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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome to the Rust Belt Wonderland.
For nearly an entire month this Winter / Spring, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell did an informal residency at AIH Studios, right on East Main in Welland. During that time, I connected with and listened to a number of artists and cultural instigators: individuals with large dreams about what Welland might be in five years time, and others whom offered histories of the Rose City as encapsulated by the Welland Murals Project we walked by, while talking on past / present / future, or by the Canoes (more on both of those endeavours and their remnants, literal and psychological, on the streets of Welland, in a moment). I also responded and considered Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Memorial, where the figures alternately sit or labour in Merritt Park, or the tubular Modernism of Rod Dowling (more and more, over my time there, the latter came to resemble the inner workings of the city, as a house has ‘veins’ and ‘limbs.’ Dowling’s pieces seemed to be the symbolic history ‘bursting up’ while de Groot’s were more static and ‘resting’, both formed how I thought about the Rose City).
The genesis for this consideration began with the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations in St. Catharines (a monthly endeavour where people share images and we chat in a friendly and fun environment about what’s presented, and the ideas intersecting therein). Last October, in conjunction with an exhibition at AIH studios, the ‘5 x 2’ as I call it, relocated there, and we were lucky enough to see works in the flesh and in projection from a number of Welland based artists (de Montmollin, Calzetta, Bedard, Takeo and others). During that evening, a debate – with an edge of the best kind – formed that I – as 5 x 2 host, facilitator, MC, edit as you will, ahem – took no part in, as it was something very specific to that geography and the people involved.
Is Welland an undervalued cultural space of untapped potential, or was it like a corpse giving one last spasm? My time in Welland, where I walked and roamed on foot often, was nostalgic to my misspent youth in St. Catharines. In the 1980s and 1990s, when STC was post manufacturing base and yet to chart a course out, when it was perhaps narcoleptic, perhaps waiting to be put out of its misery….much I’ve seen here in Welland reminds me of St. Paul before I left for Windsor – another rust belt wonderland. This is (quoting James Takeo) a working class city that’s no longer working, and doesn’t know what anything means, anymore…but Takeo also is a loud advocate here, with the Welland Art Space, and he’s (with my joy) ‘owned’ my off the cuff term of “cultural instigator.” Keep an eye out for what he’s doing in Welland, with his interventions and actions.
Takeo also put out another point. Welland wants to support culture, but has no idea how to do it. This is where the legacy of the Canoe Project or the Murals is less positive. That informed my dialogue with Michael Bedard, an artist who’s relocated to Welland from larger places and spaces. He asked why Welland has NEVER had an Art Gallery, when smaller sites have and support them, and this led to conversations about the ‘profound negativity’ that may be at play here. Consider the John Deere closure in 2009 (I spent some time in the local history section of the fine Welland Public Library, partly tracking down family history but also reading Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, written by Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). This was a classic NAFTA result of a productive space shuttered to relocate somewhere cheaper, and the workers and community be damned. When a blow is unexpected, or undeserved, it is always worse, and one might argue that the wound never heals, as betrayal is more permeating (a side note: this occurred in 2009, as I said, and the Harper Cabal, of whom #ScheerHypocrite was a good and willing lackey, was literally SILENT on the closure. But, yeah, sure, Postmedia, he’s “moral”, collecting that salary of 125 K plus since his mid twenties, with golden handshakes coming out of his ass….).
If you visit the murals that are left, you’ll see many in a poor state, and they were installed and ‘secured’ in such a manner to make their removal impossible. I’d add that public artworks MUST be portable, as this demonstrates well. Perhaps this is also formed by how Welland has had to change to serve canals, or how cities are growing, organic and amorphic entities. In conversation, it was suggested – with an edge, again, as many conversations there were enjoyably pugilistic, unsurprising for a city that is too often the butt of jokes by ‘siblings’ that are no worse, nor any better, in many ways – that it might be better to simply cover several of the murals, along Main or on Division. This would prevent further degradation, and that perhaps depriving the wider community of these pieces might spur a respect and consideration (for future projects if not past ones). I’m reminded of these artists, whom brought attention to things too often ignored…
Here, Takeo’s comments take on a different flavour. The sour taste left in many mouths over how the murals and canoes have not been cared for has made some unwilling to support cultural endeavours – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects, but artists whom felt ill used and disrespected.
At the reception for Now Here at AIH, I chatted briefly with Mayor Frank Campion outside the AIH space on Main. From where we stood we could see one of the canoes of the Welland Canoe project, by Marion Forget, that needs care and maintenance. Another aspect that was brought to my attention was that its installation was ill considered (the work, Star Constellations, used fluorescent paint with the intent it would be vibrant in the evenings, but the stark florescent from the bus terminal make that impossible). This is reminiscent of the avoidable issue around Found Compressions that could have been ameliorated if more community consultation was employed regarding placement.
In conversation with a number of civic activists , community and cultural stakeholders and politicians, when I still produced and hosted Niagara Voices and Views on CFBU (cfbu.ca), the idea of ‘culture’ as an ‘economic driver’ came up repeatedly. But would that be economically beneficial to all, or were cultural workers to be the new – ongoing, same old same old – exploited labour to drive the cancerous behemoth of capitalism?
I must add a moment of snark. I recently unsuscribed from an online magazine I’ve enjoyed for its contrarian and considered views when it published a piece of partisan trash by an astrologer – oh, I’m sorry, I mean economist, no offense to astrologers – who derided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being economically ignorant. Yet the writer had a large erection for Ronald Reagan during the entire diatribe. In his opinion or ignorance, ahem, trickle down economics works, of course, and ‘merica didn’t go from the greatest creditor in the world to the greatest debtor on Reagan’s watch, ahem, ahem. For the record, I’m not sure about Ocasio-Cortez, but she is not relevant to the lies and ignorance and incompetence and greed being ‘replayed’ for the last thirty odd years which has directely led to the closure of a financially viable and productive John Deere plant to benefit ‘shareholders’…..
Short term versus long term is a dialogue that must be held, and must have speakers whom know of what they speak, both experientially and regionally. Otherwise, a community already in crisis (‘not working’) sees murals and images about itself, designed to edity, erode and degrade and cannot help but see itself reflected in that same horrid manner.
During that conversation at the 5 x 2, a comment was made that AIH didn’t “feel like Welland.” What that meant depends on where you stand, or where you live; whether that’s in one of the less ‘rusted’ areas of Welland, or one of the cities in Niagara that seem to make Welland a regular butt of jokes. An amusing aside: a good friend, a very talented musician, whom (like myself) is based in St. Catharines but often visits other cities in the Niagara region, shares my affection for Welland, and we both consider Niagara Falls to be a cadaver with a thin sheen of make up, like how fake beauty spots originally came about as imitations of syphillitic marks among the upper class….
So, to answer a dangerous question,
what IS the state of the arts in Welland, as gleaned from my brief
stay (hmm, mistyped ‘stray’ initially, presume what you will) in the
community of Rose City?
Its hopeful, but wary, and perhaps hopeful but despairing. That old phrase of ‘hoping for the best but expecting the worst’ echoes, but I might say that the worst has already been. This might be in the long disused docks along the Canal, if you walk past King Street, or the aforementioned numerous closures of manufacturing plants. One of the aspects of my residency there was, of course, my walking: so passing the late Ross Beard’s contribution to the Welland Murals, on Niagara Street, was a regular path. The work took on a darker tone at times (especially at night, and not for the obvious reason. East Main Street was often as quiet as the grave after 10 PM, which made my walks ideal for allowing ideas to fester and foment in my head. But – like many things in Welland – when you consider more deeply (like seeing Dowling’s public works along Colony as unintended grave markers for the industries long closed and long gone from the Canal….) it takes on a role as a harbinger, a signpost, a warning.
Beard passed away not long before I visited Welland, but his presence, influence and contributions are still felt by many. Will his mural survive better than the others (a rhetorical question, as all were installed and treated the same way)? As I write this, Brock University is making another attempt to convert Rodman Hall Art Centre into quick cash (I’d compare them to a payday loan lender, but there are clear government regulations and oversight in those spaces, and they are known for rapacious business practices on the vulnerable. Brock will tell you that they’re doing this ‘for the students’ as they raise tuition and eliminate options or offer degraded courses that will limp along, perhaps, without Rodman…). That same greed of the few is what ended John Deere, and although Welland might benefit from Toronto ‘flight’ and some form of gentrification (there are spaces in St. Catharines that have negotiated that high wire well, and other spaces that have not), it might not.
When I’d wake up in the morning, weather permitting, I’d sit on the steps of AIH on East Main and have my coffee, or tea, and my cigarette, while looking across at the bus station. This was more interesting than you’d imagine. Not only could I see Bas de Groot’s Beavers, just barely, from where I was, but also Forget’s canoe. I could peer left to Bridge 13, or right towards Atlas, far past the massage parlours and pawn shops.
In these quiet – usually, as I often engaged with people passing by – moments, you could see both spaces that were surviving, even prospering, and others that were not. I’ve said how Welland reminded me of St. Catharines when I was in high school, and I can distinctly remember coming down St. Paul, and it was as quiet, as boarded up and destitute, as King Street was when I walked it my last week there, late at night. Boards and closures and bars on windows in both places.
Further, though, the bus station made me think of Saskatoon, which had a ‘boom’ and then it went ‘bust.’ ‘Developers’ snatched up chunks of real estate in the downtown, from 1st to 3rd Avenue, demolished older buildings, some with character and history, but now are just empty lots, sometimes parking, sometimes juts abandoned, with no money to do anything to them.
It was pointed out to me that the City of Welland owns many of the empty lots around the city. In Saskatoon, the city began to pressure – and then tax, to be more effective – the owners of said lots, to force action or at least a sale to someone who might allay this urban blight. The bus station made me think of how many I knew whom abandoned, dusting their feet, Saskatoon around the same time I did. I was also thinking of how Niagara is still poor in terms of transit; so if Welland has no art gallery, if things are not happening culturally there, it is impossible to visit St. Catharines or Niagara Falls past 6 or 7 or 8 PM – or at all, on some days. Then the sense of isolation gives way to a sense of despair, that not only does ‘nothing happen here’ but you’re unable to go elsewhere where ‘things’ do ‘happen.’
I’ll be returning to Welland for several events and exhibitions: one is the previously mentioned exhibition of Atlas Steels at the Welland Museum, as it is being programmed extensively (according to the call) through individuals’ memories, photographs and other personal and public reminisences. This is looking backwards. Looking forwards, the Visual Artists of Welland are a recently formed group (I met several of their members when I visited the Welland ArtSpace) that has already begun to push expectations and foster change in the Rose City. In partnership with civic leadership (whom do want to support culture, and perhaps in not knowing ‘how’ to do that, present an opportunity for those whom do, and have – a dangerous word, I know – vision), they’ll be presenting three exhibitions over the rest of 2019 (one in April, coming up quickly, and two in June).
There’s an idea that things ending can offer opportunity to grow new endeavours in the rich soil of what’s passed: that’s hopeful, but there is still that perfidious, persisting, negativity, that Bedard talked about, and that Takeo warns about as not just a prophylactic to creativity but as something that can cut projects off at the knees or disable them so that they don’t fulfill their promise, and taint expectations and curdle hopes.
Frankly, I see Welland as having great potential (but perhaps I’m seeing it through the lens of Guerilla Park, and I mention that not just because when I visit Welland again, it’ll be on my list, but also because that site happened because of community initiative and energy, and the city fell into line and supports what they, ahem, should have been doing all along). When I think of places to visit when I venture beyond St. Catharines, Welland is a place that was both welcoming and eager to do things differently, to look forward as much as be aware of the past. I only visit Niagara Falls for the historic sites, being a nerd of that stripe, and when I’ve walked and driven there, the wasteland seems to outweigh the wonderland…..but that’s unfair. That is a space that’s been ill used and exploited, to the god of tourism, and I saw what THAT did to the downtown of Windsor, with the casino there…
Visit Welland. Don’t assume, but explore. When I grew up here, I can’t remember ever visiting the city (despite my maternal family history being there, and a house my great grandfather built still standing, and graves in Holy Cross across from Seaway Mall marking further family roots). I regret this: and there are spaces like these ones, that offer a hopeful view of the city. Perhaps a more selfish, and more specfic idea, is that a friend who’s a fine artist visited Atlas Steels with me, and both of us with our cameras and research have used that derelict space to do more, to create more, and to make more, and in doing so are making Welland a vibrant place to many who dismiss, or deny, what it could be now, or could be with a bit of work (like the Guerilla Park clean up).
The title of this piece is taken from a song by Doves, which I listend to as I walked the streets and bridges of Welland: purely coincidentally, it is playing when the intrepid band of survivors reach their destination of the devastated city of Los Angeles in the movie Zombieland. I relied heavily on Venture Niagara’s Art in the Open web site, which has extensive information for visiting public art, and work in the public sphere, in Welland, and I suggest it to anyone in Niagara, whether in Welland or elsewhere in the region.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’ll be returning to Welland, both for more cultural specific events but also for more urban exploring; and this is, like many of my pieces about Welland, a mixture of fact and opinion, and thus feedback is welcome. Many thanks to AIH Studios for hosting me during this month long residency, and to the many artists and spaces that made me welcome and continued a conversation about arts and culture in Welland, Niagara and beyond. You can read my past missives from the rust belt wonderland that are more tangential here and here: and I talk about two artists whose work I encountered / talked with while in Welland here and here. It would be remiss to not include this piece, my long overdue response to Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, as my residency in Welland helped me to come to some definitive conclusions around Harris’ work and the film in question.
Oh, sure, you can’t attend many events these days without the lip service “acknowledgements” but just as the “killers in high places say their prayers out loud”, this is just accommodating, even a bit shady (flavoured by hypocrisy) rhetoric.
Allow me to fully expose my Saskatchewan (like a skin rash, ahem) for a moment to illustrate this.
The current President of #usask is probably unable to visit the lavatory without making sure someone sees him doing a land acknowledgement. More relevantly, he also was Dean of Arts & Humanities when a significant – and well founded I found, when I spoke to those involved – complaint regarding the disrespect / dismissal / degradation of the sole tenured Indigenous faculty in the ‘art’ department. Even ‘better’, when some documents came to light re: departmental ‘self evaluation’ (delusion, ahem, some may say), it was disgusting if unsurprising to see one of Canada’s most groundbreaking Indigenous artists listed as ‘faculty’ when she’d not taught there in almost a decade, was a loud voice in the aforementioned smothered complaint, and had spoken often of her shabby treatment at the hands of those whom helped spawn this ‘report.’
This is a uniquely Canadian approach: polite, effete, yet just as firm. We don’t have a Sand Creek or Wounded Knee here, but perhaps someone might ask why the Catholic Cult in Canada gets a free pass on their genocidal alacrity in the Residential Schools?
Again, it is very Canadian to oppress through the rule of law rather than slaughter: Crazy Horse was murdered, but when Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada, he and his people were starved into fleeing, as the bureaucracy (not being “Canadian Indians” they couldn’t be ‘supported’) offered genocide through ‘red tape’, if you will.
I must channel a friend and activist – and instigator that I so miss having on my old radio show – Marcel Petit, who would ask why any of these people – on all sides, as he was generous in his very experiential and factual condemnation of hypocrisy – would change a situation that benefits them. So, the distaste around Trudeau is not shock to many of us, and like many situations, the revolution will seem impossible until after it happens, and you can then see that it was inevitable. Only the form of it would be still defined, and that may also only be clear in hindsight, too.
But what has spurred this latest tangent? Well, I’ve been doing a writer’s residency in Welland, exploring history, place, space and how all these might manifest or be deformed through art, both in terms of the art in the public sphere here but with what contemporary creators are doing here / there now. In visiting the Welland Public Library, I came across the work of Brian Kon, who’s art I’ve encountered before (when Brock University along with a few other groups was marking Celebration of Nations last year) but like many things, it seemed to expand a thought I was having about larger issues outside the gallery space.
Kon‘s works can be found in the lower area of Welland’s City Hall space, as the building’s architecture acknowledges the slope on which it sits: one wall is designated as a ‘gallery’ space, and works are hung salon style here. In many ways this doesn’t serve the work: some are too high, and if there are similarities in work – as there is with Kon’s aesthetic, as he’s a Métis artist so pattern and repetition are cultural touchstones in the works here, as you may be familiar with from Christi Belcourt’s pieces – they can become wallpaper, which isn’t fair to the art or artists.
Kon presents ten works, all acrylic on canvas and most fairly uniform in size, if not alignment. The majority are on black backgrounds (Prairie Sky or Autumn’s Light) , but a striking work is on a reddish brown field (Echoes of Silence), and another is easily the focal point of all the pieces with its solid blue background (the above pictured Red River Summer).
The accompanying statement: As a
artist in the Niagara region, Brian hopes to raise awareness of
Indigenous issues within Canada…[he] creates modern versions of
bead patterns traditionally used by Métis
to adorn their personal possessions and clothing. Using the quill end
of a feather, Brian applies each “bead” to [canvas] as a single
dot of paint. One of his works will, as of March 2019, be on
display at Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature in Toronto. His
words: I use my art to help to tell the story of the Indigenous
people of Turtle Island. Much of my work is made by studying historic
artifacts that tell the story of this unique part of Canada’s history
and pays homage to my indigenous heritage…
may have seen Kon’s work in an exhibition at Niagara Artist Centre,
as part of We Aspire with
Sterling Kon, Amanda
Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone, in the Dennis Tourbin gallery last
September (in conjunction with another show at NAC of Métis
artists on a more national level, to dialogue with the regional works
Perhaps you also experienced Christi Belcourt‘s works that explore similar formal and conceptual concerns at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Material Girls. But similarly to how this exhibition of Kon’s work offers a taste and could spur further research on the rich history of the Métis in Canada, what I spent more time with at this show was a small photographic image that Kon included as the inspiration for his work (further down the wall) titled Forgotten.
This reproduction of the Indigenous children bracketed by dour nuns (no one, in this image, looks anything other than pained at worst, or indifferent at best), Kon explains, is the inspiration for the painting. He specifically mentions in his statement the empty eyes of the Indigenous children, some of the 150, 000 inmates (let’s not pretend they were students, or there by their or their parents’ choice) of the Residential School system, which closed much later than we like to think – 1998 – and was more horrific than most can – or are willing – to imagine.
Kon draws literal but also symbolic lines between this image and the specific work Forgotten, but its understandable if you see other pieces on display – Family Roots or Echoes of Silence – as being informed by this historical image and the larger archive – and the many victims and perpetrators – invoked by its grainy, monochromatic power.
An ongoing contested narrative in responding to art, or making art, is that there are works that may not be aesthetically gripping but are historically or socially incisive, resonating in terms of larger issues (there are also many works that are awe inspiring in terms of beauty, but are as empty as a cardboard box…). A work NOT on display at the Welland Public Library but one that you can see at Kon’s website is After Batoche: the place referenced by the title is a space I’ve visited. Let us end this article by returning to Saskatchewan, where Batoche is and where the Battle of Batoche took place in 1885, and where I chose to ‘stand’ to initially approach Kon‘s work.
The Northwest Rebellion and Louis Riel are good weathervanes for how Canadians approach the history Kon ‘illustrastes’, and also for where people ‘stand’ in the larger issue of reconciliation and where Canada is now, and where it might be in the future. (Amusingly there is a statue in downtown St. Catharines that commemorates a soldier fallen during said rebellion, and the implicit ideology of many war memorials has swirled around this piece. Perhaps you remember a few years ago, when the Harper government™ was throwing money and such behind spotting the country with memorials to the War of 1812 – and that a number of artists turned his ideological smugness on its head?)
When I visited Batoche – to the best of my recollection this would have been in the early 2000s – the graveyard and the historic sites seemed haunted, and despite the warm summer day it was a chililng place, in some ways. What happened there is often not taught in schools, even today, and if you know what happened to Louis Riel or Gabriel Dumont, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that between the Red River and Batoche to Oka that not much has truly changed… In Kon’s work, there’s vivid colour and there’s often darkness of the backgrounds or the fields upon which he paints his pinpoints, his ‘acrylic beads’ of history and memory and hope. In engaging with this work, sometimes I see more of a void than light, more of what has happened than what could be, in the next century.
Images are either from the artist’s site or shot by the writer, with the exception of the image of Batoche, from an online commons source. Kon’s exhibition is on display at the Welland Public Library in downtown Welland.