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First Among Equals

Here on the Flight Path

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Looking for an antidote to the summer doldrums? Norm Foster’s Here on the Flight Path, playing at the Victoria Playhouse until September 5th, is a very funny, not-too romantic comedy—perfect late-summer fare. Flight Path, as actor-wannabe character Angel would likely call it, is small-theatre friendly, with an uncomplicated set, a minimal cast, and a lively enough script to render the audience all but unaware of either circumstance. Foster and his wife, Janet Monid, occasionally tackle the roles themselves, to generally rave reviews.

In this production, Erskine Smith plays protagonist John Cummings, an affable, baffled bachelor, still reeling post-divorce. Not quite sure how it happened, he finds himself writing a column and living on the flight path as he dreams of writing a novel and living on the ocean. Cummings writes “Comings and Goings,” which could also serve as the play’s subtitle, describing the women that move in and out of the character’s life. Like the airplanes navigating the flight path directly overhead, the women make brief but vivid appearances at Aurora Terraces: they fly in, briefly illuminating a scene and creating a considerable ruckus, and then are suddenly gone. Looking for love in any likely spot, Cummings tries his luck with the parade of females passing through the apartment next door. Smith is terrific in the part, ably delivering both humour and subtle pathos.

Cynthia Dunsford applies her trade-marked (well, it should be!) energy to the three female roles: the cynical but romantic hooker Faye, the reflexively optimistic would-be thespian Angel (That character ends up a country singer; as Cummings points out, with a name like Angel Plunkett, what else was she gonna do?), and the newly, miserably, single Gwen. Dunsford is probably best known as her outspoken alter-ego Parkdale Doris. If only they’d had room for a third balcony, the actor could have also leapt the divider (no doubt in a single bound) from time to time and as—hmmm…what’s a polite way of saying “busy body?”—interested neighbour Doris, contributed some pithy commentary about the goings-on. I’m sure Dunsford would have been equal to the task!

Although none of the women stay long at Aurora Terraces, each of them leaves their mark on Cummings. After all the tumult, the series of comings and goings, he’s a changed man, ready at last to move on—at least metaphorically—from the flight path.

Fields of Dreams

Forgotten Songs, Forgotten Loves

Review by Ivy Wigmore

There's something dreamlike about an excursion to an event at the Indian River Festival. You drive through quintessential PEI landscape, rolling hills and farmland, unbroken but for the occasional village. Past Kensington, signs of habitation become more and more scarce, until-just as you begin to fear you've lost your way-a sign proclaims the upcoming church and "Concert tonight." Suddenly, you exit the quietly meandering road to a jam-packed parking lot. And there, amid more fields and with Malpeque Bay glistening beyond, is St. Mary's Church, built 100 years ago this summer. The wooden-shingled building, designed by William Critchlow Harris, is often said to be one of the ten best performance venues in the world. The Festival concert series was conceived as a means of funding the Church restoration.

On Sunday, July 7th, the Festival launched its 2002 (seventh) season with a sublime concert, "Forgotten Songs, Forgotten Loves." Soprano Wendy Nielsen was accompanied by pianist Robert Kortgaard. The Indian River Festival Chorus performed splendidly, under the direction of Carl Mathis, with pianist Mark Ramsay. There could have been no more appropriate performers. Nielsen's CD (from which the evening's concert took its name), nominated this year for both ECMA and Juno awards, was recorded in the church. Kortgaard, the Festival's Artistic Director, was also Nielsen's accompanist on the recording.

Although in keeping with the evening's theme, most of the music was romantic and melancholy (sample title: In pain, my heart often broods), there were moments of comic relief. During Andriano Banchieri's Contrapunto bestiale alla mente, chorus members were assisted by a menagerie of animal puppets, all flailing away madly as they sang. There were three musical takes on Lorelei, the siren of German legend who lured unwary sailors to their watery graves: Robert Schumann's version, Waldesgesprach, which is then elucidated by Clara Schumann's Lorelei. Finally, as Nielsen commented, should the audience remain in any way unsure, the Gershwin version (sample lyric: I vant to bite my initials on a sailor's neck) made Lorelei's nature abundantly clear.

Nielsen spoke about the juxtaposition of St. Mary's and its pastoral setting. Dreamlike: a church fashioned as a musical instrument, set amid fields of placidly grazing cattle. A bagpiper. Beautiful music, exquisitely performed-with animal puppets. Like a dream, too, the power of the experience is difficult to communicate. Go to the Festival for your own dreamy evening.

In the Moment

Lionel Stevenson

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Lionel Stevenson was about seven years old, as he recalls, when he first saw a photograph. His own first subject, a year later, was his family’s New Glasgow farm. Prior to that, Stevenson had never seen a photograph of anything other than a human subject. Somehow, though,Erratic,  photograph by Lionel Stevenson the artist knew intuitively that photography could be used as an expressive medium: “Throughout my photography, my effort has been directed to communication using the expressive aspects of the medium to affirm positive aspects of life.” Since that time Stevenson has taken an eclectic approach, photographing landscape and still life, elders and children.

Of all the subjects that Stevenson has photographed throughout his career, none has been more compelling to him than the series of glacial erratics, which he captured in silver prints. Glacial erratics are huge stones that were once carried along by glaciers, moving imperceptibly on while a glacier advanced, and then left behind as it receded again. Some, fifteen and twenty-foot high boulders, have been precariously balanced, sometimes en pointe, atop small stones for some 8,000 years. Intrigued by the stones, Stevenson photographed his first glacial erratic in 1987, while travelling. It was to be twelve more years before he was able to get back to the site, but in June 1999, the artist returned and spent a week creating images of about 95 stones. The images were printed just as the world ticked over into the year 2000.

In some ways, the images of the glacial erratics can be seen as the embodiment of Stevenson’s artistic vision. A photograph, by its very nature, captures a precise moment in time. Couple that with the thousands of years these stones have stood—while fleeting human lives and generations passed, civilizations rose and fell, and landscape changed all around, repeatedly—and you have a fair representation of the dichotomy between the instant captured and its place in eternity. Much of the power of Stevenson’s photographs derives from that dichotomy, the resolute physicality of the present set against the poignancy of knowing that all things must pass.

It’s the visual aspects of a subject that capture Stevenson’s attention, and his vision of how they will play out in the final print that motivate him. However, he’s all too aware that the subject is sometimes all that the viewer sees, missing the subtler expression that is revealed by a deeper engagement with the photograph. Time spent with the works is rewarding; you become aware of a deeper resonance, and a quiet power to Stevenson’s photographs that makes you want to look at them again and again.

Although he’s inspired initially by a subject’s beauty and the aesthetic pleasure derived from it, it is the ability of that subject to represent a deeper meaning that compels Stevenson: “This is my expression—an image so obviously a presentation of a real subject, expressing a message about the passage of time, the temporary nature of existence, and the preciousness of the moment.”

Sentient Being

Susanna Rutherford

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Susanna RutherfordSusana Rutherford paints landscapes and portraits of animals, both domestic and wild. Viewing the animal portraits, one is struck by the sense that the subjects have an internal world, their own perspective on things, that they are attempting to communicate to you.

Asked about inspiration, Rutherford says, “I suppose I am inspired to share my vision of the world around me.” That vision is firmly centered in the natural world and its inhabitants: “I have a strong belief in the sentience of all species and an intellectual base of trying to share the feelings I perceive in other species.”

Humour and whimsy are frequent elements. In “Autumn Fire,” for example, a pair of moose in a autumn woods are featured. The male has his head resting on the back of the female, a benevolent and happy expression on his face. A visitor to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where the painting is displayed, was heard to say “Is that moose smiling?”

In the painting “Coyote Conundrum,” [see cover of this issue] a pair of adult coyotes and a litter of young rest outside the opening to their den. One of the adults snuggles with the pups, while the other apparently stands guard, protecting the group. In the background are bare trees, and evergreens so heavily laden with snow as to be almost obscured. The viewer gets the sense of a view into the daily life of these beautiful creatures, their comfort and ease in their surroundings, the bond among them, and the adults’ nurturing and protective efforts to ensure survival of the species. Although coyotes are often described as solitary animals, they are known to mate for life and often travel in family groups, including the male, while the pups are maturing.

Rutherford was struck by the coyote problem, which could be described as coyotes and humans having conflicting interests. The artist explains, “As you know, these animals have been a problem for farmers and efforts have been made to eliminate them from PEI on several occasions. Of course, I don’t view coyotes as ‘evil’; they are simply efficient scavengers and hunters who manage to thrive despite the human pressure on the wilderness.” Once Rutherford had decided to do a painting of coyotes, she sought a suitable background for the piece. She found her backdrop in the winter landscape bestowed on her Pinette property by a heavy snowfall.

The works are further enhanced by their unusual framing. Rutherford says that people often ask about her distinctive frames. Brightly colored, and reminiscent of hand-woven fabric, the artist’s frames set off her work in an unusual, and yet very complementary fashion. “I studied weaving at art school and I’ve always been inspired by the patterns in textiles. While the pure abstract design pulls the representational work together, there is a symbolic component for me in the pattern reflecting the patterns found in nature and life.”

Hidden Nature

P. John Burden

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Leave the Table, acrylic by P. John Burden

P. John Burden creates paintings that bear a striking resemblance to his stained glass works in their clear and vibrant colours, even the impression of light coming through them. Beyond the physical similarity is something deeper: a suggestion of transcendence and an evocation of the sacred permeate all his paintings, whether of people, buildings, sea- or landscape, or some otherworldly combination of these elements. Viewing Burden’s works, one gets the feeling that the earth is the artist’s place of worship and all its elements holy to him.

In Burden’s paintings, these elements combine in unusual ways. A tree might be composed of a face, or a face a tree; flowers bloom throughout, and beauty pervades all. Burden believes that love and beauty exist everywhere and that, ultimately, portraying that truth is what he strives for in his work. As in nature, surprises abound in playful touches and challenges to the viewer’s perspective.

In “Leave the Table,” a 2003 work, a man in the foreground is walking away from a table where another man (this may or may not be the artist himself—he admits that everyone says it is) and a woman sit playing cards. A tree, grass, and an arm are among the elements the man seems to be composed of. The texture of the painting is something like the pattern of light reflected onto a surface through old glass, or the pattern reflected on the bottom of the ocean as the sun passes through the water. One has the impression that everything in the painting is alive. Flowers could grow from any area; anything portrayed here might transmute into any other element.

Burden on himself: “My work is about relationships: With beleaguered self or a god or two. Between persons. With the larger social, and natural environment. I peel away never ending layers that describe us. Like the archeologist, I use hard won skills. What I uncover has been there forever.” This last is a recurring theme in art, the idea that what is created is eternal, has always existed but is made manifest by the artist, the act of creation more mid-wifery than childbirth.

For Burden, inspiration is mostly visceral, rather than visual or intellectual. He says an experience hits him in the pit of his stomach, his solar plexus: “Intellect and visual attention are required to determine and render the experience,” but it is the experience itself that he intends to portray. Consider painting (for example) a goldfish: “…it is important to remember that I am not painting a goldfish. Rather, using the painting media and skills, I am attempting to record the experience/relationship of meeting with said goldfish… yes, I have painted a picture of a goldfish.”

Poetry has been said to be a means of expressing in words what cannot be expressed in words. Similarly, the art of P. John Burden might be said to portray visually those things that cannot be seen: the sacred, spiritual, and hidden nature of the physical world.

Water of Life

Joan Creamer

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Joan Creamer is a dedicated watercolourist—no one's been able to convince her that acrylic is superior. And she doesn't take too kindly to people who try. A former watercolour painter who'd made the switch once told her "Watercolour was okay in its time, but it's all over now," as if the medium itself was passe. Creamer disagrees vehemently, and doesn't think that the fact that acrylic is a bit more user-friendly in some ways is enough to warrant changing. People tell her that they can achieve watercolour effects with acrylic, but for this artist, it doesn't make sense to use one medium to imitate another. Why not use watercolour to get the effects that watercolour is known for? Furthermore, she just flat out does not believe that you can get the same effects, the same delicacy and transparency of colour.

Asked what inspires her, Creamer admits to a passion for color. She once lived in Labrador for three years, in an environment that she said was like living in black and white. All that rock—black when it was wet, grey when it was dry—and the endless, endless snow surrounding everything. The artist said she was color deprived, so starved for it that she developed an addiction to the only place she could count on seeing color: the shopping mall. Within the mall, Creamer could feast her eyes on the colours that were so lacking in the natural environment. After she left Labrador, she said it took her three more years before she got over her mall habit.

Creamer paints from photos, inspired by sights on her walks around Charlottetown harbour and elsewhere on the Island. She's more interested in the effect than a strict adherence to veracity, though. For example, a harbour scene features the lighthouse by Victoria park set against a striking sky that was actually viewed in Greece.

A lovely work in progress that Creamer is just finishing for an upcoming show features clusters of dogberries and leaves, set against a pale autumnal sky. She shows me the photos that she's working from. Says that sometimes, she gets a photo home and can't quite tell or remember what it was about the subject that struck her. Looking at the photos, the exact representation of the scene, I don't quite see it either. However, when I look at her painting, there it is: soft blues of sky, greens and yellows of leaves, the vibrant red of the berries—all brought to life through the gentle magic of watercolour.

Of Sanctuary

Sarah Saunders

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

Sarah Saunders’ exhibition in the Confederation Centre Gallery, Of Sanctuary, comprises a group of works the artist says has evolved over the past ten years. Throughout are containers, of various sorts, that have held life in one way or another and other physical objects that bear witness to such passages. Of Sanctuary is a paean to the mediaeval idea of life being contained within the individual, the entire eventuality of a tree, for example, contained within its seed.

Throughout the exhibit, domestic objects are juxtaposed with relics and references from the natural world: feathers and buttons, spoons and bones, egg shells and wire. The interconnected, ongoing business of life here on earth is made manifest, generations of species of plants and animals in context of human generations. Echoes of lives past abound throughout. Hidden enclosures in ceramic books contain various remnants; an empty robin’s egg shell, old tintypes, and a seed pod all evoke the passage of life through these temporal vessels.

Etched onto the surfaces of the books, the insides of shells, and elsewhere in the exhibit are snatches of text. Saunders’ references here are equally powerful. The writings include biological explanations, the poetry of Rilke, and excerpts from the journals kept by the artist’s own female ancestors, going back several generations.

A set of large-scale porcelain spoons are modeled on ones passed down in Saunders’ family. The spoons complicate and gently subvert their domestic nature by virtue of their appearance; their medium makes one think of bones, and their orientation—laying flat, side by side—makes one think of human bodies, laid out.

“Dwelling Place” is a house-shaped enclosure made of porcelain tiles that the viewer enters. Inside, you can read more text, while a soundtrack created by Saunder’s husband, Roy Johnstone, plays. The soundtrack echoes the everyday sounds of a home. Footsteps, whispers, and the giggles of children are set against the background of waves on shore. Here too is the sense of lives contained in and moving through physical objects.

A grouping of sculptures called “Garden” is made up of large ceramic nests that take the form of egg shells. One is lined with feathers, one decorated with buttons, the organic and domestic in symbiotic coexistence. These works stand, human height, on stems of twisted wire, evoking both people and the plants of the garden. The vulnerability of the pieces is both actual and metaphorical: you can walk among the pieces as you might among young trees, but because of their nature, you must do so with awareness and respect, mindful of both the power of the life force, and the temporal nature of all living things.

Over the Wall

John Cox

Creative Spark
by Ivy Wigmore

A Garden Locked Up, oil painting by John Cox

John Cox always drives when he and his wife go for excursions through the countryside. You see, Cox is married to Christine Trainor, painter of haunting, and haunted, landscapes; she simply must be free to take in the view. Trainor explains that, of course, were they able to drive through landscapes of giant flowers, she would gladly reciprocate. Because that’s the world in a John Cox painting: vibrant flowers, as big as trees, and set against a sky so luminous you’ll swear you smell the fragrant air. And, in that world, the air would be sweet, the temperature would be warm and mild, and the caress of a breeze on your skin would be soft and gentle.

Cox’s painting, “A Garden Locked Up,” was inspired by the Song of Solomon. The following is an excerpt:

“My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

The rapturously sensuous Song of Songs, and particularly these verses, has special meaning to Cox. The artist believes that the world described in those verses is a promise for all of us, that this is something that we will all experience. He has utter faith, on some level, that this will happen: we will simply wake up, one day, to a new world in which the pain and struggling of this world have no part and bliss is our new reality. Although this concept sounds much like the Christian idea of heaven, Cox maintains that his faith is not necessarily based in religion, but is more a core belief, something he feels in his bones and knows to be true. Like any of us, living in this world, Cox is no stranger to pain and suffering, both physical and psychic. Nevertheless, he’s always sensed that the temporal world is temporary and its trials as well. “A Garden Locked Up” refers to our place here on the other side of the garden wall, where we muddle along getting through our day-to-day.

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