Swoon worthy art

Do you have a favourite piece of artwork that you make a point of visiting, whenever you find yourself in a certain gallery, or in another city?  I have several;  they seem to act as touchstones for me.  Perhaps they give me a sense of familiarity in a foreign setting  as I explore new things.  This impulse certainly speaks to the power of good art to inspire me, and reassure me.

At one of my favourite small art museums in New York City,  The Frick Collection (I know, I know, it’s impossible to choose favourites in NYC!) is a Rembrandt van Rijn self portrait from 1658.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, 1658, The Frick Collection

This painting almost makes me swoon….and I don’t swoon easily.   In person, it appears luminous. Technically speaking, it is gorgeous: the rich colours, the play of light and dark, and the composition guide our attention to his hands, and his steady gaze.

Rembrandt was about 50 years old when he painted this self portrait.  Not only does the painting reflect his technical virtuosity , but it provokes a strong emotional response.  He portrays himself confidently.  He is dressed sumptuously.  With a staff and his hat, he seems ready to meet anyone and any challenge in the world.

He looks directly at the viewer.  He certainly engages this viewer, who feels an uncanny connection to this man.  His gaze seems open, and honest.  It appears that he acknowledges, and accepts, the complexity of life.  Does the set of his mouth suggest a bemused attitude, or a resigned one?  Whatever the interpretation, the portrait exudes humanity, warmth and  life.

The next time you’re in New York, you might want to drop into the Frick, and experience this portrait.  As far as I know, it’s on permanent display….and rightfully so.



Travel through time with Boom X

All live theatre is an act of courage, wouldn’t you say? In some ways, it’s risky for everyone: the performers, writers, producers as well as the audience.  As an audience, we expect to be entertained, inspired, and challenged in exchange for our time and money.  The creative team displays the product of months (sometimes years) of work, distilled into a couple of hours of live performance, subject to amateur criticism, dismissal or rejection.

It’s a precarious situation.  Despite all of the challenges, live theatre continues, thank goodness.

This week, I had the privilege of attending a presentation of Rick Miller’s BoomX at the Belfry Theatre.  I made a point of going to the show because I had seen one of his previous shows, Boom.  I remember it being a creative, interesting and thoroughly entertaining performance.  Maybe you are familiar with Rick Miller, as his show MacHomer, originally performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival, has been presented in 130 countries.  (Yes, one hundred and thirty!)

Rick Miller wrote, directed and performed in all of these shows. Click here for two very brief trailers for the shows, Boom and BoomX.  It will help you get a sense of his many talents, and the tenor of the work.  The shows are well researched;  I particularly liked the inclusion of Canadian content.  It’s a multi-disciplinary, fast-paced  performance, with a variety of visual and sound effects. Miller welcomes us –the audience–into the performance.  It ends on a thoughtful note as Miller speaks about the merits of live theatre.  I left the show looking forward to the final instalment of this trilogy of plays.

Actually, I may go to see it again.  There’s still time as BoomX continues to Sunday, August 18 at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C.





Adieu Mary Oliver

I was sad to learn that the American poet, Mary Oliver, died in January.  Her poetry was remarkable in its simplicity and truthfulness.  Wild Geese, published in 1986, is one of her most famous poems.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese illustrates her deep connection to the natural world.  She lived simply to pursue her life’s work of writing poetry.  Despite many accolades earned, including The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Mary Oliver shunned the limelight.  By all accounts, she was most comfortable in the woods.

At Blackwater Pond
At Blackwater Pond the tossed waters have settled
after a night of rain.
I dip my cupped hands. I drink
a long time. It tastes
like stone, leaves, fire. It falls cold
into my body, waking the bones. I hear them
deep inside me, whispering
oh what is that beautiful thing
that just happened?

Click here for a rare interview, a 2015 conversation between Krista Tippett and Mary Oliver for On Being. Whether or not you are familiar with her poetry, it’s a fascinating discussion of a life wonderfully lived.


Photo of Mary Oliver by Rachel Giese Brown





Responding to tragedy

The Art Caravan hasn’t travelled to Manitoba this winter, but if it does, I will search out this site specific art installation by Jaime Black, a multi-disciplinary artist.

Jaime Black sculptures, CBC photo

Her snow sculptures on the Red River, at the heart of Winnipeg, remind us of the many murdered and missing indigenous women in Manitoba and Canada.  This impermanent installation follows her 2014 The REDress Project which also addresses the tragedy of murdered women.

Here is a brief report (and more images) from the CBC, wherein Ms Black explains her motivation for the project, and her hope to add to the artwork.

The caliber of her work reminds me of the noted Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who also creates intelligent, beautiful responses to disturbing events and situations.




Giving thanks ….for the life of Sister Wendy Beckett

These 12 days of Christmas I’ve  been enjoying Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas.  It was a bit of a shock this morning to read that she died this week, on December 26, 2018, at 88 years of age.

Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas by Sister Wendy Beckett

Sister Wendy was a Carmelite nun, art critic and popular television host who ably shared her gifts with the world.  Click here and here for brief reports from the BBC and CBC.

Whether or not you are familiar with Sister Wendy, I highly recommend this Desert Island Discs podcast (available here.)    (If you don’t know Desert Island Discs, you’re in for another treat.  It’s a BBC production with a very appealing combination of music,  conversation and  interesting personalities….not such a bad way to spend some time during these days of Christmas.)


Significant Book Alert (part II)

Last month I practically ordered you to read Michael Harris’ book, Solitude.  (Click here for the post.)  No! I am not checking up on your progress…but I don’t mind if this is a gentle reminder.

This month I will try to persuade you to read his first published book The End of Absence.  

The End of Absence by M. Harris

The End of Absence by M. Harris

Or, perhaps, I’ll let the author convince you.  Here are a few of his observations that, I think, make The End of Absence essential reading:

If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the Internet and without.  You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.
Seen in a prudential light, our circumstances are also a tremendous gift.  If we’re the last people in history to know life before the Internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages.  We are the only fluent translators of Before and After. (p. 15-16)

The strength of the book comes from his balanced, honest  approach.

    Technologies themselves, though, are amoral.  They aren’t good and evil, only dangerous and beloved.  They’ve been a danger we’ve been in love with for millennia, and rarely do we remember that, for example, the goal of human relations my extend beyond efficient transmissions.

Harris recounts the story of meeting his long-term partner on PlentyofFish.  It was more than a little unsettling to see that such a calculated and crowdsourced system had brought us together in the first place.  (p. 183)

The ideas in the book are based on thoughtful synthesis and research.  Harris doesn’t spare us from acknowledging the negative influence of the Internet.  Citing research from UCLA’s Digital Media Centre regarding TV shows for tween audiences, he writes how fame has become an overwhelming focus:
If a good life today, is a recorded life, then a great life is a famous one.
The post-Internet television content (typified by American Idol and Hannah Montanna) has swerved dramatically from family-oriented shows like Happy Days in previous decades. 
One recent survey of three thousand British parents confirmed this position when it found that the top three job aspirations of children today are sportsman, pop star and actor.  Twenty-five years ago, the top three aspirations were teacher, banker, and doctor.  (p. 69)

I like how he extends my thinking about  the possible long (and short) term effects of some Internet usage:
….Since 2009, Google has been anticipating the search results that you’d personally find most interesting and has been promoting those results each time you search, exposing you to a narrower and narrower vision of the universe.  In 2013, Google announced that Google Maps would do the same, making it easier to find things Google thinks you’d like and harder to find things you haven’t encountered before.  Facebook follows suit, presenting a curated view of your “friends'” activities in your feed.  Eventually, the information you’re dealing with absolutely feels more personalized; it confirms your beliefs, your biases, your experiences.  And it does this to the detriment of your personal evolution.  Personalization–the glorification of your own taste, your own opinion–can be deadly to real learning.  (p. 91)

He makes a strong case for the importance of absence in our lives, lives now increasingly connected to others, thanks to technology.    …real thinking requires retreat.  True contemplation is always a two-part act:  We go out into the world for time, see what they’ve got, and then we find some isolated chamber where all that experience can be digested.  You can never think about the crowd from its centre.  You have to judge it from a place of absence.  (p. 133)

The book is not all doom and gloom.  It is a measured response to the reality of our present (and ever-changing) world, and the impact of technology.
We must remain critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it.  And we must make these decisions not because we disike the things we could connect to, but precisely because they’re so crucial to our survival.
Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life.  That is its job.  Your job is to notice.  First, notice the difference.  And then, every time, choose.

I’m not the only person who liked this book.  It won a (Canadian) Governor General’s Literary Award in 2014.  Coincidentally, Michael Harris discusses the Governor General’s Award experience in an opinion piece published today in the Globe and Mail.  Click here to read the article for a sampling of Michael Harris.




True Crime

I’m hope it’s obvious that The Art Caravan values creativity, but strives to be discerning in its observations and judgments.  So, yes, I may be that person you see in a theatre or concert hall sitting down amidst a sea of people giving a standing ovation at the end of a performance.

The other evening I found myself enthusiastically jumping to my feet at the end of the play, True Crime.  I was so focused on congratulating the solo performer that I didn’t notice if anyone else was standing.

Torquil Campbell: True Crime

Torquil Campbell: True Crime

True Crime was both co-created and performed by Torquil Campbell.  Therein lie the reasons for my standing ovation.  The writing is smart, original and intriguing.  The premise of the play is based on the story of  Campbell’s personal fascination with  Christian Gerhardsreiter, a contemporary con man who impersonated a Rockefeller for several years. True Crime cleverly explores ideas about reliability and reality, motivation and values.

Campbell’s performance was almost breathtaking.  He convincingly played a variety of characters with distinctive accents as well as singing original songs. (He is also a member of the bands Stars and Memphis. Click here for a music video of Memphis.)  He commanded the stage for a full ninety minutes.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Click here  to read a Toronto Star review of the play.

True Crime played for a few nights in Victoria, British Columbia as part of the excellent Spark Festival, an annual event of plays, workshops and events at the Belfry Theatre.  Spark continues until March 28, 2018.




“Significant Book” ALERT!

I just finished reading Solitude by Michael Harris.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen–including a stranger sitting beside me in a coffee shop!–that they should read this book. I think it’s that significant.

Solitude by Michael Harris

Solitude by Michael Harris

Here are five reasons good reasons to buy, and read, Solitude:

It’s such a great book, you’re going to want to refer back to it, discuss and share it with others.  (And it’s very affordable, as it’s been recently released in paperback.)

Michael Harris is a skillful writer.  In 2014 he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction for his book, The End of Absence. He has written for many publications, notably The Globe and Mail, Washington Post, Wired and Salon. The book is well researched, but easily read and understood.

There are many important ideas in this book, based on the thesis and subtitle A Singular Life in a Crowded World.  Michael Harris is an original thinker, synthesizing data, expert opinion and history with his own experience and observations as a journalist and human living in the 21st century.  Harris’ work reflects the complexity of modern life. In the Introduction to Solitude, Nicolas Carr (a Pulitzer Prize winning author) expertly summarizes some of the ideas Harris presents:  Contemporary forces of technology, society, and commerce, beneficial forces in so many ways, conspire not only to diminish our opportunities for solitude but to seduce us into believing that solitude is at best inessential and at worst a waste of time.

The book challenges our contemporary society’s prevailing thoughts and norms.  Harris argues that solitude is essential for creative thought.  He provides evidence from current research into the brain, as well as observations of famous thinkers.  He builds a very convincing case for the necessity of a wandering mind, which can only be accomplished through solitude.  Einstein believed that the daydreaming mind’s ability to link things is, in fact, our only path toward fresh ideas.  p. 52
He ends this chapter on a wry note, after spending three hours alone, wandering outdoors.  An annoying truth about daydreaming is that it takes practice to get good at it.  And we are sorely out of practice.  Do we even notice anymore that there are qualitative differences in the way we spend our free time?  That an hour’s reverie in the park is not the same as an hour spent chasing Pokémon?  p.60

This book is personally challenging.  What is the longest period of solitude you’ve experienced?  (Pure solitude=no internet, no emails or texting, no chatting to the barista, no one else)  Michael Harris discovered ….most people arrived at the same number I had:  twenty-four hours.  At some point, due to flu or crippling depression, they had spent one full day without human connections.  Younger friends had a harder time;  most couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t cut off from all society for more than twelve hours.  (And remember, they got eight free hours just for falling asleep.)  p. 216

It’s seems a bit contradictory to be writing a public post about Solitude:  A Singular Life in a Crowded World.  Sigh.  Harris makes valid, and original observations  about the dangers of social media.  But what better way to spread the news that this is a “must read” book?  It may be more socially acceptable than talking to strangers in cafés.





At the Strangers’ Gate

I just finished reading Adam Gopnik‘s latest book At the Strangers’ Gate:  Arrivals in New York.  For anyone interested in art, and particularly contemporary art, I encourage you to read it.

Let me just say, however, that there may be some bias at work here.  I’m a huge fan of Gopnik’s writing.  I find it easily accessible , despite his  knowledge and creative thought that far surpass my capabilities and capacities. He is a superb essay writer:  in Paris to the Moon, the book about his family’s years living in France, he ably discussed politics, philosophy and history, while grounding the narrative in the quotidienne-his daily life with his beloved, Martha and their children.

I may also be biased because he speaks fondly and respectfully of Canada.  American born, he was raised  in Montreal;  Martha is Canadian born.  In 2011, he delivered (and subsequently published) the fiftieth anniversary Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Company entitled Winter:  Five Windows on the Season.  (Is there anything more Canadian than discussing the weather?)

At the Strangers' Gate: Arrivals in New York, Adam Gopnik

At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York, Adam Gopnik

In the chapter SoHo, 1983  Gopnik begins by recounting the story of how he and Martha were able to secure an apartment in SoHo.  It remains the strangest and luckiest thing that has ever happened to us.  He reports that… The SoHo we moved to in 1983 was still a village, a village of art.  He makes the case that New York, and specifically SoHo, was the art capital of the world in the 1980’s.  He discusses how the art produced was a product of its environment, and, of course, the cultural and economic influences of the decade.  He provides an insider’s view of the era with engaging physical descriptions and anecdotes:  This is how a Saturday morning in SoHo would unfold in the middle years of the 1980s…… you would inevitably bump into friends, eyes set professionally aslant from the work of looking, and exchange a warm greeting and a few terse words about the things just seen.

It’s his reflections about the art and art making, the dealers and buyers, and, really, the meaning of art at a specific time, in a specific place, that are most insightful.  The social life of those Saturday mornings was at least as important as the chance for solitary looking.  All art serves a double function, and the double function of American visual art by the eighties was as both a mark of generational identity and a luxury good for the wealthy.

At the Strangers’ Gate serves a double function, too.  It’s an entertaining, amusing read (you won’t want to miss the candy factory story)  as well as an insightful analysis of art, artists and culture in North America.

Emily Carr: DFP

After walking through the brightly lit rooms of  Entangled:  Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting  (previous post) at the Vancouver Art Gallery I wandered into a cozy, dimly lit space displaying Emily Carr paintings in the show   空/Emptiness: Emily Carr and Lui Shou Kwan.

The paintings are gorgeous:  the Vancouver Art Gallery has some of the best examples of Carr’s work I’ve seen.  They are damn fine paintings–bold, strong, studied.

Grey, 1931-32 Emily Carr

Grey, 1931-32 Emily Carr

untitled (Tree on a Rocky Profile) 1922-25 Emily Carr

untitled (Tree on a Rocky Profile) 1922-25 Emily Carr

A Young Tree, 1931 Emily Carr

A Young Tree, 1931 Emily Carr

This is work to be experienced in person. Many of us have seen her art reproduced on mugs, greeting cards and book bags and think we know it.   I have thought, “Oh, yeah.  Emily Carr.  Eccentric west coast woman painting trees.”  Then I encounter some of these paintings and think, “Wow. Gorgeous. Lush. Remarkable…….. I wish she hadn’t had such a struggle to make a living, and could have spent more time painting.”  (Sad and sobering facts:  Carr could not always make a living from her artwork, and spent much time and energy for many years managing tenants in a rental house and engaging in other schemes to earn money.  In 2015 one of her paintings sold at auction for $1.53 million. Click here for a National Post article about the sale.)

It seems I have a short memory, for I have expressed the very same views about her paintings in other posts I’ve written.  Click here and here to read other brief postings about her works.

untitled, 1931-32 Emily Carr

untitled, 1931-32 Emily Carr

Abstract Tree Forms, 1931-32 Emily Carr

Abstract Tree Forms, 1931-32 Emily Carr

Emily might be horrified to know her images are on greeting cards, magnets and bookmarks.  Or maybe she would have laughed at the irony of it.