Playful Banquet: Scott Sawtell

There was a recent call from Canadian Art Magazine regarding painting. Several of my critical brethren (that I’ve not offended so much they no longer speak to me) expressed great concern at the tone and language employed in this ‘call.’ It raged in the social media sphere, and I offered an opinion that although we canonize painting and painters still, even within the art world as much as outside of it (whether in the RBC wallpaper – I mean, painting – competition, or with the Group of Seven), a critical review isn’t a bad thing. However, CA has demonstrated an editorial incompetence and ideological bias (‘accidentally killing off’ a significant artist in an article, or another that had as many corrections added later as the article itself, perhaps to avoid litigious responses to fact free dismissals) that gives me little hope in their attempt to wrestle with larger issues of painting here and beyond.

At the same time this was happening, I was meeting and talking with artists in Welland, and the immediacy of painting and drawing, whether in capturing / creating a moment or space or experience, and that many individuals were more receptive to it (as with the Welland murals) demonstrated that perhaps the issue is not painting, but how we speak about it, approach it, and the assumptions made on all sides of the debate.

In that light, when I was looking at some of Scott Sawtell’s works, I was reminded of the first painting show I reviewed here in Niagara, by Shawn Serfas: and how what was engaging about that work was that the somewhat adversarial stances regarding painting I was suffused – or tainted, perhaps – with in the Prairies (#karaokeMmodernism or #bigskylandscapewithgrainelevators) were not relevant to my experience of these works. A wider historical stream was manifest in those works, and now I see that in Sawtell’s, too. But before I speak of several of his works, a bit of background is required to fill out the picture.

Keep the top dry (Pressed in), Scott Sawtell, 2018.

His words: “Scott Sawtell has never claimed to be a magical person, yet he has devoted his life to utilizing his limited flesh, blood, brain and soul to create paintings that ignite something within and speak about his shared humanity spinning in space with everyone else. Sometimes some very smart people take these painting and put them in front of some other very smart people.”

Afraid of your own ghost (Glow stick apparitions), Scott Sawtell, 2018.

From April 20th to June 23rd, Sawtell will be exhibiting Playful Banquet: An Anthropomorphic, Apocalyptic Feast at the Orillia Museum of Art and History. Playful Banquet will “feature a…variety of large scale works that illuminate and illustrate the mind,spirit and the mythology of artist-genius.

Open them up and out come the people (Confetti confession), Scott Sawtell, 2018.

Luscious, deep colours meld with playful shapes creating imagined recesses alongside layers and levels of imagined structures. Sawtell’s intuitive painting is inspired by his children’s imaginative stories, creatures, dreams and fears.”

Never lick someone else’s lollypop (childlike insomniacs), Scott Sawtell, 2018.

His work has allusions to both the Painters Eleven but also an expressive and textured nature that is his own. The titles are often ‘playful’, inviting the viewer to inject themselves and their ideas into the works. Pieces such as Blink (the stretch of toffee) or Keep the top dry (pressed in) allude to some of the ideas that might have been in Sawtell’s mind during the process, but the abstract marks and lines, as well as the vibrant and evoctive colours, will pull you in nonetheless. Rich, deep blues, lines and shapes that twist and layer into spaces both ‘real’ and ‘surreal’, scratchy, scabby texures in reds and yellows all catch and hold your eye. Drunken chameleon (pretend to be alpha) or Afraid of your own Ghosts (Glow stick apparitions) also mix in recognizable forms and shapes, challenging the viewer in an entertaining manner. My favourite work (among those you’ll find in his most recent ‘large works’ of 2017 – 2018 at his site, scottsawtell.com) in terms of title is Over zealous Action movie (The greatest bad acting). The humanish hand on the right, stretched out among the various and sundry objects and forms, has a freneticism and movement that is only more ‘visible’ when you read the title. Is it inappropriate that I’m thinking of hammy action flicks, perhaps starring Tom Cruise? Damned Jocks ruined the mosh pit (Drunk and Dumb) has what might be a mouth, fleshy bulbous lips and white block teeth, perhaps gritted in distaste as the name of the painting suggests…

Blink (the stretch of toffee), Scott Sawtell, 2018.

Sawtell obtained his M.F.A from the University of Waterloo (2002) and is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design (2000). Besides his extensive exhibition record across Canada and the U.S., he also teaches at Georgian College’s School of Design and Visual Arts and Brock University. His exhibition at OMAH is on display until June 23rd, 2019.

All images are courtesy the artist, and the header image is a detail of Sawtell’s vertical work Got to admit (Got to, got to), 2018. You can enjoy more of his images (especially several I’ve alluded to, in this article) at his web site here.

Your City. Your Arts Awards.


Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is torn over this year’s incarnation of the St. Catharines Art Awards. This isn’t because I was not nominated (there isn’t a Troublemaker Award – yet – and our long suffering Editor / Publisher of The Sound is, in fact, nominated, for our sins). No, this is because in the Established Artist Award, there are among the nominees three very fine, equally deserving artists (Clelia Scala, Geoff Farnsworth and Colin Anthes) and all three merit the Award. This speaks not just to my subjectivity, ahem, but also to the depth of the cultural community here in St. Catharines. Such richness manifests in several other categories, such as in the Making A Difference Category, where curator Emma German AND Willow Arts Community are among the octet of nominees.

Geoff Farnswoth, 2019, from his exhibition at NAC.

Hopefully, you’re familiar with how the “St. Catharines Arts Awards recognize and celebrate excellence in all areas of artistic creation. The Arts Awards seek to increase the visibility of St. Catharines’ artists and cultural industries, honour cultural leaders and their achievements, and cultivate financial and volunteer support for the arts sector.” The municipality “will recognize recipients of the City of St. Catharines Arts Awards on Friday, May 3, 2019 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.” Tickets for the evening, which often includes performances in various formats, have been on sale since March 1, 2019.

Perhaps you saw Geoff Farnsworth’s most recent exhibition of his paintings in Niagara, at the NAC: perhaps one of the most popular painters in the region, his work is often portraiture-based, and allows for us to see ourselves, sometimes literally, in his work, but also the denizens and locales of our community reflected therein, too. Anthes is both an artist and an educator; Scala is a long time volunteer with NAC as well as someone who’s puppetry / mask works expand and engage viewers – and those whom employ them in performances – in new and exciting ways.

Geoff Farnswoth, 2019, from his exhibition at NAC.

There are other names that hopefully are familiar to you (Wayne Corlis or Mark Elliott or Danielle Wilson) but if not, there are succinct biographies and introductions found here. After all, the Arts Awards are not just an opportunity to celebrate those whose work we appreciate and value, but to discover others in disciplines that perhaps we’re not as familiar with, and to find new and exciting artists of various stripes.

I’m just offering a taste here: visit St. Catharines Culture on FB (@StCathCulture) for more images, links and updates about the respective nominees for 2019. Appreciate seeing cultural creators and supporters you’ve enjoyed garnering wider appreciation, and make a list of new ones to explore and enjoy.

The evening of the Arts Awards will feature a variety of performers, as has been a staple of past years. Patricia Vanstone, artistic director of the Norm Foster Theatre Festival (and the recipient of the Established Artist Award in 2018) will be the host for the 2019 gala, and throughout the Arts Awards ceremony Jessica Wilson (the 2018 Emerging Artist Award recipient) will be performing intermittently.

But featured performers / performances will include the PK Hummingbird Steel Orchestra – Patrick Nunes and Kay Charles (Arts in Education Nominee), The Chorus Niagara Children’s Choir (the director of the choir, Amanda Nelli, is nominated in the Arts in Education category), Ola Kiermacz (also an Emerging Artist Nominee), Juliet Dunn (Making A Difference Nominee) and, rounding out the group, Willow Arts Comunity. They’ll be presenting excerpts from Songs from the Willow with Queenz, Tobrox “Bea” Soltes and Ayaz Anis, accompanied by Mark Roe and Paul Koshty.

Willow Arts Community working on the mural at the new Canadian Mental Health Association of Niagara location.
Willow Arts Community working on the mural at the new Canadian Mental Health Association of Niagara location.

I’ve offered only a glimpse, a teaser, if you will, of the people and groups that are being recognized by their nominations in the 2019 St. Catharines Arts Awards. More information can be found at the St. Catharines Culture FB page; and I would remind that their works and actions are meritous of celebration and recognition all year round.

Kylie Haveron (whom graduated from Brock in 2018) is one of the nominees in the Emerging Artist category for the 2019 City of St. Catharines Arts Awards.

The St. Catharines Arts Awards will take place on Friday, May 3rd, at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines. Tickets can be purchased here.



Evolving Environments: Janny Fraser

Let’s begin with praise for the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. The two Biannual exhibitions I’ve experienced since my relocation to Niagara, and several individual shows I’ve seen there in that same span, have acted as introductions to various excellent artists. Many regional galleries in Canada punch above their weight, so to speak, and GPAG is among them. One of those artists is Janny Fraser, who’s sculptural works in the less recent of those shows was a highlight of somewhat disjointed exhibition (or diverse, to put it differently, in terms of media and concept, but group shows based on regional frameworks are often that way). Her Dwellings Lights Sculpture was one of only two ‘floor works’ in that show, but it played symbolically with ‘house’ in terms of some of the forms in the self lit sculpture.

Dwellings, as installed at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery.

This aspect of place and domicile is an interesting one to consider, as I recently spoke with Fraser in Welland (where she lives, though she has a significant history with Niagara Artist Centre in St. Catharines). Our conversation was as much about the history of the ‘Rose City’ as expressed in heritage sites (I’m a walker who likes to roam the cities I visit in this manner), and also about the future of Welland in terms of who lives there, who can live there, and who might live there in the future. This concern of Toronto ‘flight’ and the demographics in the ‘rust belt wonderland’ (to quote Welland artist / cultural instigator / activist James Takeo) informs my response to her work, but is something, in terms of her materials and her own history, that is implicit, if subtle.

“Communities “, photo installation at Welland City Hall (depitcted houses from Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold, St Catharines)

A quick teaser: over my last month in Welland I’ve engaged with a number of artists and instigators in said community, posing a simple question: What is the state of the arts, especially as pertains to visual arts, in Welland? The seed for this was planted at a larger conversation that took place at AIH Studios on East Main there, as part of the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversation series. That evening, a lively debate took place over whether this is a site with untapped potential or if it is as much of a spent wasteland as the Atlas Steels site. I’ve written a few things, available online, that touch upon works installed in Welland that give some base to that conversation (Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Monument, or Rod Dowling’s tubular metalwork that seem like the industrial arteries of the city bursting out of the ground, like a past trying to assert that its not ‘gone’…). I’ll be offering further takes on this, citing ideas put forth in dialogue with cultural producers and proponents here; the taste I offer now is that sometimes there is a ‘profound negativity’ (unsurprising for a community that took a hit like the 2009 John Deere closure) but also a renewed will (as Takeo puts it, and I’ll expand on in the future, the city is eager to support the arts, but with stutters in the past like the Murals and Canoe project, are not sure how to go about doing that….).

Late Day Sun I, from the Urbanization Series.

Returning to Janny’s sometime ‘industrial’, sometime delicate in their fabricated assemblages: her artworks “deal with time as the vehicle of change and transformation visible in landscape and urban overviews. I use photography and photo-collage as part of these mixed media and porcelain mosaic constructions, contrasting human and natural habitats. Convex and concave mirrors, lenses and magnifying glasses draw the viewer into the pieces.” A wide selection of her works can be seen at her site (jannyfraser.com) or at the Jordan Art Gallery web site, as Fraser is a founding member of that space. Perhaps the way I’ve framed this overview of her work is because that first piece of hers I saw had little ‘houses’ (displayed like a neighbourhood in the GPAG work from three years ago, or on box-like plinths, or skeletal structures that raise them up in other arrangements) and often the source objects of her constructions suggest a ‘domestic’ referent. In that piece – Dwelling – there are also branches ‘below’ the ‘housing’, and this use of wood and branches and such materials, sometimes more worked or woven in one instance (as in Gathered Environments, a very monochromatic exhibition – but Fraser’s palette is often restrained, but this allows for the details to come forth, as in pieces like Late Day Sun or Remains of the Day). In the few examples mentioned there, you can clearly see how certain motifs repeat in her practice, just as some formal elements of construction recur and straddle respective bodies of work. Fraser often employs “multiples and repetition of smaller works to create the elements of a larger installation.”

Landscape Transformations, GPAG.
Time Images, at the Carnegie Gallery, Dundas, ON.

Landscape Transformations, Gathered Environments or Sense of Place are all titles but also serve accurately and evocatively as descriptive responses. Organic elements are often incorporated into her works, and elements of the everyday (chairs, boxes, books) take on a new life and different meaning through how Fraser augments and enhances their appearance and thus changes their being and how they’re ‘read’ as works of art. The ‘tables’ in Fragments, when it was at the old NAC space, or Parallel Metaphors in Cambridge, or the ‘cases’ that seem like tiny toy houses but when opened up reveal innards that are both intricate and reminiscent of clockwork are all objects that transcend their ‘original’ source or state.

River, from the Time Image Series.

In Time Images, when it was at the Dundas Art Gallery, the works on the wall and the manner in which the ‘chairs’ have been worked by Fraser make them a singular artwork more so than individual pieces. In several of her descriptive notes about her works, you can see how though focused upon a certain piece, that it can also be applied to others: The porcelain mosaics are imprinted with numbers, found objects, letters, and timepieces to suggest the fossil remains of traces left behind in the process of change, fracture, and transformation.

As she uses somewhat banal objects (wood, chairs), Fraser also has an “ongoing series of altered books [which] provide a narrative, questioning the sustainability of high density urbanization, congested highways, as well as the loss of a sense of place as a result of globalization.” Its interesting to consider that in the century since Duchamp’s ‘appropriated’ the mundane and by positioning it in a gallery to isolate and highlight what we might look at everyday but not ‘see’, that numerous artists have expanded that sentiment; oftentimes taking the best of that immediacy and still insinuating the artist’s ‘hand’ to guide how we might interpolate this simple thing that is, perhaps, not so simple, and that is not so much inanimate as a repository for ideas and ideologies. After all, Fraser’s ‘house’ work Dwelling, that I saw at GPAG, also came to mind when I reviewed The Tent Project there, several years later, when that show fell significantly short artistically and conceptually. In that respect, Fraser’s works are both amalgamations of objects but also ideas, and offer different points of access to the viewer based on what they bring to them.

Gathered Environments, Niagara Artist Centre.

Janny Fraser’s work can be seen at the Jordan Art Gallery, or at her own site (jannyfraser.com). All images are courtesy of the artist, or from her own site or that of the Jordan Art Gallery. The header image is Horizon Lines, from the Urbanization Series.

All the world’s a stage: de Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles

Gabrielle de Montmollin’s work exists on multiple levels of interpretation and appreciation. When I encountered the art she had in the latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery’s Biannual Exhibition, I laughed out loud. Another piece, in this series (Lizard Legs Mash-up) that I saw in the gallery / studio / living space in Welland (AIH Studios) she keeps with artist Tony Calzetta, was all sexydirtysilly, on first impression. But – as with Gold Bowl, Black Boots and Miss Pink and the Giraffes (from the GPAG show) – when I carried the images away in my mind and considered them later, they all became more disturbing, eerie and unsettling. All the works in the series Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles are colourful and attractive, and although Montmollin is a prolific artist whose extensive history of images (exploring both aesthetic and politic concerns) can be seen at her site, this is the [doll’s] body of work that has garnered my attention, here.

Her words: “Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles is a series of contemporary surrealist still lifes…[perhaps] more surrealist than they are still lifes. The photographs…are narratives of objects in ambiguous relationships, weird juxtapositions and disconcerting non sequiturs. The ‘wallpaper’ is the element that runs throughout. [It indicates] that everything happens on a set, it is theatre….There is no obvious or hidden relationship between the players on the set and the wallpaper. Max Ernst defined the structure of the surrealist painting as “A linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.” I am not a painter but this is a good description of my photographs.”

This irreverence, this dramatic (perhaps of the theatre of the absurd) staging of scenes by Montmollin is an excellent repository for the viewer to construct stories, or invest their own experience. Tomato Wedding, for example, was the inspiration for an entertaining conversation between the artist, myself, and several others when the three person exhibition Now Here was on display in Welland. The wedding couple dolls face a surfeit of tomatoes (as someone who grew up half Italian, and have found that heritage – in a real sense, in an artificial sense – can be like being cornered by a bunch of tomatoes, like muggers in an alley, like a swarm of hegemony, this piece is (again) superficially funny but scratch that glossy veneer and its more disconcerting). Or maybe I was reminded of all the cherry tomatoes I’ve been picking these past few years, more for my parents than I.

Clementine Coven, with its tiny delicate high heels, or Ménage à trois, which is not what you’re thinking, at all (even through there’s a duck in this tableaux and I was thinking of Leda and Zeus. If that piques your interest, you can visit the AIH Studios in Welland, to see that to which I allude, for yourself).

At their feet has an amusing ‘pop your heads off your dolls’ referent, but knowing Montmollin’s work and having spoken to her on numerous occasions, about her art, my writing, and the larger art / social worlds we exist within (or against), I get a bit of Judith and Holofernes here, or maybe a bit of Salome and the Head of John the Baptist. In considering the repetition of the wallpaper, the scenes being “staged” in the same “space”, there’s not just a theatrical context to consider, but perhaps also how different ‘classics’ can be remounted in different ways (I think of a version of King Lear I saw staged as a British military drama, replete with uniforms, or how I’ve played Puck in a contemporary restaging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania, Hippolyta and Helena were all (simply fabulous, ahem) drag queens). We reinterpret stories to keep them alive, or to make them real, to ourselves and others.

There’s a sensibility here reminiscent of Barbara Gowdy‘s writings, especially the short stories in We So Seldom Look on Love: deathly (murderously, in at least one story) serious but also (in)appropriately ribald. Sadman, Muscleman and Flamenco à trois suggest horror, inanity and rom – com farce (with nudity, so perhaps more R than PG13, and that young fellow in the foreground does look like a very young Peter Sellers), respectively. Blessing of the zebras is frantically joyous, although you may find it takes a bit of effort to find the “blesser”, amidst the harem of zebras (that is the proper name for a group of said animals…which, considering Jesus’ relationship to supposed “fallen” women, illustrates the intersecting ideas at play in Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles. To return to a piece I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Lizard Legs Mash-up has a bawdy, perhaps Rabelaisian, quality. Perhaps its a fittingly twisted take on ‘Reptilian Theory’, popularized by that wingnut David Icke. Research at your own risk, ahem, and no offence to Montmollin by that association). Gabrielle’s words: “..my art is based on imagination; I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.” As well, “[besides] personal imaginings she works to find visual expression for her feelings about social justice issues and politics.”

Her career / practice is extensive and I offer you here only the most recent glimpse of what she’s done: she “began her career in television and film before switching her interest to still photography. For many years she worked exclusively with black and white film photographing throwaway plastic toys and dolls arranged in constructed, fantasy settings. She developed darkroom manipulations using extreme bleaching and painting and drawing on paper negatives. Since realizing that digital photography did not provide her with the same creative possibilities she has been working with mixed media blending painting, drawing and montage elements with digital prints.” She’s exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions in Canada, the United States, Belgium, Italy, France and The Netherlands. The website for AIH Studios (also known as Art is Hell Studios) offers many examples of past works, and I encourage you to visit it, as well as their gallery space, in Welland.