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Love and Appreciation

Measha Brueggergosman at Indian River Festival

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On the third of July, The Indian River Festival celebrated its tenth season opening with a concert/lovefest featuring the renowned soprano Measha Brueggergosman. When I spoke to Vivian Beer, the Festival’s executive director a few days before the concert, she said it would be “a full-body experience,” and she wasn’'t kidding.

There could have been no more suitable performer for the occasion. The New Brunswick native, who won the Grand Prize at the 2002 Jeunesses Musicales Montreal International Competition, burst onto the world stage a few years ago like a supernova—albeit one with unusual staying power. She obviously feels a deep affinity for St. Mary’s Church, the festival venue; one might be inclined to think that the feeling is reciprocated. Brueggergosman has said that she feels sometimes, when singing at St. Mary’s, that the church itself is singing along with her.

In a sense, that must actually be true. The building, designed by William Critchlow Harris, is known around the world for its acoustics. I found myself thinking of the stereotypical wine glass shattered by the pitch of a sung note, vibrations within its matter so strong the structure can no longer maintain integrity. Although the church managed to hold it together, I can’t help but think it was affected similarly to some extent. I seemed to feel changes in the air, felt molecules dancing within the church—whether in air, wood or human.

Another noteworthy component of the evening was a general atmosphere of love and appreciation. Not only the audience, but also the choir members apparently adore Brueggergosman: one by one, faces began to beam as the diva appeared.

Brueggergosman is like a force of nature—like lightning or a mighty river or some similarly powerful phenomenon. She seems to exude the music, as if every fiber of her being was involved in the production of the glorious voice that pours out of her. The diva’s performance was simply extraordinary, her physical and emotional engagement with the music so total and her delivery so pure that she could move you to tears with one song (notably, Ave Maria) and make the hair stand up on the back of your neck with another (notably, Ebben? Ne Andro Lontana—from “La Wally”). The evening’s programme was varied, from Ravel to Schubert to Schoenberg, and beyond to American spirituals. Brueggergosman concluded the evening with three of the latter that had the audience eating out of her hand. And after the vibrations in the church at last resumed their customary frequency, after the music, the cheers and applause, I think it quite likely that the vibrations of molecules within audience members wending their way home were still a little altered. A full-body experience indeed.

Love of the Craft

Hedwig Koleszar

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Hand crafted pottery by Hedwig Koleszar at the Island Crafts Shop

People elsewhere often have a special idea of PEI. Those in urban centers, in particular, often think of a visit to the Island as if it were a step back into the past, to a day where the pace of life was more leisurely. According to a tourism study, visitors rank sightseeing first among activities, followed by shopping for Island crafts. Frequently, a combination of the two pursuits leads to the kind of experience that reinforces that view of the Island in memories treasured for years to come. Visitor’s guides and information provided by the Crafts Council lead tourists to out-of-the way studios and shops, where they can visit with artisans, and perhaps see a demonstration of how their products are made. When people leave, they want to take home a little piece of PEI to evoke their holidays: something beautiful, well-made, and created right here by a skilled craftsperson.

Potter Hedi Koleszar has been plying her trade on PEI since she arrived in 1978. In the wake of the announcement about funding cuts to the PEI Crafts Council, she is concerned about the future of the industry. “How will visitors find these little out-of-the way places?” Koleszar says that people think of visits to craft studios as adventures that greatly enhance their experience of their time here.

The objective of the Crafts Council is “to promote the making and acceptance of quality handcrafted items through the provision of programs and services; to encourage and assist members and others in becoming creative and proficient in the production of crafts.” Furthermore, that only takes into account things that can be directly attributed, such as sales. Harder to estimate, and undoubtedly much more substantial, is the indirect impact. The quality of experience that visitors enjoy on the Island is what draws them back, what encourages them to recommend PEI to friends and family.

In fact, the Crafts Council, a non-profit organization, has never gotten a lot of funding: This year’s nearly 50% cut takes it down to $20,000, delivered along with the announcement that there would be no funding at all from here on in. If the Craft Council is non-profit, many craftspeople are dangerously close to it. As Michael Page points out, people don’t go into the industry looking to make a fortune: “They start out on that path because they fall in love with their craft.” That love is made manifest in the beautifully made items that have long been associated with both the image and the reality of life on the Island. Page’s woodworking is a sideline, but for others the impact will be more severe. Without the support of the Crafts Council, he is not optimistic. Many craftspeople who depend on their trade for a living may be simply unable to continue. And that would be a terrible shame, for visitors and Islanders alike.

New Romantic

Michelle Ridgway

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

A few years back, Michelle Ridgway registered, with a rather uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm, for a course on the Romantic poets. She expected Hallmark-type romance: hearts and flowers and pledges of undying love. What she found, instead, was a group of passionate individualists that were fully engaged with the natural world and the life of the senses. Hedonistic, vibrant, and dedicated to self-expression, the movement’s sensibility resonated powerfully with Ridgway; she says that a very Romantic response to the “sublimeness of nature” is what guides her work even now.

Inspiration for Ridgway is typically visual. The artist says she notices patterns everywhere she goes and is very efficient at editing out extraneous bits that would detract from the image she’s trying to capture. A large work in progress, as yet untitled, reflects that proclivity. The image is somewhat like a topographical map, like our world seen from far above. Ridgway’s palette for this piece is her favorite one, familiar to Island-dwellers: dirt-road red commingles with tree-and-field green and the darkest blue of cold water. Still, a little glitz and sparkle enter into even this earthy colour combo. The dark blue vein running through the piece is outlined in gold and mica sparkles through the surface intermittently. The vein of blue, as well as island-like patches throughout the piece, comes from handmade paper that the artist has manipulated until its shape pleases her. Underlying all is green, and above that a series of glazes for a translucent effect. The glitter, chosen to evoke movement, lends an aura of mystery to the natural-world effect of the piece, and evokes the wild energy of a world on fire.

Ridgway says that her work is increasingly a reflection of her personal vision and less and less affected by any external influences such as the desire to sell paintings. Years ago, she said, she did work that was more representational, pretty scenes that sold well. Still gratifying to create, but to some extent guided by an understanding of public demand. Now, however, Ridgway finds that the time constraints of being a working mother make it imperative that her creative time is purely that, comes solely from her own impulses. Life’s too short to be constrained by expectations.

Ridgway is equally committed to her day job, working with the Women’s Network in policies to deal with women’s issues of equality and economics. Both art and work are deeply meaningful to the artist. And then there are other goals to consider. Renaissance woman in the making, Ridgway wants, among other things, to learn to play the banjo and ride a horse. Time is always an issue on a daily basis, but also in the big picture: Ridgway doesn’t want to find herself eighty years old and realizing she hadn’t lived her life to the hilt. Instead, she’ll plunge in and immerse herself right now. Sensual and chaotic, sometimes messy and sometimes sublime, but always lived with passion: that’s life as it should be lived, according to Michelle Ridgway.

Scenes of Peace

Ann Dow Lee

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Barns of Kings County, watercolour by Ann Dow LeeAnn Dow Lee was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, where she studied art, seemingly, from earliest memory. Lee recalls being taught the finer points of drawing an iris by her grandmother while still small enough to do so comfortably ensconced in a lap. As the young artist evolved, she began painting in oils, but never really felt that they were her medium. It wasn’t until Lee saw her first watercolour show that the creative spark really took hold. As she describes it, she “just went wild” when she saw the effects that the medium could achieve. The apparent transparency, and the rendering of light in the works displayed were so amazing to Lee that she knew immediately that she had to study watercolour. And study watercolour she did, taking graduate courses at Memphis State University, and attending the Memphis Academy of Art. To further her skills and understanding of art, Lee turned to private instruction and studied under Paul Penczer and Dolph Smith, among others.

Through the years, along with marriage and raising a family of six sons, Lee continued to paint. The endless variety of nature drew her out; there, she felt close to "the spirit of the world," and at peace. However, in those days, there was a great deal of civil unrest in the south. That, combined with the pressures and dangers of living in a large city, made the artist uneasy setting out on her own to paint. She no longer felt safe and she no longer felt at peace, and Lee and her family sought a new place to live where they might find that feeling of safety and peace again. They set out to experience the landscape first-hand, by camping out, as Lee says “from the east coast to the west.” While travelling, they met a couple from Montreal. When told about the family's quest for a new home, there was a suggestion: “Have you seen PEI?” “What’s PEI?” was the response. She soon found out. When the Lees came to scope out the Island, they were struck by the peace and the beauty, the variety of colour and the changing scenery of the seasons. In 1970, the family moved here, and Lee once more happily set out to paint in nature.

Inescapably, water enters into many of the PEI works, especially strikingly in seascape studies of the ocean and sky and the light’s play between the two. In one such, “Barns of King’s County,” the eternal blue of the water is striated with deeper bands; a meadow leads the eye to a weathered barn set against it. In this piece, Lee experimented with a new technique, layering glazes on to create the effect of leaves, flowers, and grasses receding into the distance toward the barn in the background. The scene is beautiful, and peaceful, and typical of the Island that Ann Dow Lee has come to call home.

Time to Celebrate

Marie McMahon-Young

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Celebration by Marie McMahon-YoungDon’t know what a painting by Marie McMahon-Young looks like? If not, there could be a simple reason: This restless chameleon of an artist likes to mix things up, and nowhere is that more evident than in her art. The uninformed viewer could be excused for thinking her paintings were created by a disparate group of painters, each with their own distinctive style and evident talent. McMahon-Young claims to get tired of doing the same thing too long and, as a result, moves with apparent ease and skill from still life to landscape, from abstraction to realism, from graphic to collage, to portraiture, and beyond.

In her living room is a large canvas originally primed for a piece that has not been, and may never be, painted. Murky with green-ish-grey-ish neutral tones, it evokes a kind of somber tranquility and invites the viewer to meditate. Images seem to arise from the canvas and then settle back into ambiguity until something else rises up to call itself to your attention. Despite some repeated queries from impatient friends about “when she was going to finish that painting,” McMahon-Young finds something pleasing in the piece as it is and expects she will leave it that way.

Many of the artist’s works conjure complex moods and mixed emotions. “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” for example, is a study of three pears, two leaning towards each other and a lonely pear to the right looking on with wistful yearning almost palpable, the saddest pear imaginable. Other touches of whimsy spike the collection, for example, in a painting of assembled bird houses that are often at first glance taken for church steeples. One of the most common moods conveyed is exuberance, in vibrant landscapes and other subjects that virtually crackle with life and energy. Paradoxically, McMahon-Young, says, the brightest and most exuberant of her works typically come out of a hard patch in her life.

One striking example is “Celebration,” a work in progress. In this piece, a chef in the foreground embodies the title as he stands against a background of reds and oranges, yellows and purples. His arms are flung out to either side, a wine glass in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, and his head thrown back, laughing up to the purple sky. In the background are muted lights and people in conversation, more implied than articulated. The painting is a study of joy, and reminds the viewer of the human ability—and need—to celebrate.

McMahon-Young began “Celebration” around the millennium, at a point in her life when she was going through a particularly difficult time. Not feeling ready to finish the painting, the artist put it away, telling herself that she’d return to it in a couple of years.

Spirtual Gifts

Tsunami by Daphne Butler Irving RCA

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Tsunami by Daphne Butler Irving RCADaphne Butler Irving is a woman with a mission and a message. According to the artist, her proposed upcoming series, called the Noah paintings, will deal with “the dislocation of the times in which we live, with societal and environmental violence, sudden and drastic happenings, a world in virtual birth pains. Roaring seas, volcanoes erupting, earthquakes, great turbulence, prophetic signs in the sky. In the midst of movement—side by side—great beauty.”

Truly, these are themes that Irving has been exploring and developing in her art for at least 20-odd years. In her book, Prophets and Prophecies, the artist writes that she’s been working with scripturally-inspired paintings since 1980 and that the works contained therein “were a spiritual gift given to an emerging artist who wanted to move beyond painting landscapes to expression of personal faith, giving glory to God.” “Glory” is a well-chosen word; despite the strength of the messages, meaning never overpowers its visual expression in Irving’s works. Even the darkest of her paintings, the harshest depictions of pain, strife and struggle, are yet suffused with beauty and intimations of the sacred. Each one attests to the persistence of splendour in the world, amidst all its suffering and turmoil.

Irving believes firmly in the artist as conduit from the divine; she says she is guided by the holy spirit and is not always sure where she's going, but is confident that she will be led. Form emerges gradually as she paints, from quite abstract beginnings to semi-abstract realizations in which the components are articulated clearly but still fairly impressionistically. A current painting, “Tsunami,” is an image of a huge wave breaking on the ocean. Rendered in a wild palette of blue, green and yellow, pink and purple, the image looks like a depiction of pure energy. Although enormous upheaval is the central concept, somehow transcendence and peace are conveyed as well.

Throughout Prophets and Prophecies and its companion, Revelation Visions at Patmos, Irving’s paintings are interspersed with the passages of scripture that inspired them and the artist’s own musings on the themes in prose and verse. In the latter book, apocalyptic visions unfold in familiar Island landscapes. Portrayed over Keppoch and Brackley, North River and Charlottetown, these works belie the viewer’s sense of the safety of home place, the feeling that such devastation can only happen elsewhere and not on bucolic PEI.

Biblical themes continue to inspire Irving, coming from the inexhaustible source that the artist refers to as “scripture’s treasure house.” If all goes according to plan with the Noah project, Irving will be working on a series of large paintings publicly throughout March at the Gallery in the Guild, offering the public a rare opportunity to watch the process of creation. Have no doubt, visitors to the gallery will be not only enlightened, but also challenged by the paintings displayed. And that’s as the artist intends it. Exquisite and passionate and painful all at once, the works of Daphne Irving carry powerful messages, from her source and through her brush, to humanity.

Waxing Work

Sylvia Ridgway

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Batik artist Sylvia Ridgway says she takes the summers off. She works a bit from fall into Christmas and then the long winter months afterwards are the serious work season at Waxing Moon Studio in Victoria. During the summers, she’s taking it all in: landscape and sea shore and, above all, flowers. The artist stores up images, both mental and photographic, to consider for later works that will come to life long after the last flower of summer has faded.

Batik is an ancient art form that developed in Indonesia, on the island of Java, about 2000 years ago; the word itself, in Javanese, means “wax painting.” According to legend, there was a princess of ancient times who enjoyed dying fabrics deep rich shades of blue and purple. One day as the princess was preparing to dip her white cloth into a vat of dye preparation, a bee landed and left a smudge of wax. When the princess saw the pattern that resulted, she was so entranced that she used wax in her process from that day forward.

Batiking is a labour-intensive process: the wax is applied painstakingly to areas that are to be protected from the dye. For multiple colors, the waxing, dyeing and drying stages must be repeated each time. After the final dyeing, the extra wax is removed with paper and a cool iron. However, the wax that remains gives batik works their characteristic slight, glowing sheen and translucent finish.

Although Ridgway’s chosen medium and its associated practices are many centuries old, she infuses her works with a more modern touch, breathing life into her art with the varied hues and complex compositions of watercolours. In her studio, the artist demonstrates the application of wax to a seascape, a lighthouse gleaming softly against the backdrop of a dark blue sky shading into water. From the studio walls huge, luminous flowers overlook the process.

In another work, “By the Wharf,” a dory lolls on a shore in a serene summer scene. There are soft blues and greens of the seaside, the good red sand of an Island beach. Like others of Ridgway’s works, this one is like a watercolour, and yet distinct by virtue of its media. Somehow, the creative process formalizes them, infusing the gentle watercolour subjects with history, the import of the venerable art form of batik.

Omitting No Sin

Sandi Komst

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

It’s often said that God is in the details. On the other hand, the same is frequently said of his netherworld counterpart as well. Whether divine or iniquitous, detail is just mostly beside the point for artist Sandi Komst. The Beach Point resident says that the whole painting is already there in the underpainting, and is only articulated by the detail that comes after. What she’s aiming for is not to paint a picture of plaid or bagpipes, flowers or chickens, but the feelings evoked by these. Her subject could be any one of them, or just about anything else you can think of. Komst says that she never knows what will spark her imagination; she just follows her impulse wherever it leads. She often paints landscapes or barnyard animals, and says the neighbours have gotten used to her now, and aren’t taken aback to find her stalking a goat or sequestered with the hens in the chicken house. What she paints depends, she said, upon the personality of the day, and she knows it when she sees it.

Last August, Komst went to Belfast (PEI) for the 200th anniversary celebrating the arrival of the Selkirk settlers. It rained, she said, for three days nonstop. Still, the festivities went on throughout, and the artist found herself drawn to the pipers. She noticed the way they stood, some in a circle facing each other, some standing looking outwards. A young woman stood apart from the rest, concentrating so intensely on her playing that she failed to notice Komst approach. Which was much appreciated by the artist, as it gave her a chance to examine the piper from all angles, up close and personal. Another subject, an old man playing nearby, explained to Komst that the players facing in could hear each other, while the players facing away from each other could hear themselves.

In “Pipers,” the artist portrays these two, in formal plaid dress, playing the bagpipes. Vibrant blues, greens, reds and yellows combine to evoke the wild energy of life and music amid a grey and drizzly day. The painting is extraordinarily beautiful and somehow mysterious. We see not what the pipers looked like so much, but what it was like to experience them there in the Belfast drizzle. Without ever resorting to detailed representation, Komst shows us not only pipes and pipers, swathed in plaid, but also their focus, the skirl of the bagpipes and the heavy mist permeating the air along with the sound. Fine detail, in such a scene, could never display what the artist accomplishes with its omission. For the viewer, she brings to life the feeling of pipers, and the personality of the day.

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