Part 7. Experienced, and Expunged, Voices

It’s appropriate if this chapter on Rodman Hall and Brock University echoes the previous, by citing the voices of those present at the meeting at the Oddfellows Temple in downtown St. Catharines, facilitated by the Rodman Hall Community Group. Jean Bridge, Elizabeth Chitty, Elizabeth Hayden, Sharilyn J. Ingram and Sandy Middleton are an impressive “ad hoc” volunteer group. It would be a disservice to list their accomplishments here, but you can see it online at rodmanhallalliance.ca/about.

One woman, during the question period at the end of Janis Barlow’s presentation (augmented by Professor Sharilyn Ingram’s encyclopedic clarity on certain terms and history) encapsulated the evening best. After the dour (and periodically dishonest) negativity of the presentations of Martin Van Zon and Interkom that suggested that anything other than the “new” “Art Gallery of Niagara” would result in a horror almost Lovecraftian in its breadth — and vagueness, ahem — it is “good to see that there are many options for Rodman that are positive and viable, and that there’s major interest — and potential financial support — from a variety of community players and groups in Niagara”, and beyond.

The presentation by Barlow was succinct, and a variation of one given by this same group to the Capital Infrastructure Committee (CIC) at Brock. It was a little more than an hour, and yet contained more genuine information, as pertains to Rodman’s history, attendance, dependant classes from various educational institutions, provincial and national accolades and recognition – and financial options (perhaps most important in the current climate) than all four of the Van Zon evenings.

The evening promised — and delivered — the following:
“This event is an opportunity to learn about what has come to be known as The Barlow Report. At recent community consultations conducted on behalf of Brock University, it appears that this report — titled Rodman Hall: Planning the Future, a preliminary planning process — has been disregarded, despite it having been approved by Brock Board of Trustees in September 2015. The Barlow Report offers a clear alternative to the controversial notion put forth by Brock’s consultant that a new art gallery to replace Rodman Hall should now be considered.

The report proposed to cultivate partners for Rodman’s four core businesses (public art museum; learning centre; historic site; public gardens) to sustain future operations, develop an endowment, and safeguard Rodman’s assets and enable fundraising through establishment of a community property trust. This event is an opportunity to listen to consultant Janis Barlow review the report, ask questions and engage in a community discussion about its recommendations.”

Meanwhile, the ground has shifted.

Not long after Rodman Hall Community Group (RHA)’s forum last December, Brock University informed Martin Van Zon and Interkom they would no longer be requiring his / their services as a consultant. Perhaps “Brock” was displeased with the poverty of Interkom’s “research”; the abrasive, aggressive ignorance perpetuated in their “name”, so to speak; the revelations that there might be a conflict of interest and intent as regards the Art Gallery of Burlington; or that “nothing has been decided” has become a sarcastic rejoinder for many. All are believable cause for ending this embarrassing exercise in disrespect and delinquency. Perhaps it would be too ungracious to suggest a recouping of the consultation fee, as it’s arguable that work commissioned was not accomplished (and it could be put towards the cuts already made by Brock in Rodman’s budget…).

Further concerns that came to light from the RHA speaking to Brock’s CIC was that the CIC was unaware of the facts, and seemed to bend some (“Stuart [Reid, former Director] said he couldn’t implement the Barlow, and the board agreed”, which ignores that a three year plan cannot be implemented in three months… and there seemed to be a desire by some CIC members to “blame the media” for “rumour mongering” — are my ears burning? — but it was made clear to the CIC that this was another example of the disconnect — nefarious or simply ignorance — between themselves and what Van Zon spoke (for them?). Again, several RHA volunteers — notably Ingram — corrected these self serving misperception when they spoke to the CIC).

Its unclear at this time what this means for the Art Gallery of Niagara (agniagara.ca is still online, but without any listing of those involved, and as previously detailed here in The Sound, Interkom hosts and maintains the site… so it is unclear if the AGN is any more, or anything more, than a confused, problematic endeavour of one or two individuals… It’s worth noting that the RHA has expressed a willingness to work with any and all whom have Rodman’s best interests at heart, including the AGN).

But let’s put the expensive Interkom debacle behind us: if you go the RHA page you can watch several videos of the meeting, and hear what Chitty, Barlow and others whom are part of “the community of citizens, academics, artists and students that support the Rodman Hall Art Centre and its continued existence as a public asset” have to say. The videos are broken into sections, such as “Sharilyn Ingram, member of the Rodman Hall Alliance, provides context for the Barlow Report” or “Janis Barlow outlines and compares financial framework of Rodman Hall with other Ontario regional galleries.”

RHA also didn’t sugarcoat that Brock seems keen to divest itself of Rodman (I must be cynical and suggest that the outrage at what was proposed by Van Zon has served to galvanize a community that was a bit sleepy, and thus Brock’s acolytes of austerity have what they want, anyway). However, unlike the scolding rebukes made by one of the AGN cabal at the Niagara Artists Centre, RHA sees the six years to 2023 as an opportunity — and a challenge — to enact the partnerships and plans the Barlow report suggested (another video at their site is “Janis Barlow reviews opportunities and plans for community partnerships to sustain Rodman Hall”, which includes research and genuine guides for Rodman. This again highlights how Van Zon’s idea that a downtown gallery could be built for an almost criminally small amount, while ignoring issues of operating budgets for a new, were akin to — quoting a local entrepreneur — “rainbow shitting unicorns”).

RHA offers a challenge, to not solely keep but to improve Rodman Hall; and a plan that values heritage and the community players that are strongly invested in Rodman, and its variable history of grounds, local history, education and contemporary art. Email them to ask what’s next, and what needs to be done to make that happen, and make Rodman thrive.

Part 8: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, can be read here.

Farnsworth: The Figure is More Than it Seems

It’s not disrespectful to Geoff Farnsworth to say that I had ulterior motives when I asked him about being the artist that The Sound featured in the latest in the series highlighting visual artists in Niagara. They all are, after all, positive ones. Geoff’s artworks have engaged me since I arrived in St. Catharines, especially his portraits and his liquified manner of working with paint, and I knew that he’d just moved into the new Niagara Artist Centre Studio space on St. Paul Street, and I wanted to check out that exciting space again.

This is a space that has just been “opened” by Niagara Artists Centre [NAC], and that right now has several significant artists (Bruce Thompson, for example) already working therein. I’m just mentioning it here as there will be further events that happen there, but it’s a site to add to your list of artistic spaces in St. Catharines to watch. Props to NAC in expanding what they do, but also in terms of expanding opportunities for local artists (I hear that there will be a component where artists will sell works, so remember to buy more art…).

On the day we talked, Farnsworth had several pieces in a two-person exhibition with Justin Pawson in the NAC Dennis Tourbin space, had paintings on display at the restaurant Bolete in downtown St. Catharines, and was, as usual, producing new works and sending works to and fro to various galleries that represent him, in Ontario, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. A graduate of the Art Students League of New York, Farnsworth has an extensive exhibition record: currently, he teaches at Niagara College.

His work is often portraiture, or more accurately, portraiture is an essential component to his art. His use of paint defines his practice as much as any imagery. Several of the pieces at NAC (Sartori in Red and Blue, Amygdala Unit or Semi Bionic Nude Resting Her Head on a Dream Bird) display this facility in how he captures faces and expressions in his “models.” The faces of the “twins” in Unit are as similar as they’re unique from the other. Dabs and dollops of colour build up the faces, strokes that seem heavily and simultaneously refined. These painterly mucoid thicknesses surround the twins, in a background as deeply dark as it is frenetic.

When compared to the works in the downstairs dining room of Bolette, Farnworth’s subjects don’t emerge from the minimalist backgrounds so much as congeal like ectoplasm from it. His facility in interpretive portraiture is alluring .

Another figure (at Bolette) gazes downward, a predominantly blue face and dark hair emerging from a lighter, almost viscous pale plane. Others showcase Farnsworth’s use of hue and colours that are primarily amenable to each other, but then spiked by a splash of brighter, almost violent contrast. A woman reclines beneath an arc of ice cream cone orbs, gazing out impassively at us from behind dark framed glasses with canary yellow hair (Ice Cream Koan). She’s diagonal to another woman, soft salmons and off white grey blues, sitting with spoon and bowl in front of a harsh blue streak cutting the background. But she seems oblivious, to us and the expressive scene behind her back: another piece is evocatively titled Skye Eyes Wide Shut, a calm piece that angles from Smashing the Ancient Vase, a more scribbly vibrant work.

Several small works (easily held in your hands) that were in the NAC studio space, though less overtly expressive than the larger paintings, have a wonderful immediacy (his daughter’s disgruntled face in one, all grimace and pouts, or a figure across a table in another, whose mass was clear in the thick rough globs, fast and sure in execution that capture a moment and the model’s attitude perfectly).

Full disclosure, oh readers: Farnsworth has offered to paint my portrait, and I suspect that the opposite of what might happen with Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, where the subject might be wary of how you “come out” will occur. His depictions have an ethereal nature that still seem very grounded in the person he knows, and is trying to capture an experience.

When Geoff and I were arguing about Adorno and Rothko, Art and History, he cited the following lines as they relate to an influence, Max Ernst, whom wore many hats in the spheres of surrealism and dada: “A painter may know what he does not want. But woe betide him if he wants to know what he does not want! A painter is lost if he finds himself. The fact that he has succeeded in not finding himself is regarded… as his only achievement.”