Tag: live painting

Hey, There’s My Kid!

Showing the world my art was a strange experience.

By “art” I don’t mean my writing, which anyone can see online (or in print, if you happened to subscribe to various music zines in the 1990s), or (some 0f) my photography, which can also be seen in various online spots. No, I mean my painting.
Painting was an obsession for me in the early aughties. It was the “last” art I discovered and sought instruction in. It was, to borrow a phrase from Bukowski, my last creative whore – all the others were gone. Used up, dried out, buried under the weight of too many experiences and expectations too soon. “Why not drawing?” I thought. Why not, indeed.
My teacher was an experienced professional artist and instructor who encouraged curiosity and connection -with our fellow budding artists, with visual art of the past and the present, and with our chosen media. After a few weeks of basics in pencil drawing, she slowly introduced the 123s of watercolor.
“Have you painted before?” she asked me during one session, cocking an eyebrow at a snow-covered branch I was working on.
“No… why?”
Beat. A pause.
“Really?”
“Never?”
“No.”
Another pause.
“You really look like you have. This… this seems to come quite naturally to you.”
It was mere months before I’d shrugged off the watery coil of watercolor and moved on to the rich gooey sea of oils. I loved the sludge-like quality, the caramel richness of colors, the bumpy-buttery ripples and waves of texture. I even loved the sharp, acidic smell.
Many years and many canvases later, writing came calling again, as it inevitably would. Drawing came and went, as my visual side found expression in other things – a rediscovery of photography that ran parallel to technological advacenemtns in digital technology, experiments with black sharpies, trying out color conte for the first time. Drawing and painting had a surprisingly joyous union during a particularly experimental period last autumn, which, I have no doubt, planted the idea of my moving to New York City. Something about trying certain media together, at once, in totally new ways, blasted open neural pathways I hadn’t known existed.
And so it was, returning to purely painting. Chris Pemberton, co-founder of the Toronto live painting event Art Battle, invited me to be a part of the Signals From The DEW Line, an event honoring Canadian thinker and author Marshall McLuhan. Held at the storied Gladstone Hotel, the event was a blend of poetry and painting that took as its theme McLuhan’s idea that “art, at its most significant, is a distant early warning (or D.E.W.) system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen.” Artists, then, are signifiers of change in society, of new ways of thinking and expressing and being. Heady stuff.
I didn’t think of any of this when the 18-inch square canvas was given to me. But there was something awfully stimulating about painting with a purpose. It wasn’t just some mamby-pamby thing I was doing anymore. I had a due date. I had a deadline. I had a place in the 25-painterly grid. And so, I set about, letting equal parts instinct and experience guide me, as Soundcheck blared in the background and the taste of strong coffee sat on the tongue. A squirt of paint here, a brush stroke there; it all came together, and the piece was still tacky when I carefully walked it through the doors of the Gladstone Hotel lastnight. Suddenly this little canvas was more than just homework: it was my child.
My work has never, ever been exhibited before, not individually, and certainly not amongst the work of other, more accomplished and experienced artists. Once my piece was up, there was a momentary sense of “Oh-Gawd, mine’s-crap”-like comparison, but it didn’t last. This private act I engage in, of drawing and painting, of going past words (my admitted comfort zone and obvious stock in trade) was being scrutinized, observed, judged and enjoyed. It was like seeing a little one in their first school concert; some kids look more turned-out and comfortable than others, there’s a lot of waving and smiling, you wonder if they’ll get through it intact. When the whole class is up there taking a bow at the end, you can’t help but feel proud -of not only them, but of everyone’s else’s kid, and the fact your kids all worked together. It fortifies your sense of faith in humanity.

And that’s just how it felt, to look at my painting, hanging there with 24 other, entirely-other works. As Christopher observed, “Yours is so very different.” Of course my kid is different, I wanted to say. I didn’t plan it that way, but I’m not surprised that’s how s/he turned out. It’s nice to be with a crowd, but not of it. Even so, different-ness doesn’t guarantee confidence. Leaving my painting at the Gladstone was strange, and a bit stressful (it’s exhibited there with the others through Monday). I had a momentary twinge of -what, grief? separation anxiety? parental sentimentality? -when I walked into my tiny studio space at home and immediately noted that particular painting’s absence. It had become a sparky little fixture amongst the larger, older stalwarts, who seemed to hover and surround it in a protective huddle. I got cold thinking of it hanging in silence and darkness all night, alone and open to the elements of unfamiliar eyeballs and sneaky urban spiders.

But my little one isn’t alone – it’s with 24 other works, all with parnets of their own. There’s something reassuring about that – about being together, distinct, joined, and individual, all at once. Sooner or later, we have to let our kids go. We never stop thinking of the days we spent in squawking, squealing, squirming color, bringing this thing to life. That energy is on our own stained hands, the back aches, the neck kinks, the multi-color sinks and the spiky smells around us. We send our kids out into the world, and get right back to making a new one, over and over.
All photos from my Flickr photostream.
Oh yeah: My painting is the super-dark one just above the man-opens-curtain-sees-kitty work. It didn’t photograph well -at all.
My kid’s difficult that way. Sigh.

Art Meets Heart

I’m always surprised and delighted by the sheer number of fascinating, artsy events happening in Toronto at any given time. In addition to Art Battle, A Work Of Heart, which also features live painting, is coming up soon. A Work Of Heart is an initiative that brings together artists and philanthropy in a spirit of cooperation, self-determination, curiosity and sharing. To quote its current release, “artwork is donated by seven local artists… half of the proceeds will go towards building a boarding school in Kenya’s Mathare Slum.”

Owing to conversations with TMS Ruge and other experts in the field of aid and development, I’ve developed a kind of mental alarm system for anything resembling Western-style feel-good-isms toward African nations. Too often those efforts are exercises in narcissism and brand-building, offering simplistic answers and reflecting the organizers’ romanticized (/stereotypical /racist) image of Africa and its citizens moreso than actively acknowledging the messy, complicated, multi-layered world of development and well, humanity overall. It’s easy to reduce a nation -its citizens within it, its continent around it -to easy slogans and poetic images, ones colored by celebrity visits and ad campaigns and big-ass concerts.

Work Of Heart is less interested in big gestures than it is in committing to long-term good. It’s a small, grassroots organization working at the grassroots level, lead by people who’ve been there, done that, and (vitally) plan to, for a long, long time. They put their money, time, energy and resources where their mouths are, their paintbrushes where their heart is. They aren’t afraid to get dirty, and they aren’t afraid to commit to the long-haul.
Laura Armstrong is the founder of Work Of Heart; she has a degree in Film and English, and has travelled extensively, working with Canadian organization Global Youth Network. It was through her work with GYN that she travelled to Kenya to work with HIV positive women and children, and subsequently got in touch with UCRC (Ugunja Community Resource Centre), an NGO that, to quote its website, “acts as an umbrella organization for more than sixty local community groups including women, children, youth, farmers and people with disabilities.” Their motto is “Local Action Is Beautiful.” Casey Mundy, a Toronto-based publicist with a degree in Psychology, also worked with the Global Youth Network, where she worked in the Dominican Republic as well as Morocco.
There’s something inspiring about these two young Canadian women who, though completely aware of their position as privileged women living and working in the Western world, are moving past that definition and into that of a citizen of the world through their long-term commitments. They understand you can’t just build a school, pat yourself on the back, and walk away; in fact, they keep walking towards goals whose benefits are not immediate, but are profound, real, and offer long-term benefit to communities.
A Work Of Heart’s latest art event happens tomorrow night in Toronto. I recently exchanged ideas about the organization, and about the roads that intersect between art, aid, and advancement with Laura and Casey. Their answers make me want to continue following A Work Of Heart to see how their initiatives progress.
How did you become interested in aid and development issues?
Laura: During my undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University, I started to participate in volunteer trips abroad. I helped build a house in the Dominican Republic, volunteered in India with famine relief, Peru for Dangue fever prevention, and Kenya to work with women and children with HIV. Different cultures and world issues fascinate me. I want to continue working abroad and learn as much as possible.
Casey: I also became extremely interested in aid and development issues while a student at Wilfrid Laurier. I have spent time volunteering in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Working and living with the local people in another country is a very different experience than simply visiting that location and its renowned tourist destinations. You get to really know the place, the people, their way of life and their motivations when you immerse yourself in their lifestyle.

The main thing I hear and read is that Western-style gestures don’t help in implementing long-term change – that it’s feel-good-ism for the privileged. How much of this initiative is about the long-term?

Laura: We work with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK) which is located in the Mathare Slum, the second largest slum in Aftrica. This NGO is a support group for women and children living with HIV. Mary Wanderi, who founded this NGO (and is currently Director of Living Positive Ngong), is a pervious social worker who had the heart-breaking job of going into the homes of women who have died and retrieving their children. After dealing with an overwhelming amount of HIV related deaths she decided she had to take action. She then created LPK.

Women can come to LPK to receive support and job training. These women are taught how to live positively while HIV positive. When implementing a development project abroad you need to involve the community as much as possible and think in advance about potential problems and not assume what they would be. Observation and long term planning is key in making a sustainable project. We agree that education is the most vital way to change the future of the LPK children and will give their mothers time to work while their children attend school. That is why this boarding school project is where we are investing our attention and resources.

Why did you create A Work Of Heart?

Laura: I want to be there for the long haul. I am not looking for the the international ‘feel-good-ism’ experience and to simply walk away. These women aren’t just a group we support- they are our friends. We work together to figure out what the deeper problems are in the slum and try to find solutions that work for them and their community. After my first trip to Kenya, I felt that the amount of money needed to upgrade the LPK daycare was something I could easily fundraise. Selling my art seemed like the best bet to raise that money in my spare time. I paint as a hobby so it was nice to have a reason to do it more often.

What role do you see for art in helping to create social change?

Laura: Artists in general have a lot of passion and are always looking for ways to push boundaries with their talent. A Work of Heart allows them to push a new boundary because their art can now physically change a life for the better. Art is impossible to define but can be best described as something that makes us feel less alone. We want to take this concept and broaden it beyond the painting. Through the selling of our art we can connect to people across the world who are in grave need. It’s not just about painting a great picture; it’s about ‘painting a better world.’

Casey: Art is a positive practice that crosses language barriers and can be experienced globally. Art is exciting because it can mean something different to different people and create an emotional response. There is no right or wrong way to paint or be involved with art. I think that this project exemplifies how one person really can make a difference and that visual art, along with all types of art, like music, dance, can have a global reach and connect the world.

How do you find artists?

Laura: Networking. I have friends who paint who know other artists. It has slowly been growing over the past year. People I have never met want to donate pieces to me because they love the concept. It’s a great feeling to see how other artists connect to it so quickly and so passionately.

How do you hope to expand Work Of Heart and its reach?

Laura: We have decided to push our goals and limits further each year. Last year we aimed to raise $1,000.00 and this year we want to raise $10,000.00. This is our first art show. We hope to have larger ones down the road and have more artists from the GTA involved. We have a deep connection to the women and children we work with in Kenya and want to help them build a sustainable community for their children and themselves.

Casey: I hope to continue to raise positive awareness for A Work of Heart through the media and help to build a solid base of supporters. I am passionate about this project and happy to pitch something I truly believe in.

A Work Of Heart Facebook page is here.

The Art Of The Duel

Today marks the one-year anniversary of heads, the salon-style speaking event I helped to co-organize. It featured Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy and Chung Wong of Givernation, as well as the first public edition of Art Battle, a competitive event that pitted two painters against one another in a timed event that the public could view and, once the pieces were complete, vote on.

While heads didn’t survive, Art Battle has rocketed into the stratosphere of popularity within Toronto’s cultural community. It’s so popular in fact, that the popular weekly Now Toronto is running a live feed of tonight’s event starting at 8pm ET.

The premise is simple: pit two painters against one another, live, for a specific amount of time (usually twenty minutes). When finished, the observers get to vote on a favorite, which is then auctioned off. The losing painting… can sometimes meet an ugly end. Or not. There are three rounds, and the public has the opportunity of being in one of those rounds. Fun? Scary? Nuts? Brilliant? All of the above.

I had the opportunity of interviewing the co-founders of Art Battle, Simon Plashkes and Chris Pemberton, about the hows and whys around pitting painters (sometimes well-known, sometimes not; sometimes not even painters) against one another in a public arena.

Toronto’s Art Battle by CateKusti

I have to admit, I’ve never been 100% sold on the idea of putting painters within a competitive arena. The very nature of it -people gawking and talking, holding cold beers and varying expectations, combined with the added pressure of an unforgiving stopwatch -means the essential nature of the artist’s output will be vastly different to what they’d produce in an actual studio. But who’s to judge which is better? That’s an interesting question worth exploring. And there is something fortifying about the level of community input and involvement Art Battle has consciously sought. I love the fact that Art Battle has encouraged those who’ve never put brush to canvas before to give it a try (both publicly and not). It’s equally heartening to see the curiosity Torontonians have shown towards Art Battle, rendering it the big success it is now.

Kudos to Simon, Chris, the entire Art Battle team -and not least of all to all the artists, past, present, and future, who continue to re-define that most contentious of words -“art” -and what our relationship to it is. Bravo.

Photo courtesy of Art Battle Toronto.

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