Category Archives: January 2014

State of the Arts – an ode to a studio

Victoria Ward

making art in below zero temperatures

This blog is a rumination on making art work during the winter and how important having a studio is. 

On the weekend I attended the Peterborough ReFrame Film Festival. Now in it’s tenth year, the festival showcases lots of big and small films, many of which are locally made. I was thrilled to attend the screening and Q&A for the film I Hate Change by my friend Kirsten Johnson. In the film Kirsten deals directly with the trauma of losing her studio of thirteen years to condo development in the Liberty Village area of Toronto. She is seen fretting. There is much fretting as you can imagine; an artist losing their studio is no small thing. We see her moving her work and all the many, many things she has acquired over a decade of using a studio. And she showcases some of the other artists who are seen putting things into trucks, it’s funny but ultimately quite sad. The film hit a cord with the Ptbo folk as they are dealing with a possible casino in the down town, a highway through a park and several other corporate gentrifications that may alter the town’s irrepressible independence.

What also struck me was the fact that the down town streets were alive with people in sub zero weather (double digits no less) scurrying from venue to venue in order to see non-commercial films made by people they had probably never heard of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, don’t tell me small places don’t have thriving cultures.

Kirsten as one of her 'new' neighbours in her film I Hate Change
Kirsten as one of her ‘new’ neighbours in her film I Hate Change

Winter has always been a significant time in my calendar year since moving into a rural area. My day now involves the making of a fire, shovelling snow, wearing fingerless gloves and a fleece poncho in the office. But it also involves gorgeous night time stars, trees cracking, fox & deer tracks, skiing, and essentially feeling alone but not lonely in the universe. The studio has to be warmed up as well and all sorts of sundry items prepared for the tiny trek over to it. I usually work at this time of year in a toque, as taking it off and on becomes annoying over the course of the day – my studio does not have facilities, so trips to the house are in order.

Our original vinyl collection - part of it anyway. A studio is perfect for these holy relics.
Our original vinyl collection – part of it anyway. A studio is perfect for these holy relics.

My art making also takes an unusual turn in the winter as well. Doing your work, you become a little more like a monk in the Himalayas working on a mandala that can’t be completed: it’s cold and draughty, it’s silent, and your art is transformed into a task of minutes, ticking away at mortality, making time itself an art. The vacuum that is winter allows your thoughts to amble and you find your cognitive abilities sharp and dull at the same time. You wander inside your heart; this takes courage when the days are short, not so much in summer when there is noise, traffic, sun and your species all around you.

I am lucky, unlike my dear friend Kirsten, my studio is still here, on my property and will never have to make way for a condo – not in my lifetime anyway. A studio is a special place; it is a lab, a wood shop, a library, a music listening den, a bunkie for guests who don’t mind fumes, a gallery, a storage area, and a repository for thousands of items that come into our world over the course of a creative journey. To note: we have a two foot plastic Godzilla with movable arms and legs, Russian leader nesting dolls, a moose head skeleton, an ancient scythe, glass skulls with angel wings, fossilized Halloween candy, and a vintage record store stacking unit that allows us to flip through our album collection old school. We keep the vinyl moon landing recording out front and listen to it every July.

Everybody has these things, but not everyone has them in their workplace. Studios are not offices, they are not warehouses or factories, they are personal spaces where artists can “make weather” as Tom Waits would say. An artist can’t work without one; they are as necessary to survival as a place to sleep. Like your bed at the end of a long day, your studio is a place of refuge, where you try to make your dreams come true.

Please visit KirstenJohnson.com and watch for her film I Hate Change at an independent festival near you.

State of the Arts will return February 13. 

State of the Arts – Canadian landscape painting

Victoria Ward

Kim Dorland’s ‘wilderness tips’

This blog is about Kim Dorland’s McMichael exhibition that I saw unfortunately on the last day and how landscape painting seems now to be an act of pure punk rebellion that is insisting on lasting.

After two years I realized that if I subtitled my blogs I would find them easier. At 89 and growing, it was getting difficult to go back and find references and so forth without some kind of guide. I thought that a date would work but then since I rarely know what day it actually is in the present sense, I needed something more specific to delineate and annotate my blogs from each other.

While that first paragraph may have hinted that I live in chaos, I assure you I do not. In fact I am as tidy and organized an artist as you can find. Well, not until I finally made it to Kim Dorland’s You Are Here at the McMichael Gallery at the beginning of this month. I made it sadly to the last day because every other effort was hobbled by snow, ice and other wintry obstacles that make a place like Kleinberg hard to get to between November and January. I wish I had been able to get there sooner and preached its worthiness to all.

Dorland’s exhibition was described as a response to the residency he had there at the McMichael and particularly to the work of Thomson. Dorland admits to being a fanatic. What I found was a prolific artist whose work bursts with energy, and whose process (a room was dedicated to his photos, inspiring ideas, sketches – all organized in sublime anarchy) is so robust that at times some of the individual paintings seemed to want to bring down the building on top of itself; so much paint is applied to many of the works that they had to have screws built into the composition in order for him to keep the piles of it in place. These pieces have an unrelenting impossibility to them. I appreciated their audacity even if I wasn’t sure if I liked them.

Dorland's French River. This is huge! and it captures the elegant chaos of the place.
Dorland’s French River. This is huge! and it captures the elegant chaos of the place.

Dorland comes across as a thoroughly authentic outdoorsy type; canoe, campsites, axe, guns, the whole thing but also an enormously tidy thinker and a very organized planner. I doubt crazy old Tom Thomson would have been able to pull off such a professional and intellectually complete endeavour. But perhaps that has little to do with the work in the exhibition as it does with how artists need to behave today; alcoholic messes need not apply anymore. Spray paint, day glo, recreating famous works, composites in triple and quadruplicate, gigantic canvases spanning an entire wall, self portraits, portraits of Tom, Dorland uses every possible technique to create a huge body of work that pushes the act of painting upon you as the viewer. This is bold, brassy stuff and I reveled in its unabashed adoration of both the Canadian landscape and painting in general.

I have a bias here because I like Kim’s work and have followed him for a several years now. I’ve often thought that he and a few more of us were standing firm on our desire to see painting through its tepid presence and into the future. Seeing this particular exhibition makes me believe that perhaps I was right.

Landscape painting has been a dirty term now for years. Used by galleries to appease their boards, added to juried shows to increase sales, and generally stuffed down the throats of the public who “don’t know any better”. It has been pimped by the art world long enough. A show of hands, “how many of you painters who use the landscape as subject matter get asked to be part of a fundraising scheme at a gallery but would never get an exhibition there?” I don’t need to see the actual hands, I know there are many – I am one of them.

The McMichael Gallery does hold a great collection of Group of Seven landscape paintings. But over the years it has reached out to many other kinds of art forms in order to stay relevant. You can’t blame them. However it was gratifying to see an artist respond to Thomson’s work with paintings. Good paintings. Dorland is a very good painter, not a hobbyist, not a weekend warrior but a serious craftsman with a great set of innovative twists to the genre. He’s also a guy’s guy in many ways which I found very refreshing. Plaid jackets and roughing it in the bush abound in his exploration of how to get into and reflect on the rugged landscape of Ontario. But what he mostly is, is a very organized, ambitious artist who is thinking about the future of his craft – this wasn’t a sentimental journey it was a slam dance into a future of possibilities.

Landscape painting will persist, it must. It is one of the only portals we have to enter into and understand how our Earth is changing in an intuitive, raw and profound way. What we need now is brash statements like Dorland’s. Great Canadian landscape artists are a mighty few but determined to bring the wilderness, it’s collisions with humans and all its terrifying indifference inside from the cold.

Pic courtesy the McMichael Gallery