative pursuit, and particularly so for those of us with those insistent perfectionist tendencies; to trust the unknown, to have faith in the journey, to loosen the desire for complete control of the final outcome, and its effects – these are big things to ask in any setting, doubly so in a new one. But what might be terrible errors outside the studio become, within it, opportunities for unexplored paths, where losing, finding, forming, shaping, and re-shaping, again and again, are part of the overall process, one that is becoming a central mode of expression.

That acceptance of the unfamiliar  is being discussed in the classical world with particular urgency as the reality of no full presentations until 2021 seeps into the overall consciousness. Pappano told The Stage recently that “(w)hat’s going on is that we’re talking about plan A, plan B, plan C, because everything is changing from week to week. I think the important thing is to make a decision that is not in any sense rash.” The current overtures toward reconfiguring presentation within the context of classical music are being greeted with a similar mix of sighs, scowls, boos, cheers, but largely (I would suspect) held breath by audiences. Navigating change is not, depending on one’s familial, cultural, and social baggage, always easy; in a forced situation it seems even more difficult and onerous. it might be done on tentative tiptoes, or it might be approached with an open-armed embrace. What with the figurative windows and doors being replaced, there’s concern if and how the view might be affected – and if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, an overdue thing, a thing that can lead to transformation within an industry perceived as being adverse to innovation. Reduced musical and theatrical presentations at Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, and a recent photo of a new seating arrangement via Berliner Ensemble, have inspired a range of responses, some reasoned, others emotional; some express horror, some curousity, while yet others say it’s a hopeful sign, a baby step in a much longer (and still largely unknown) journey. Baritone Michael Volle recently performed at Wiesbaden, playing to an audience of 189 in an auditorium that normally holds a little over 1,000, and noted to Frankfurter Allgemeine that “(d)as ist zwar für den Augenblick wunderbar, kann aber nicht die Zukunft sein.” (“this is wonderful for the moment, but cannot be the future.”)  With the present and future wrapped in uncertainty, it is impossible to predict how a  month from now might look, let alone six months, a year, three to four years – the latter being the (former) norm in future bookings for classical artists. Will auditoriums resemble what Volle saw, looking out from the stage at Wiesbaden? For how long?

Konzerthaus Berlin, Berlin, stage, performance, music, live, audience, classical

At Konzerthaus Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Sighing looks back, anxiety looks forward, restlessness shuffles the dust of the present. Every bit of news highlights our keen desire for the familiar, even as it underlines our separation from it. As Pappano noted (again in The Stage) “we have to consider the emotional toll that (the lack of events) will take on people, the need for community.” How might that look? We won’t be able to experience the breaths, the sighs, the miniscule hums and in-beat head bobs, the audible humming and tapping feet and waving hands and fingers of insistent seat-conductors, nor the resonance of instruments and voices vibrating through thighs and hips and sternum, into temples, through ear lobes, rumbling nostrils and jaw and eyelashes; pressing one’s head or face against home speakers simply does not compare. Communal cultural experience within a confined space and time is not an everyday experience, and as such is one of the few things we desire actively and will pay for, perhaps because of this direct and sensual viscerality, however irritating and unpredictable some of its expression may be; it’s precisely that sense of the unpredictable which is so treasured. Writer Charles Eisenstein writes in a lengthy and thought-provoking essay:

Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world?

[…]

To reduce the risk of another pandemic, shall we choose to live in a society without hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, forever more? Shall we choose to live in a society where we no longer gather en masse? Shall the concert, the sports competition, and the festival be a thing of the past? Shall children no longer play with other children? Shall all human contact be mediated by computers and masks? No more dance classes, no more karate classes, no more conferences, no more churches? Is death reduction to be the standard by which to measure progress? Does human advancement mean separation? Is this the future?

Advancement versus preservation; this seems like the crux of the issue with relation to issues within the classical world, and there are, right now, lessons which are being learned and applied, to varying degrees, and with varying degrees of success. New (and some might argue far overdue) paths are being forged in order to both advance the possibilities of music presentation while preserving the core of its unique and individual power. Perhaps, amidst the lessons corona might be able to teach us (as Eisenstein posits), a more active idea of community might not only be understood but literally and loudly lived. I want to believe this is the case as the Salzburg Festival moves forward in an altered state, through the planned (and also altered) presentations starting next month at Musikverein Wien, and the long-awaited reopenings in Italy, happening in mid-June. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin’s planned guest performance at Konzerthaus Dortmund  is set to take place on June 7th, albeit in a modified form and with what Konzerthaus Berlin’s release terms “eines besonderen Wiedereröffnungskonzepts stattfinden” (“a special reopening concept”). The experience of community means connecting in many different ways and on many different levels with other sentient beings who carry their own unique experiences, ideas, expectations, and agendas, on as well as off the stage. How might one manifest (and indeed cultivate) the human kindness which is so often thrown away or taken for granted in so-called “normal” times within an ever-evolving paradigm of lived normalcy? Active kindness must surely factor into this paradigm somewhere (or one would wish it to), kindness holding hands with openness, patience embracing curiosity, gratitude on the same stair with discovery, and the cult of “genius” (and all its damaging effects) finally thrown out the window. Thus do the notions of advancement and preservation take on new meanings, as they should, within a new paradigm of The Normal. One can wish, but conscious action is required for manifestation, and it’s precisely conscious action which has now become part of our daily lives.

Bayerische Staatsoper, horns, backstage, Munich, Bavaria, music, culture, performance, Wednesday Strolls, series, live

Members of the Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra perform as part of the company’s inaugural Wednesday Stroll concert series, May 2020. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

That union of ideas, between advancement and preservation, of joining the human with the experimental, the sensual and the intellectual, feeling and doing, is being manifest in a number of ways as halls, galleries, museums, and other public spaces try to negotiate and define the new normal. Bayerische Staatsoper (BSO) began its “Wednesday Strolls” presentations this week, a chamber music series (running to 24 June) bringing a maximum of twenty spectators in various “unusual locations” in the National Theatre, with each concert lasting roughly 45 minutes and featuring musicians of the Bayerische Staatsorchester. Its first presentation was given backstage. The initiative, on top of the BSO’s pre-existing Monday concerts, are gestures which complement the incredible amount of video offerings currently extant at their website, and acutely underline the ever-expanding initiatives of the many organizations, including the Enescu Festival in Romania, who are offering broadcast concerts from their considerably impressive archive of past festivals. Organizations have, over the past three months or so, recognized that various non-conventional initiatives are vital in community-building in both literal and figurative senses. Members of the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), for example, have been performing short concerts outside hospitals and retirement residences over the past few months, thanks to the initiatives and coordinating efforts of Rudolf Döbler, longtime flautist with the orchestra, who has coordinated and organized RSB rehearsal visits and workshops for children since 2005. After one of these RSB charity concerts (held recently at a seniors residence in Pankow, an area in the northern part of the city), the orchestra’s Artistic Director and Chief Conductor (and General Music Director Designate of Bayerische Staatsoper) Vladimir Jurowski observed to Frankfurter Allgemeine that “Musik ist Menschlichkeit, und diese Menschlichkeit zählt am Ende mehr als alle Brillanz. Ich wünschte mir, wir behalten diese Erfahrung, wenn diese schwierigen Zeiten vorbei sind.“ (“Music is humanity, and in the end this humanity counts more than all brilliance. I hope we can keep this feeling when these difficult times are over.”)

Our experience of music is born anew within such experimental presentations and contexts. It’s been precisely the collective cultural saudade (for what else should we call it?) which has forced this rethink, one many argue is overdue. Community is, after all, quite possibly the only form of beauty left to us at the moment, and encouraging it in myriad forms seems like more than polite gesturing, but integral to creative, social, and spiritual health. Online conversations, voice calls, interactive viewing and listening parties, musical text exchanges, virtual classes and meetings, not to mention the rich, retro possibilities of live radio broadcast: such activities are all expressions of community, ones whose vibrant message, amidst the starkness of the technologies they employ, are worth warming hands and hearts to. 

Various live events, including a recent panel hosted by Garsington Opera about the continuing impact of Beethoven (led by music writer Jessica Duchen and featuring tenor Toby Spence) allow for a sense of community to be fostered, however virtual, along with that deeply inhaled, ever-refreshing sense of exploration and discovery. It’s a combination that clearly recalls those long-ago art classes, but more than that, the spirit they encouraged. Reading over various comments and reactions on Facebook has been a lesson in patience, for the intransigent dismissal of the virtual, remains, for me, mysterious; it is the equivalent of painting one’s self into a corner and then complaining about the view. There is only one exit, and it involves bare feet and stains, the ruination of a perceived perfection. In an excerpt from his upcoming book On Nostalgia (Coach House Books), David Berry writes that “Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.” We are in a time where there is no resolution, only the stains of where we have been and the blank page of tomorrow, next week, next month, sketched as we walk, without erasers, into an unknown future, seeking community once more.

Dancing Norman McLaren, One Frame At A Time

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

If you don’t know the name Norman McLaren, you will, and soon, thanks to a new production happening at the National Ballet of Canada. The UK-born, Canada-based animation innovator, who won an Oscar for his 1952 anti-war film Neighbours, was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of film. It has been rightly been noted that McLaren (who passed away in 1987) “extend(ed) the boundaries of creative animation” through his unique and highly experimental approach. His 82 works (along with 52 test films) were added to the UNESCO heritage collection in 2009, and his name is slowly coming to be recognized more widely outside of experimental cinema circles. It’s been keenly observed that “without him, (Canada) would be lighter an Academy Award or two, and likely much more.”

The title of the National Ballet of Canada’s new work, Frame By Frame, set to premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Friday (June 1st), references McLaren’s painstaking method of drawing on film stock, frame by meticulous frame, and of his work with stop-motion animation sequencing. Each animated frame had a slight differentiation (being done by human hands, after all), which resulted in a charmingly wobbly end effect when viewing.

Canadians of a certain generation will remember, with glee, McLaren’s exuberant creations, having been exposed to them regularly in school and on television. They were an inescapable part of growing up in Canada, like so many animated works that came from the beloved National Film Board (NFB). I loved the wiggly lines (the so-called “boiling” effect in action) and the zealous embrace of surreal imagery that characterized so much of McLaren’s work; it forced you to think and feel at once, a new experience for small children more used to fantastical diversion and reaction-inducing entertainment. The jolly headless hen from “Hen Hop” forever makes me smile, even as it makes me think carefully about what’s on my dinner plate (to say nothing of reminders of the horror-meets-macabre-humor of my mother’s childhood farm stories, which I will leave to reader imagination). McLaren’s works were so unlike the Disney ones I’d see in cinemas as a child, more free and fun and loopy. Many also had strong social messages, like 1952’s “Neighbours“, a nine-minute film that uses pixilation to tell the story of two people who fight over a single flower; it garnered much praise and admiration, from artists like Pablo Picasso as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. He also worked with a host of famous music figures, including Glenn Gould, Ravi Shankar, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Peterson (the latter being featured in Frame By Frame), and his “Pas de Deux“, “Adagio“, and “Narcissus” are among the most beautiful dance films ever made. The animator met his life partner, Guy Glover, at a ballet performance in London, and his fascination with both music and art permeates his creations, whether they are music/dance specific or not. McLaren firmly believed that when it came to film, “how it moved was more important than what moved.”

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Norman McLaren working on “Hen Hop” in 1942. (Photo: BFI)

It is understandable, then, that one sees within McLaren the unmistakable qualities which are so suited to a stage transfer of his life and works. Choreographer Guillaume Côté (who is Associate Choreographer at the National Ballet of Canada and a longtime beloved artist there) and celebrated director Robert Lepage drew inspiration from McLaren’s works — their rhythms, their energies, their winking, sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-pensive spirits — in creating Frame By Frame. Along with a host of celebrated theatre productions and work for Cirque du Soleil, Lepage has also leant his talents to classical music arts; his opera productions have been staged at the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Paris, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  In creating Frame By Frame, his first work with the National Ballet of Canada, Lepage recently said that “(c)lassical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It’s just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive.”

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Robert Lepage and Guillaume Cote in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

The production is a collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company in Québec City. It is a project several years in the making, and will reportedly make full use of a range of multidisciplinary technologies, including live projections and camera work. The Québecois director has said he wanted to create a “digital homage” to McLaren’s analogue world, and Friday night, audiences will see for themselves the fruits of these labours, with the animator’s work being brought to life in a whole new way.

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Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

National Ballet Second Soloist Jack Bertinshaw will be performing the role of Norman McLaren in Frame By Frame. The Australian-born dancer has been in a range of works for the company since joining in 2011, including a sprightly performance as Uncle Nikolai in seasonal presentations of The Nutcracker, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, Benno in Swan Lake, and the title role in Pinocchio. I was curious to ask him what it was like to work around the level of technology LePage is utilizing, his experience as an Australian in discovering the works of a Canadian icon, and the various joys and challenges of capturing life, art, and animation through movement.

What’s it like to embody a real person? It seems like a rather unique opportunity within the ballet world.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and obviously Robert and his team have done a lot of extensive research. With each scene we talk through each concept and what their aim is and what it should be acted as, and portrayed as. They wanted to make sure I had enough of myself in it too. While I’m being Norman and staying as true to that as the kind of fun-loving guy he was, he was also around this this close-knit group of friends —we touch on that. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you’re right, most of time it’s a character like the Mad Hatter, you don’t get to go through a life from beginning to end very often. We do things like Nijinsky and it’s a portrayal, but it’s rare. Certainly this sort of a part is new for me.

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

Have you ever worked on show with this level of technology?

Not this much. My background is in jazz and tap, I came from one of those schools who’d do their yearly shows that were as high-tech as possible, with cool lighting and such — but not anywhere near this level of high-tech projection. (In Frame by Frame) it comes from everywhere — above, front…  I’m holding a camera at one point that works. It’s really amazing.

Does the technology make it easier or harder to perform in?

It depends — if anything, it’s easier and harder. Something Guillaume and I have had to figure out, mostly, is how we can best enhance this technology; we can’t fight against it. We have to be clear on the certain themes we’re dancing as there’s a camera from above on us, and that’s being projected onto the back screen so the audience in general will be looking at the above aspect — we can’t fight against that. It’s been a learning process over three years now, and it’s been really unique. This is the first time for dancers that we’ve been in the process from the get-go, from the round-table of, ‘let’s create a ballet.’ We normally get to the process where the choreography arrives, and they’ve got things in order, with storyline and sets and costumes/designs somewhat figured out. This is the first time where we’d go to Quebec for a week or two in the summer and we would be with Ex Machina, at their building with all their equipment, and we’d workshop. We played with so many different types of technology there — what works, what doesn’t work.

And LePage was open to all of it?

It was his idea! He has the studio and the technology to do all of this on the regular, for his works with his team.

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Greta Hodgkinson and Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

What’s this kind of collaborative creation been like?

Inspiring! Working with Robert LePage and his team has been incredible. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s going to be so different — that’s one thing we’re interested to see: how Toronto audiences perceive it, how they take these ideas. It’s a lot of fun in a lot of scenes — a lot of Norman’s works were fun and funky, with odd humor and quirkiness, so we’ve made sure that’s a good part of it while also maintaining enough of Norman’s life throughout.

There will be audiences who either know McLaren’s work very well, or don’t know his stuff at all but love the ballet. What do you think they’ll come away with?

The show is so versatile, I think audiences who don’t know anything about him will still certainly come away with quite a lot. We sometimes portray exactly the work and sometimes we recreate it, like with “A Chairy Tale” — we’ve studied that video, and we do every single chair move and have black light going. We’ve tried to do the exact replications and bring (his works) to life so people who know it will appreciate it, and people who don’t, it’ll be like the first time watching his work. 

So capturing the spirit of his work.

Yes, a lot.

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Jack Bertinshaw (Photo: Sian Richards)

Guillaume has said that “everything that’s put on stage nowadays should be multidisciplinary, in a way.” Do you think there should there be a multidisciplinary Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? Using contemporary technology in producing traditional works is a big issue in the opera world also.

I certainly believe we should respect and honor the old original works. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake today, I believe, are the most beautiful how they were originally created, but when you’re creating something new that’s never been done before… it’s why multidisciplinary is a bigger thing. Today we’re so exposed to new technology anyway, but there’s still a crowd that loves that original stuff.

Introducing anything new means risking people getting angry…  

Nijinsky was one of the first originators of conceptual dancing and they threw tomatoes at him!

Once the shock of the new fades, it’s been suggested it then becomes the new norm. Some productions have to fight against history, but with this it seems like you’re less fighting it than celebrating it. What’s it been like to learn about these works? 

Being Australian, I’m wasn’t aware of McLaren or his movies, but my mother is, oddly enough — she’s in film and television PR, so she’s a lot more in that world. She’d heard of him, and my uncle in London, he’s a cameraman for film, he knew his work also. My mum’s company and circle of friends heard about Frame by Frame and were like, “Wow, Norman McLaren!” Meanwhile I’d never heard of him before three years ago. I’ve done a lot of research and found out a lot more. We’re not making our own version of things; we’re honoring his works as truly as we can.

Art, Science, Wonder

At The Morgan Library & Museum (photo mine)

Amidst the challenges of last fall, the eagerness and inspiration with which I approached my cultural reportage faded away. It bothers me that I let something go that meant (means) so much to me, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

The best place I can think of starting is by tidying up a loose, fraying thread I left dangling off the edge of my quilt of chaos last autumn. Between school assignments, stressful living conditions, and some deeply unpleasant personal chaos, I never got to reviewing the wondrous da Vinci show that happened at the Morgan Museum and Library. I covered a fantastic surrealism show of theirs in 2013, and indeed, the Morgan is one of my favorite spots in New York City, what with its awe-inspiring collection of historical documents, breathtaking art, and gorgeous old-meets-new design; the clean steel lines of its atrium blend seamlessly with the warm wooden tones and carved stone of older structures. The da Vinci exhibit captured this old-meets-new ethos. Art and science integrated in a unique, inspiring way, one that, on reflection has me thinking about the marriage between chaos and order, style and content, dreams and reality.

Leonardo da Vinci: Treasures from the Biblioteca Reale, Turin” (which ran from late October 2013 to early February of this year) was a beautiful, fascinating portrait of 15th-16th century curiosity that directed itself at the world, ourselves, and our place and position straddling the mysteries of the two; it forced reflection on relationships, both with the Morgan’s other, permanent works, and the way museum visitors perceive and experience art, history, and the notable intersection of the two.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, 1505
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

“Figure Studies” (1505), a work done in pen and brown ink with traces of black chalk on paper, is a seamless blend of da Vinci’s artistry and passion for science featuring a large male nude who looks stripped of skin, his muscles exposed, his gluteus maximus a busy contusion of fine, light, grid-like ink strokes. The other figures in the work get gradually smaller, right to left, perhaps in a movement reflecting da Vinci’s idiosyncratic mirrored writing style. There are various scenes of motion — twisting and turning, from various angles — and sketches of a man on horseback, a horse rearing, and a set of male lips, sensuously curled open (and possibly exhaling a plume of smoke), at the top of the page. All the elements feel disparate and random, but the combination of bodies, gestures, and motion lend a certain joy to the detailed scientific doodles.

Beyond the sheer beauty of the drawings, it is impossible not to contemplate the materials used to create these works –ink, chalk, paper, metal, water — and their place in da Vinci’s world. Where did the chalk come from? The ink? How were they transported? What of the life of the person who sold such wares? It brings to mind a host of socio-historical questions in relation to the artist’s connection with the wider world, and the implications of pursuing art with a much wider world of trade, commerce, and economy at play. Such connections can so easily be forgotten or taken for granted.

It was impossible to take anything for granted that day, especially in a setting as special as the Morgan. Ornately decorated religious books, royal letters, old manuscripts, entreaties around the question of arranged marriages –many precious items within the Morgan’s permanent collection are contemporary to the works of da Vinci, and tell of a culture looking outside itself –to matters of law, of politics, of religion, of power and money –while da Vinci’s works are focused on humanity and the natural world, our relationship to it, and its connection to (and with) us. The artist’s firm fascination was with the mechanics of life, imagining the possibilities therein; such fascination is certainly tied to the exploratory spirit, a spirit which, in Da Vinci’s time, was tied to notions of human expansion and progress. The two were interchangeable at the time, and perhaps manifest most completely (and tragically) in the “discovery” of the Americas — European industrial and socio-political/cultural expansion at the expense of many native populations and cultures. I couldn’t help but look a bit askance at the “Hercules” depiction, knowing that, concurrent to its creation, a whole other set of mythologies and mythological systems were being plundered and destroyed.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman, 
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s 
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)

Still, thinking back on that rainy late-fall day, I am struck by da Vinci’s unfailing curiosity at the wider world. The artist was clearly testing the limits of his materials, using ink, then chalk (specifically finger-staining red chalk), to seek a new vision of his evolving world, a violent, swirling one shaped by politics, religion, corruption and competition. He wasn’t interested in doing portraits of the power-brokers of his day, but in finding and exploring tender humanity. Sometimes that took the shape of scientific inquiry, of motion and mechanics, and sometimes it took the form of soft, smooth flesh. He wielded his real-world materials deftly in an attempt to get at an other-worldly, if deeply earthy, complex-plain truth that lay behind the eyes of his subjects, be they human or animal, or past the slippery surface of mechanics and wings and internal organs.

One can still find such integrated elegance in our age –in the work of Ettore Sottsass, Sergio Pininfarina, the architecture of Pei or Tadao Ando or Oscar Niemeyer, the scientific sensuousness of Sugimoto’s photography, or the jaw-droppingly beautiful art of Isabelle Dalle, and Denis Dubois, and Tumblr’s “Bedelgeuse.” Science and art can (and should) exist together; it seems strange we don’t connect them, when so many artists and scientists have.  Sometimes they are even one in the same. And while the integration can’t change history, it can change minds — and hearts. Da Vinci’s work goes far in mending wounds, offering us not a black or white or even a grey road, but one colored in tones we could see, if only we opened ourselves to it, looked at the mechanics, and then looked past them; it’s a better path that leaves the crumbs along the path to our better natures, to what, perhaps, might be our essential nature: to be contemplative, and calm, but always hungry — not to conquer or rule, not to subjugate or exploit, but to know.  Da Vinci’s art, and his science, his perfect integration of the two, reminds us of the hunger for knowing, for learning, for experience, for beauty; we are hungry for transcendence, and hungry for life. Let us eat, and let us always want to ask for more.

Bang Bang Shoot Post

Do you use Instagram? Do you love it? Hate it?

There’s been a lot of talk about the mobile app recently. A reporter friend sung its wonders last summer; her prescient enthusiasm anticipated Instagram’s huge dent in public consciousness over the last few months.  The mobile app was bought by Facebook for a big price tag; it was the subject of Jon Stewart’s acerbic wit; it’s been featured on the PBS Idea Channel (above); it’s inspired a snarky (and very funny) parody video of its features; it’s even made the pages of the Grey Old Lady. Oh, and  I recently did a feature on a prolific (and dedicated) IG user. What’s the big deal?

Part of it seems to be the temporal nature of the app; it captures moments within a certain frame of time, with  filters reflecting users’ moods and visual ideas around events. It’s temporal, with a leaning toward the personal, taking the best bits of social media and putting them within a visual interface. Thus, it’s become a beautiful complement to reporters’ toolkits. For evidence, check out WSJ’s impressive collection of Occupy Wall Street Instagram shots. Photojournalist Richard Koci Hernandez sees it as a game-changer. It was used for New York Fashion Week. Plenty of people – journalists and non-journalists alike – use it as a kind of blogging shorthand for what they see around them. Plenty don’t, however, and in a neat twist of irony, they’ve used other social media outlets (particularly Twitter) to air their displeasure. Is Instagram a threat to traditional photojournalists? To journalists overall?

The line between reporting and art feels perilously thin when considering the  potential of the app. I happen to like it for on-the-go shots of my daily life, though I’m careful to avoid the “this is what I ate  for breakfast” mundanity that seems to dominate so much social media photo-sharing. As a former photographer who worked in (and occasionally misses) film, I find Instagram’s range of “vintage” filters more amusing than annoying. Still, there’s something to be said for the tactile, and more than once, I’ve found myself drawing (or wanting to draw) some of the shots I come across on my daily Instagram look-throughs. Perhaps that’s the basic beauty of the app: it embraces the sharp, thorny terrain of the present, while snuggling with the soft, messy sheets of yesteryear. It’s Now, and Then, and Maybe, all at once.

Curry Conservatory

One of my strongest childhood memories involves being assigned to draw of a truism of life. The teacher was seeking a visual representation of folkoric wisdom that might illustrate our understanding of Something Really Important. I chose “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth.” It may have been a tip-off to my future passion for the culinary arts – or perhaps my impatience with throwing too many things in one small space.

I drew a long line of chefs standing across a gleaming counter, a large, bubbling soup pot placed in the very middle with orange flames tickling its bottom. Each chef, with tall white hats pointing like spears, had large, goggly eyes and anxious “O”-shaped mouths. The further the chefs from the soup pot, the longer their spoons. The chefs at each end had absurdly long, spindly spoons, with handles like spider’s legs. In another panel, I drew a lady with fat round pearls and grey curls making a face, red tongue hanging over a green pallor, as she, spoon in hand, samples the chefs’ offerings. Too Many Chefs indeed. I got an A.

I thought of this drawing, along with the first time I ever tried curry, when I attended a concert recently. The second experience happened at the home of Indian friends of my family’s. Plied with naan and dahl, I initially kicked out at the strong tastes and colors, my eight year old palate not accustomed to the blend of spices or how to properly handle the spiky shock of chili on the tongue. Conversion to being a curry devotee was gradual, its progression running parallel to my curiosity and experience of Life Itself. Taken together, these two experiences, of drawings and preliminary taste tests, are the perfect metaphor for a concert I recently attended one rainy, warm night in Toronto. Titled “Andalusia To Toronto“, the show was the season-opener at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, a space built right into the creaky old Royal Conservatory building. No food, but lots of mixed stuff for the ear, some with too many chefs, some with spicing just right.
Koerner Hall is a beautiful, acoustically perfect venue that seamlessly blends old traditions with new visions. That old/new integration might well describe the show, curated by musician David Buchbinder, the Canadian musician behind the Odessa/Havana music project and, more recently, Diasporic Genius. Buchbinder is an active presence in the Toronto music scene, having founded an assortment of busy, popular jazz ensembles in the last two decades, including the celebrated Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band in 1988. He was joined by a myriad of musical talents, including Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Duran, Palestinian oud playing and vocalist Bassam Bishara, and Syrian-American violinist Fathi al Jarrah. The nine-man ensemble – violinists, percussionists, a reed/flute player, all told -produced a gloriously uplifting sound that drew upon Jewish, Arab, and Spanish musical traditions, performing music several centuries old and updating much of it with a modern, urban sensitivity.
It is unquestionably a matter of personal taste as to whether or not you jive with Buchbinder’s mad drive to integrate sounds from diverse (and distinct) traditions into a kind of pan-cultural sonic hybrid. I’ve never been entirely convinced melding Ashkenaz shtetl sounds with Cuban jazz works – not all minor chords are created equal to my ears -but that’s also because I have a penchant for enjoying and celebrating sounds as distinct entities. I don’t like too many chefs around my broth -but I do enjoy a good curry. And sometimes the blends Buchbinder oversaw were very beautiful. His skill as an arranger and bandleader can’t be discounted. The concert’s first piece, “Billadhi Askara (The One Who Intoxicates)”, a beautiful Muwashahat that offered a solemn start but soon shimmied into a luscious, lilting piece that recalled the best of Hossam Ramzy and His Egyptian Orchestra. ‘La Mujer de Terah (The Wife Of Terah)”, a Sephardic folk song, featured Israeli-Yemeni vocalist Michal Cohen, who, with her clear strong voice and perfectly-pitched high tones, cast a speel across the Hall as she sang of a woman “roaming on the fields and in the vineyards” and giving birth to “the servant of the blessed God” in a cave.
That’s not to say all the pieces were from a religious tradition. In fact, most of what was presented at “Andalusia To Toronto” were creative adaptions and re-workings of traditional folk pieces. Hilario Duran re-arranged two of the pieces featured, including Sephardic folk songs “Landarico” and “Conja (The Shell)”, and Buchbinder himself providing several adaptations and original compositions. It’s obvious he wants to demonstrate connections between cultures of the past, and to show how those connections can instruct us in the present, and possibly future. But some portions were lengthy and felt far too didactic. “Cadiz”, an original composition, was sonically frustrating. It sounded like a highly rhythmic effort at fitting square pegs into round holes, its “broth” a muddy mix that made appreciation of its influences damn near impossible. “Next One Rising” fared somewhat better, with its influences more fluidly integrated between instruments, but there remained a strange whiff of didacticism mixed with over-exuberant creativity. Too many chefs? Or too much spice? Either way, not my favorite dishes.
Buchbinder’s curious curry-paella-tagine mix did, however, offer a good metaphor of the Hall’s programming choices. Buchbinder’s choice of showcasing the sounds of Andalusia was an ideal symbol of the sheer breadth of vision at work here. Yes, the Conservatory Orchestra have dates (November 25th, February 17th, and April 13th), and there are other classical performers featured as part of the season; the lineup includes classical artists Louis Lortie, Angela Hewitt, and Emanuel Ax.
But Koerner Hall doesn’t stand solely on its classical music laurels. I was witness to the closing concert of Hugh Masekela’s last tour there in November of last year. And in 2012, the Hall will feature yet more great international artists: gospel great Mavis Staples in January, Mexican chanteuse Lila Downs in February, Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjjo in March, and German cabaret performer Ute Lemper in April. This is the kind of delicious curry I can get behind. Too many chefs? Not at Koerner. Their programming is simple: eat what you can, draw while you wait, and take the rest home in a doggy bag. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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.

Write Round

As I walked around Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful white spirals in the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, I ducked into a special exhibition, Kandinsky At The Bauhaus, and… there it was, in all its orbular glory: Several Circles.

Like seeing the work of Klimt recently, experiencing Kandinsky in person was a deeply emotional experience. It forces a reset, a re-focus, a re-adjustment of perception, a realignment of attention, requests complete and utter presence, whispers for a magically pure blanket of silence. In the same breath, the work beckons, like a lover, to come closer, examine its velvet surfaces, its soft curves, its intricate, ovarian details, and slick, areola-like smoothness.
The Guggenheim website offers insight:

“The circle,” claimed Kandinsky, “is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”

In its magnificent, lidless, concentrated, and sensually concentric presence, I sat, mouth agape, staring at its hip-swirling dance of color, form, light, and texture. The fourth dimension indeed. There are few things that take me so directly there as painting and the written word.

I write, every day, in a real, actual journal, with a real, actual pen. It seems almost quaint. In this world of iPads and iPhones and digitalthisthatandtheother, writing in a journal seems fabulously oldy-world-y, and vaguely old-fashioned. It takes more time to write than type; this forces a stewing of thoughts, a quiet, patient consideration and re-consideration, one that ultimately transforms expressions and observations and perceptions into stained, messy, occasionally wine-spilled musings that melt, all over the pages, like soft, salt-water taffy slowly expiring on the tongue. ‘Do I like how this looks on the page?‘ becomes every bit as important as, ‘What am I trying to say again?’ and I’m often surprised at how much I miss my journal the times when I go out and forget it. I don’t always use it; it’s more an observational talisman that makes me look at things -and smell them, taste them, hear them, feel them – a little more closely.
This re-discovery of the joys of physical writing happened by chance. I was sent, not long after I moved to New York, a gorgeous red moleskine journal, by a friend and favorite journalist. It was both a congratulatory gift, and, I suspect, an acknowledgement, from writer to writer, of the fierce and passionate love we hold of words -particularly the tenuous, occasionally frustrating act of bringing them to life. This act, for me, involves a full engagement with the senses. I love things I can touch, things that I can be stained by, things that leave an impression on a page, that have a smell, a taste, a certain eye-catching color. It explains why I cook. It explains why I paint. It explains a lot.
So I was delighted to attend an event celebrating the tactile -recently. Called “Objectivity”, the event was held at Eyebeam, a digital art space on the west side of Manhattan. The event was part of A vocabulary of objects, a formal Moleskine event that saw workshop participants make their very own journals. On one side of the sprawling warehouse space, a massive piece of paper had been tacked onto a broad wall that dominated one side of the room. It had a mottled projection across it; black drafting pencils had been set out to encourage attendees to add their own markings. People were riotously, joyously drawing as they balanced glasses of prosecco and chatted. I added to the markings with a few wild lilies. I didn’t see one person texting or talking on a phone – only drawing, drinking, watching, creating, and connecting.
When the projection was turned off, and the lights came on, people stared in awe at the motley collection of markings, as the lines formed their own little colonies and empires across the vast expanse of manila. It was awfully refreshing, and even beautiful, to see people so intimately connected with the sensual act of drawing and making things,, and appreciating the after-effects. Is this the power of the sensual world? Are we coming full circle, back to the tangible arts? I pondered these questions as I wandered around and saw Moleskine’s designs for iPads and other digital gadgets. I was reminded of the re-ignition of interest in vinyl recordings, and how heartened I’d been at seeing contemporary albums proudly and prominently displayed at the front of record stores. This isn’t mere nostalgia or irony -this is the scratching at a more transcendent experience through earthly means, a knock-kn0ck-knockin’ on heaven’s door through the gates of dirt and mud and bruised knuckles, sharp needles and blood on the tracks.
And so, the Moleskin event At Eyebeam was a bit of heaven, here and now in New York City, 2011, amidst the hub-bub of technology and the joy of digital connectivity. Those have a place. So do the tangible arts. Being able to draw with total strangers felt like a strong reaffirmation of the vital role of the tangible in everyday life. Even as we ostensibly move further away from experiencing daily life with our five senses, at the same time, we move closer to it, taking pensive, tip-toe steps into that “fourth dimension” Kandinsky referred to. Can we make it? Can we commit? I freely admit to being addicted to the bonbons of modern life: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Soundcloud, Linked In … blogging. But I’m circling back to sensuality, being reminded, in tiny spiraling whispers, that I never left. That fourth dimension is beckoning me, to enter, and re-enter, again and again. I want to keep walking, I’m curious what I’ll find in the middle, on the outer rings, and along the way. Stained fingers? That…and a whole lot more.
Photos: Taken from my Flickr photostream.

Leaves


Leaves, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Years ago, I decided to explore the one art I hadn’t yet tried: drawing.

After drama, music, dance and photography, learning the basics of good drawing is a logical step, after all. I tend to be one of those people who strongly believes in a balanced diet of exposure to all things; art is, for me, a big, madly delicious buffet of experiences and expressions. A little bit of this, a scoop of that… Jill of all trades, master of none, but happy. Once you find the right dish, you never run out of ways to improve it, or want to stop experimenting with the ways in which it matches up with other tastes.

I’m more conscious of my visual side lately, noting the beauty of theatrical design in various productions I’ve attended; the costumes, lighting, props, and set all started out as ideas first done in drawing. My own initial work with pencil, charcoal, conte, and watercolour years ago lead to one of my great passions: oil painting. I painted with mad passion for years, and found much solace and calm through my work with brushes, palette, and a bare canvas. At times it was my greatest comfort, at others an utter torment -but it was always there.

Alas, life being cyclical, I’ve moved away from painting and back to my earlier love of photography. Looking through recent shots, I was struck by their painterly qualities. Amazing, how some arts naturally integrate themselves within artistic expression and form. Does this mean I’ll be doing any free-form features in my arts writing? Doubtful. But it does mean I might trust in my subconscious instincts a bit more, without trying to fit into a mold of how I think I “ought” to sound. Writing is, for me, a careful balance of research, reason, observation, and experience; that doesn’t, however, mean it should lack passion or personality.

In that vein, the next Play Anon interview will hopefully be published this week. I recently met with a painter who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; before you get your shoulders up, take a deep breath. He dislikes government -period. It was one of the most enlightening conversations about art that I’ve ever had. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Stay tuned.

Now get outside and enjoy the splendor of autumn. Take your camera, your pencil, your paintbrush.

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