Monday, February 28, 2011

Madcap Love, Rossini Style

Madcap Love, Rossini Style

By Tom Wachunas

When the Canton Symphony Orchestra mounted its production of “Madame Butterfly” in 2009, Umstattd Hall’s 1,400 seats were filled, and the opera was met with thunderous praise. Opera returned here on February 27, to an equally packed house - with Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” – and equally met with ebullient audience approval.

The occasion also saw the return of Thompson Smillie as stage director, and once again he brought his inventive sense of making more with less. The orchestra was center stage, with the singers, in full costume, downstage. This was a distinctly scaled-down production, sans the scenic opulence we might expect in a major operatic work. The “set” was comprised of two bright red A-frame ladders, a door, and a large chair with small end table. Despite the modicum of elaborate stage paraphernalia, this visual minimalism worked very effectively to rivet attention on the human action and, of course, the singing.

And riveting it was, as this performance, by principals and orchestra alike, was nothing short of electrifying. The overture to this work (originally written three years prior to the opera) is an orchestral gem in its own right, filled with instantly recognizable melodic themes, even if none of them appear in the opera itself. But it nonetheless embodies all the infectious playfulness so characteristic of the opera as a whole. Accordingly, the orchestra played the overture with crisp, sparkling energy which it sustained – in flawless aural balance with the principal singers along with richly sonorous accompaniments by the Canton Symphony Men’s Chorus - throughout the entire afternoon.

One of the most captivating qualities of this well-paced production was the remarkable acting abilities of the principal performers. While all of them are certainly sublimely gifted singers, each brought an astonishingly well- honed theatrical sensibility to the proceedings. And, as an ensemble, their chemistry was a seamless display of impeccable comic timing that many times achieved the gleeful abandon of pure slapstick, particularly at the delightfully chaotic close of the first act.

Baritone David Small, as the barber Figaro, with a penchant for minding everybody’s business, turned in a thoroughly memorable portrait of the blustery but benevolent, money-loving rogue, full of self-praise. He agrees to connect the smitten would-be suitor, Count Almaviva, with Rosina, who is sequestered in the house of Dr. Bartolo. Small’s animated singing of the famous Largo al factotum aria, complete with chummy interaction with Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, was a show-stopper in itself. Tenor Timothy Culver, playing Almaviva, was convincingly plaintive and sweet in his pursuit of Rosina, and uproariously funny both in the guise of a drunken soldier, Lindoro, begging entry to Rosina’s house, and later posing as Don Alonso, her substitute music teacher. Mezzo-soprano Fenlon Lamb’s portrayal of Rosina was a masterfully adroit blending of the victimized, resentful woman given to bouts of girlish pouting, and the vivacious, willful woman longing for real love. Meanwhile, bass-baritone Noel Bouley provided a generous portion of dramatic and comedic fireworks in his role of the hopelessly frustrated and suspicion-riddled Dr. Bartolo (who wants Rosina only for her money), as did bass Nathan Stark in his powerfully expressive rendering of the shady Don Basillio, Rosina’s music tutor. In one scene, Basillio sings out a plan to discredit Almaviva by creating a scandal that he graphically compares to an exploding volcano. So volcanic was Stark’s booming crescendo that it knocked the wide-eyed Bouley out of his chair.

For sheer farcical and serpentine plot amid budding romance, this Rossini work ranks among the most thrilling and hilarious machinations in all of opera and, as a clearly satisfied Canton audience can attest, most beloved.

Photo: “Lindoro’s Letter” illustration from The Barber of Seville by Pierre Augustus Caron de Beaumarchais

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Engaging Our Cruel and Fragile Standards of Humanity

Engaging Our Cruel and Fragile Standards of Humanity

By Tom Wachunas

In his eloquent program notes for the Players Guild production of Bernard Pomerance’s play, “The Elephant Man,” director Craig Joseph is greatly aware that the play presents no clear answer to the question, “Can John Merrick be made more human, more like us?” Merrick was a 19th century English man so grotesquely deformed that he became a circus sideshow curiosity. The attempt to make Merrick “more human” became a driving force for a while in the life of Frederick Treves, the surgeon who rescued and befriended him, providing him a permanent home in London Hospital. But as Joseph points out, the play presents deeper, more complicated questions as to just what constitutes being human, normal, or beautiful, and who, exactly, defines as much. And the very efficacy of attempting to make Merrick “more like us” progressively unravels into exposing the motivations and judgments – far more ugly than Merrick’s physical appearance - of a flawed society.

Additionally, Joseph appreciates the power of metaphor – visual and conceptual – to illuminate the heart of this story, and uses it to great effect. The spare set functions as both tented carnival and “civilized” hospital quarters, with interchangeable, double-duty props, like a trunk that becomes a bath tub. Scene changes are orchestrated in much the same manner that the acts at a circus follow each other in quick succession (Joseph’s stated intent), effectively making us wonder who the real clowns, misfits, and “freaks” might be in this scenario.

That effect is further enhanced by the double roles of the cast members, all of whom constitute as gifted and impressively versatile an ensemble as I’ve ever seen gathered on this stage, right down to their varying English accents. Gregory Rininger’s portrait of Ross, the manager of the traveling freak show, is chillingly gritty and cruel, while as Bishop How, he’s a gently dogmatic religion teacher. Travis Brown plays Carr Gomm, hospital administrator, with convincing dignity and authority, contrasted by his brief but startling appearance as a brutal policeman. Jacki Dietz, Margie Stocker, and Maria Work are electrifying as the slow-minded and bizarre carnival “pinheads” (victims of a head deformity known as microcephaly), as well as the privileged women who lavish attention and gifts on Merrick. Maria Work’s portrayal of Mrs. Kendal, who introduces Merrick to the world of high society and feminine anatomy, is riveting in its struggle between her own superficiality, insecurity, and emerging compassion. In one of many heartrending scenes, after being rehearsed by Dr. Treves to shake Merrick’s “beautiful” and “good” hand, she shakes his deformed hand instead, leaving him overcome with tears.

It’s that kind of very special pathos that is threaded throughout Pomerance’s writing, and so successfully translated here by Nate Ross as Frederick Treves, and of course, Ryan Nehlen as John Merrick. The chemistry between the two characters de-volves from real tenderness - tempered by Treves’ expectations for Merrick to conform to rules of etiquette and other “standards” of societal thinking - into a volatile, confrontational crisis of conscience for Treves. Ross’s performance is genuinely captivating as we witness his confidence dwindle into frustration and anguish over Merrick’s deteriorating condition amid questions about God and the true measure of a human being.

Meanwhile, I think Nehlen’s delivery of Merrick ranks among the most passionate and heroic performances to grace a Canton stage in recent memory. True to the playwright’s desire for the character to have no special makeup or gimmicky costume, Nehlen deftly presents Merrick’s terrible affliction in the form of nervous speech stutters from contorted lips, an awkward, elongated gait, twisted neck, and incessantly blinking eyes that can nonetheless freeze and focus with searing sharpness as he speaks his agile mind. None of these perfectly interwoven quirks interferes with the clarity of his words. His tone has a remarkable range that powerfully communicates his disarming honesty, along with his acute sense of mercy, humor, and irony.

One of the play’s most striking metaphors for searching out answers to his condition is that of Merrick one-handedly constructing a model of St. Philip’s Church. He says he regards a church as an imitation of grace, and that his model is in turn an imitation of an imitation. To Treves’ observation that humanity itself is just an illusion of heaven, Merrick quips that perhaps God “should have used both hands.” Still, as he finally places the last piece on his model – the steeple with shining cross on top – he declares, in haunting (and surely not accidental) reprise of Jesus’ last words from the cross, “It is finished.”

But for us, is it? This is truly great stage literature, and sublimely presented here. As such, the story continues to resonate long past its fast-paced 21 scenes. With urgent, intense relevance to a world still unreconciled to its purposed soul, Merrick’s story remains, tragically enough, still fresh.

Photo by Bob Rossiter, courtesy The Repository: Greg Riniger as Ross (left), and Ryan Nehlen as John Merrick, from “The Elephant Man”. Shows at the Players Guild William G. Fry Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, Canton. Through March 13, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10 at or call (330) 453 – 7617.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

His World Rocked

His World Rocked

By Tom Wachunas

Today, Thursday, my personal world seems clouded with lots of complaints and very silly worries, my bloated sense of stress and responsibility, errands not done, incomplete projects hanging over my head. A radio report on the WKSU public radio station (89.7 FM) made mention of a report from my friend and colleague, photographer Stephen McNulty. He was riding on a bus in Christchurch, New Zealand on Tuesday when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit. I do remember praying for him when I first heard the stories and saw film footage on Tuesday evening television news, envisioning God placing a hedge of protection around him. God is good.

Stephen’s photos and accompanying story are posted on the WKSU Radio web site – I would imagine he posted on Facebook too, but haven’t checked. These are sobering, chilling images, taken while Stephen walked for miles through the terribly stricken, beleaguered city, himself dehydrated, hungry, exhausted. His account is humbling, his survival gratifying, and his instinctive response to communicate via his gift for making compelling pictures is admirable.

I say ‘humbling’ because whether he knows it or not, his account set my head and heart aright, if only for the time it takes me to post this, but hopefully for a longer while to come. It has made me re-assess what is truly important today, and re-focus on gratitude for what I have in and around my life. My petty anxieties of today are selfish and miniscule when I consider what Stephen has witnessed and is going through. So thank you, God, for my life and for preserving Stephen. And thank you Stephen for your reaching out to our world of blessed “normality.”

Photo by Stephen McNulty, courtesy

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Happy Few Hours with Good King Harry

A Happy Few Hours with Good King Harry

By Tom Wachunas

One of the things Frank Motz achieved so successfully in the summer of 2007, when he directed an ambitious outdoor production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in downtown Canton, was to elicit from his performers an eminently clear grasp and accessible delivery of Shakespeare’s language. Motz has done it again with a 20-member cast in an abridged version “Henry V” at the Kathleen Howland Theatre.

Setting the medieval tone of the play, the walls of the black-box space are lined with bright heraldic artworks by students from six area high schools. Interspersed throughout the evening is live Elizabethan-style music, written and well performed by Kris and Jeff Kiko-Cozy, with charming vocals by Melissa Day. Otherwise, stage scenery is minimal but sufficient, and in these intimate quarters, some of the costuming and props read as a bit too bargain-basement. But plastic daggers and breastplates aside, this production is nonetheless an efficacious presenting of Shakespeare - the storyteller extraordinaire, the master craftsman of human interactions both deep and farcical - and the cast clearly respects and relishes the task at hand.

In addition to the chorus members that Shakespeare provided to comment on the action – played here with warm conviviality by Mary Lou Ianni, Janet Jones, and Kathy Lewis – director Motz has also written in periodic appearances for The Bard himself who, via the friendly and credible portrayal by Ross Rhodes, comments on the proceedings in more contemporary, though no less stately syntax.

Like most of the other cast members, Rhodes dons more than one hat in the production. To his role of Nym, one of three “low-life” soldiers who remember carousing with the King in his youth, Rhodes brings hilarious bluster. Similarly, his roguish companions - Bardolph, played by Joe Martuccio, and Pistol, played by Don Jones – are equally memorable and remarkably adept at gut-splitting bravado.

And there are several other relatively mirthful scenes that pepper this clash between England and France. In one, John Scavelli is delightfully animated as the fawning Bishop of Ely, fumbling through an unwieldy batch of documents to be examined by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In another, Helena Kiko-Cozy is priceless as the French Princess Katherine whose thick accent turns learning English into a riotously exasperating anatomy lesson, overseen by her patient and bemused attendant, played by Janet Jones. And E.J. Dubinsky, as a boy-soldier, is brilliant when he speaks to the audience, unleashing his scathing, blithe assessments of Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol.

Let’s remember, though, that the narrative thrust of this story is the bloody gravitas of war, even if it does end in the marriage of enemies. That thrust is centered in the convictions and decisions of Henry V. In this role, Jeff Jakmides presents a fascinating and generally very engaging mix of flawed and vulnerable humanity, burdened and august royalty, the fierce warrior at the gates of Agincourt, and victorious but nervous suitor. In his pivotal St. Crispin’s Day address to his outnumbered troops - some have called it the most iconic motivational speech ever written - Jakmides’ delivery on Saturday night seemed more like dignified diction than intense dramatic fireworks. Since I missed the opening night performance, I’m wondering if the moment might have been the victim of the proverbial second-night come-down (keeping in mind that Olivier and Branaugh set an incredibly lofty bar in their respective film versions). Still, Jackmides’ resonant demeanor was infused with authentic, endearing urgency.

Certainly as a whole, this production stands as a satisfying and distinguished retelling of a classic. As such, it’s an important – even courageous – reminder to continue savoring the astonishing grace, inspiring narrative power, and timeless poetry that is Shakespeare.

Photo courtesy Don Jones. William Shakespeare’s HENRY V, at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue N., downtown Canton. Shows February 25 and 26 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets $10.00 (330) 451- 0924.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

From Ruse to Romance, Cupid on Target

From Ruse to Romance, Cupid on Target

By Tom Wachunas

Love is a many splintered thing. Love, as in romantic connection. Finding it, keeping it, losing it, resenting it, and stumbling into it again - such is the topical stuff of “Scarlet Fever,” a new romantic comedy written by Sherry Yanow and Deborah Fezelle. Fezelle is the founder of Top Of The Town Productions, which makes its home at the historic Canton Club, and she directed this thoroughly charming dinner theatre event there that premiered on, appropriately enough, Valentines Day.

The story opens with a wedding ceremony about to transpire at Joplin’s, a lounge in New York City. Presiding over the nuptials, and narrating the action throughout the play, is the red-vested bartender Valentino, who’s really Cupid. With a wave of his hand he freezes the action and takes us back six months, to the beginnings of this seemingly unlikely union between a bare-foot hippie, Griffin, and bath-robed beauty, Scarlet.

Both Griffin, a successful Broadway director, and Scarlet, a successful Valentine card writer, have been recently dumped by their fiancĂ©es. Thanks to Cupid’s machinations, they simultaneously hit upon the same vengeful idea – to teach their exes a lesson by making them insanely jealous. To do so, Griffin and Scarlet each fashion a false identity to attract a date (not a mate), via a web site called Stupid Cupid. That’s when things get really twisted and yes, feverish.

It wouldn’t be accurate to call this production a through-and-through live musical, though music is woven into the fabric a la romantic standards (with tunes such as “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Withcraft,” and “My Funny Valentine,” for example) presented karaoke-style. While the show seems to beg for a live jazz trio at the very least, the actors as singers nonetheless balance the aural experience with substantially skilled vocal performances.

The writing is a deft melding of comedic wit and wisdom, and the tight, crisp dialogue is delivered by a very fine ensemble cast. In the role of Valentino, Timothy Mark Adkins is neither a stupid cupid nor some mythical love wizard. With remarkably sonorous and mellow voice, both speaking and singing (he at times effectively raises a subtle spectre of Sinatra), he’s the bartender who’s seen and heard it all before, and his character doesn’t conjure unreasonable magic so much as he simply accelerates and oversees the inevitable. And that would be the eventual coming together of Griffin, played by Joseph M. Haladey, III, and Scarlet, played by Bethany Taylor. The chemistry between them sizzles as each turns in a performance that is as genuinely touching as it is muscular and hilarious. At one point, Haladey practically brings the house down as, drunkenly sulking over a drink, he garbles his way through the lyrics of “One More for the Road.”

Much more hilarity ensues as we watch the other characters interact with the lovelorn couple-to-be. Cheryl Foutz plays Cookie, Scarlet’s best friend, and a therapist with a congenial energy both girlishly mischievous and motherly. Sean Knight is convincing in his role of Pete, Griffin’s mouthy lawyer friend and hypochondriac confidant with an insouciant love-‘em-and-leave-‘em perspective on women. Meanwhile, a subtext that comes delightfully to the fore is that of the blossoming connection between Miranda, a klutzy, nervous school teacher, and Russell, an equally nervous and nerdy geneology buff. In those delicious (if not a little stereotyped) roles, Ruxandra May and Drew Schaar are startlingly, endearingly real.

And so it is that this comical journey from altered personae to altared partners is both gently nostalgic and wholly contemporary, and certainly an arrow to the heart. A funny valentine indeed, its aim is true.

“Scarlet Fever” will be presented again at Fieldcrest of North Canton on Saturday, February 19. Dinner at 6:30p.m., show at 7:30, $30 per person. Must call for reservations at (330) 966 – 2222. Fieldcrest of North Canton, 1346 Easthill St. SE, North Canton.
For more details, please visit

Photo, courtesy Top of the Town Productions: left-to-right, Bethany Taylor, Timothy Mark Adkins, Joseph M. Haladey, III

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An Eloquent Synthesis of Light and Form

An Eloquent Synthesis of Light and Form

By Tom Wachunas

A hearty congratulations to local artist Diane Belfiglio on her solo show at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown. The show, called “Transitions,” opens this Sunday, February 13, from 1 to 3p.m. in the Giffuni Gallery, and runs through April 3. The small but stunning catalogue is now locally available for $6.00 at The Canton Museum of Art, The Massillon Museum, and Second April Galerie. This is one very beautiful show, and well worth your time and travel. What follows is the catalogue essay that I was honored to write.

My first encounter with the work of Diane Belfiglio was in 1998. I say ‘encounter’ because I remember not merely ‘looking at’ them so much as feeling immersed in, and bathed by, their sumptuous light. Not a captured or illusionist light, but a light that seemed to actually, even magically emanate from the picture plane itself. It was a pleasantly haunting light, faintly suggestive of Edward Hopper’s work without the loneliness, or the great Impressionists, such as Monet, sans impasto. How was this possible with such flatly applied acrylic paint? It was clear to me that the artist was by then an accomplished master of illuminated color and its subtle interactions with precisely rendered, hard-edge architectural forms and their shadows.

In the years since those earlier canvases, Belfiglio never faltered in that mastery, and continued to explore the aesthetic marriage of light and architecture- the joining of the ephemeral to the physical – with consistently enthralling results. While maintaining a disciplined eye for tight structuring of well-defined shapes with intriguingly- cropped perspectives, she would become ever more adept at imbuing her images with real warmth and optimism. For all of their crisp faithfulness to the recognizable world, her images never succumbed to the often cold and numbing flamboyance of Photorealism, even though the camera remains an invaluable tool in framing her imagery.

Since venturing into the medium of oil pastels in 2008 with her Jamestown Geometry series, Belfiglio has honed her vision still further. The point-counterpoint play between solid, detailed volumes and shadows (equally solid in appearance) that characterized her architectural paintings was still very much present. But the quantity (and variety) of architectural shapes was reduced, and the overall structuring of the pictorial information was becoming more distilled. While the imagery remained ostensibly representational, a more refined sort of ‘abstraction’ was emerging in the sense that her compositions were becoming purer and simpler. These were intriguing articulations of light-drenched patterns, as in Jamestown Geometry IV, exuding a soft, lyrical quality. That softness and lyricism is in large part intrinsic to the pastel medium, which lends itself well to laying in subtle color areas by overlapping short, mincing strokes. Additionally, her exacting technique brought a refreshing, visually textured surface interest to her images.

The artist continued to combine and, and she has stated herein, streamline these elements through her Potomac Pattern series, as in her elegant Potomac Patterns II. Physical architecture was still a focus in the following Mount Vernon Memories series, as we see in the sure-handed simplicity of Mount Vernon Memories III. A consistent aspect of these series is that when she incorporated natural forms (tree foliage, or a patch of grass, for example) it was as a supporting accent, or backdrop. But a shift in focus – a reversal, really - was immanent. It began to present itself as she realized that the oil pastel medium seemed more effective in rendering organic forms rather than the crisp junctures and surfaces of brick walls, planed wood trim, and concrete that she had mastered in her acrylic paintings. By 2010, the predominant formal content of her images had fully evolved into floral themes, with a gently reminiscent nod to Georgia O’Keefe’s stylized abstractions of lush blooms.

These most recent works are an eloquent, graceful maturing of Belfiglio’s overall aesthetic concerns. M.J. Albacete, Executive Director of the Canton Museum of Art, has recently written that, “…her oil pastels – true to the medium- are layers of blended color that seem to come from the hand of a dual personality. She is both a colorist and a precisionist, and pretty much without equal in the contemporary art scene.” And Louis Zona, Director of the Butler Institute, has observed (in his statement for this catalogue), “…I would suggest that Diane Belfiglio’s compositions are extraordinary examples of formalism and demonstrate a wonderful understanding of the effectiveness of a strong visual organization in the delivery of a concept.”

Indeed, it seems to me that the concept of achieving a pure and mesmerizing synthesis of form and light has been at the heart of this artist’s creative pursuits all along. In a statement that accompanied her exhibit at Canton’s McKinley Museum in 2001, she had written, “I was educated in a professional art world that has been characterized by its shock value, biting social commentary, and ‘in-your-face’ commercial images. In contrast to that world in which I was raised, I am simply endeavoring to create in my art a respite for weary souls.” Ten years later, that statement still speaks to her consistent creative vision and aesthetic standards, and resonates deeply in our splintered culture so often enamored of pop junk, ugly sensationalism, and collective angst.

Belfiglio’s floral drawings – with their astonishingly luminous colors and wondrous detail – are exuberant, uncluttered constructions of serene jubilance. To this body of work the artist has brought an increased, vigorous compositional elegance. In several of the drawings, such as Sunlight on Scarlet and Daffodil Diagonals III, she employs a diagonal thrust to great effect, investing them with a sense of quiet drama. You could regard them as you would concerto orchestrations. Think of the luscious blooms as joyous solos, soaring above, but in exquisite harmony with, the richly supportive shadows.

The underlying spirit of bon homie in these drawings is a compelling and unabashedly beautiful witnessing of light, at once fleeting and imperishable, amid our postmodernist milieu of noisy, dark pluralism. As such, they are inspiring, persistent acts of courage. And I dare say, with this show, she has arrived.

Photo, courtesy Diane Belfiglio: “Transfixed by Tulips III,” pastel.
Butler Institute of American Art, 524 Wick Avenue, Youngstown, Ohio
(330) 743 – 1711

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Memorable Pairing...and Parting

A Memorable Pairing…and Parting

By Tom Wachunas

For demonstrating the sheer heights and depths of Beethoven’s emotionality and compositional prowess in a chamber music setting, there’s arguably no more exemplary (and contrasting) a pairing than his No. 5 and No. 9 sonatas. In his introductory comments to the audience at the February 3 chamber music concert in Cable Recital Hall, pianist Stephen Wogaman noted that it wasn’t Beethoven who named Sonata No. 5 in F Major “Spring,” but probably the publisher who felt that the music conjured such a seasonal association. Given Canton’s recent spate of brutal winter weather events, Wogaman joked that for now we could regard the work as an exercise in wishful thinking.

In any case, Wogaman, along with violinist Nathan Olson, proceeded to deliver a truly inspired performance of the work in all its infectious warmth and playful ornamentations. Spring was indeed, at least for the moment, in the room. For all of the work’s charming simplicity and many moments of humor, it is also one with a fair share of embellishments that call for real virtuosity on the part of the performers. And in that, with enthralling precision, they didn’t disappoint.

In that regard, the duo’s performance of Sonata No. 9 in A Major was an eminently more challenging foray into instrumental mastery, prompting Olson to comment about the notorious difficulties intrinsic to the piano part. Of course we should remember that the same observation easily applies to the violin part. The sonata was named “Kreutzer” for the foremost violinist of Beethoven’s era, and who would not (or could not?) perform it, calling the work “…outrageously unintelligible.”

Fortunately for us in the audience, Wogaman and Olson made the work not only intelligible, but ecstatically dazzling, even as the work reveals Beethoven at his most brooding and tempestuous. It is, to be sure, a notably darker work than the “Spring” sonata, particularly in the driving fury of the first movement. But the performers here seemed bewitched, seamlessly blending the complex relationships of their parts – at times like a competition for dominance – into a mesmerizing sound that was downright symphonic in its presence. And even as the sheer power of that first movement gave way to the relatively lighter, sweeter progressions of the following two movements, the virtuosic playing never flagged in intensity. Together, these perfectly-synched soloists presented a thoroughly electrifying portrait of Beethoven’s genius.

What made this performance all the more savory, and surely bittersweet, was its finality for both performers. Wogaman, after nearly four years here as President and CEO of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, is leaving for Michigan, where in May he will become the fifth President of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. And Olson, after four years as Canton Symphony Concertmaster, will be taking on that position with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Here’s wishing bon voyage to both as they spread the wealth of their astonishing talents to new audiences.

Photo: “Kreutzer Sonata” by Rene Francois Xavier Prinet,oil, 1901

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Praise of Impracticality

In Praise of Impracticality

By Tom Wachunas

In the statement for their collaborative installation called “Home: Ruminations on Place(ment),” currently on view at Anderson Creative, Erin Sweeney (from Peterborough, New Hampshire) and Bobby Rosenstock (from Marietta, Ohio) tell us that they like to make finely-crafted things the old fashioned way, “…using obsolete technologies and impractical labor.” That includes the labor, tools and dated “technology” associated with letterpress (a la Gutenberg) printing and woodcut images on paper ( woodcut being a fine art process dating to 5th century China, which would spread to Western cultures during the Renaissance thanks to pioneers such as Albrecht Durer). In these parts, we don’t often see exhibitions so committed to these hallowed traditions, and on that level alone the show is eminently refreshing.

The exhibit is comprised of five themed sections: Relocation, Community, Comfort, Adjustment, and Mythology. The overall effect is a gently provocative, personal - without being cryptic - and often humorous mixed-media (prints, drawings, sculpture, and fiber works) narrative on defining and finding, or leaving, ‘home,’ and how it all contributes to our identity, whether personal or communal.

The artists’ stated fervor for hand-inked blocks and manually-cranked presses is clearly present, and the finished look of the works exudes a delightfully vintage air, particularly in the woodcuts by Rosenstock. These are richly styled, meticulously carved renderings that bring to mind 18th or 19th century newsprint ads and illustrations. To further appreciate just how technically demanding woodcuts of this impeccable quality can be, don’t miss noticing the original birch plywood blocks displayed near the gallery entrance. They’re fascinating works of art in themselves.

Nostalgic, too, is Sweeney’s whimsical sculpture of three life-size, free-standing figures, called “Storytellers.” Made of stitched cotton adorned with screen prints, the figures are more like yesteryear dolls with overly-long arms and legs. The embroidered handwriting on one of the arms reads, “If you want to know someone’s life, look at their hands.” These hands are supporting upright, hardbound coptic books – ‘coptic’ being a stitching-binding technique rooted in 4th century Egypt. The images and written notes on the tall pages are personal snippets and doodles from daily life, and not unlike the visual content in Sweeney’s large mixed-media collage called “Ruminations.” It’s a loose and engaging wall work made up of six panels brimming with a kind of flow-of-consciousness that recapitulates other visual moments of the show.

Adding to the warm-hearted atmosphere of the show is an invitation to viewers to write their own stories or draw their own visuals about the idea of ‘home’ in the very nifty small booklets provided by Sweeney, which are in turn to be left inside a larger structure - something like a house in itself – for the duration of the show.

In the end, I’m left chewing contentedly on the idea that on one level, ‘home’ is certainly where we might hang our proverbial hats (maybe right next to the woodcut gouges, chisels, and oversize cardigans?), or wherever our stories have taken us. On another, it will always be where the art is.

Photo, courtesy Anderson Creative: “We’ll Take What We Can Carry,” woodcut by Bobby Rosenstock, on view through February 26 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW. Gallery hours Wednesday – Saturday Noon to 5 p.m.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Quiltessences: A Beguiling Debut

Quiltessences: A Beguiling Debut

By Tom Wachunas

File this one under ‘new artist on the Canton scene’: Karen Bogdan. Based on the evidence of her first-ever show of art quilts, called “Shear Warmth and Beauty,” now at Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, it’s fair to say she’s something more than your average (though clearly adept) fiber artist. The 14 quilts here are a dazzling and varied collection of fibrous visions – hybrids, in a way - embracing both folk-art along with more contemporary sensibilities. Some are pictorially conventional, charming in their vibrant, endearing simplicity (bucolic scenes, for example). Others display a subtle complexity, deftly melding representational floral and animal imagery with abstract, asymmetrical fragmentation and patterning of the backgrounds, and at times reminiscent of the wondrously dappled colors and textures of Impressionism.

In that vein, Bogdan is a superb colorist. But one work in particular here also demonstrates a strong, perhaps even stark sense of drama. “City Flowers” is an arresting if not funereal homage to blossoms in black. Yet with its silver and crystalline accents, along with the wispy presence of gold thread work hovering about the center, it’s an elegant, sedate arrangement, and certainly more meditative than morose.

“Legend of the Dragonfly” is a gorgeous masterpiece of diaphanous patterns and textures. The lavishly intricate background makes the stunning blue mums seem all the more alive, right along with the dragonflies, their wings contoured in astonishingly tiny metallic beads.

Surely the tour-de-force of the show is “Herons at Sunset.” It’s a veritable wall of fabric-ated landscape in earth tones interspersed with delicate pastels in blue and pink. The impressive verticality of the piece is balanced by the stacked, thin horizontal bands in variegated patterns that span its entire width. Each band is an “event” unto itself, yet a harmonious element in the whole. These segments give the entire scene a fragmented look, though a well- orchestrated one, and not overly disorienting. It’s as if we’re seeing simultaneous view points of things near and far. In that sense it’s not too unlike a Cubist perspective. But unlike the flattened space of a Cubist composition, Bogdan’s panorama achieves an illusion of great depth. As the glittering orb of the sun sets into the distant hills, its golden diagonal rays seem to radiate beyond the surface as they intersect the faceted sky, seen as though through a prism, and dotted with iridescent clouds.

Shear, sheer magic. Whether intended by Bogdan or not, even the title of this show (particularly in the use of “shear”) playfully points to its depth of stylistic approaches. “Shear” refers to the cutting tool or the cutting action as it applies to textiles. But I like the play on “sheer,” too, as in pure and absolute, as well as a descriptor of transparent fabric.

Any way you look at it, the show lives up to its name.

Photo, courtesy Lynda Tuttle: “Herons at Sunset” quilt by Karen Bogdan. On view through March 1 at Lynda Tuttle’s Art Center, 209 6th Street NW, downtown Canton, (330) 452 -8211. Gallery hours are Wednesday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. / Thursday 12 to 7 p.m. / Friday and Saturday 12 to 5 p.m. and by appointment.