Sunday, September 29, 2013

Elevated Distress Signals

Elevated Distress Signals

By Tom Wachunas

    “Man has been endowed with reason, with the powers to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wildlife’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” –Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1897

    EXHIBIT: Environmental Impact: The Power of Art Confronts Our Environmental Crises, THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 2013, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton (330) 453-7666

    Who could reasonably doubt that truly fine art has the capacity to draw us into genuine reflection – genuflection, if you will - on what we instinctively recognize as the most noble, pure and indeed beautiful elements of the world we inhabit? Conversely, art can just as well bring us to mourning the loss of those same elements. It is the realization of art’s dual potentiality – to transport our souls to sublime heights of reverence and celebration, or induce anger and despair – that makes this traveling exhibit, curated by Dr. David J. Wagner (author of American Wildlife Art), so utterly compelling.

     The show is surely not a conventional embrace of nature’s inspiring, undisturbed majesty. “The paintings, photographs and sculptures of Environmental Impact are antithetical to that tradition,” Wagner tells us in his exhibit abstract. “Instead,” he continues, “they confront pressing issues of our time, from land development to industrial-scale depletion of natural resources, from the Gulf oil spill to the dangers of nuclear energy, the trashing of the American landscape, and the impact of Global Warming.”

     If nothing else, then, we are presented with an urgent, even desperate longing. Much of the natural imagery depicted here is alternately haunted and haunting, vulnerable or hopelessly spoiled, wounded, dying or dead. Here is Nature, but vivisected by human neglect, ignorance or, worse, design.

    The overall tone of the exhibit is immediately set when entering the main gallery and encountering the arresting sculpture, Travelers, by Sayaka Kajita Ganz. Three polar bears, meticulously made from plastic kitchen utensils and clothes hangers, are suspended from the ceiling as if swimming underwater. While certainly fascinating to behold, the piece is a bitterly ironic suggestion of how non-biodegradable garbage has become a migratory ocean species in its own right.

    Robert Bateman’s acrylic paintings are as stunning in technique as they are chilling in content. His impeccably detailed visions, such as Driftnet, draped with nylon netting and depicting a fatally entangled porpoise and seagull, are jarring if not heartrending visual reports of environmental assaults.

    In La Bajada Bluff, a surreal oil painting by Scott Greene, a bison has fallen off a cliff built from all manner of industrial trash and crumbling under its own weight. The seabirds in Leo Osborne’s strangely sleek maple burlwood sculptures fare no better. His The Ploy, with a footprint burned into the surface dangerously close to nested eggs, is an unsettling emblem of careless human invasion. More disturbing is the oil painting by Walter Ferguson, Save the Seashore. Under hazy sky and rendered in anemic tones, a little girl contentedly builds a sandcastle, oblivious to the trash splayed across the sand behind her.

    Amid these and other cautionary visual narratives are works that present a comparatively less pessimistic outlook, including the very large, stark canvas, Takken in het bos (Forest Succession), by Ron Kingswood. The title is Dutch, for ‘Branches in the Wood.’ Both abstract and illustrative, the brushy linearity captures the essence of young saplings growing in a forest after clear-cutting – a hopeful sign of what Kingswood calls in his statement “the tenacity of nature.” More lavish and spectacular in its suggestion of abundant replenishment is another large scale oil by Julie Heffernan, Budding Boy. A winsome lad is nestled in a tree overflowing with lush foliage and birds. He’s tethered to an enormous spheroid cluster of fruit and more birds, as if pregnant with new forest life in a re-made world.    

     There’s no questioning this exhibit’s excellence of aesthetic accomplishments on a purely formal level. But if that were the extent of their worth, I think it would be a hollow “art experience” indeed. The real value of this show lies in the questions – make that challenges – it poses for viewers.

    Oddly enough, I’m reminded of the glorious luminism so evident in wilderness masterworks from long ago, such as in the works of the Hudson River School painters and their optimistic solidarity with the Romantic ideals of Manifest Destiny. I’m fairly sure they would be summarily appalled at what we today have wrought upon so many of the panoramas they beheld with awe. Still, threaded throughout this exhibit is an illumination of another sort, shedding light on any number of implied possible destinies, but only to the extent that we consider accountability. Will we, as stewards of the planet, continue to be consumed by our own consumerism and its destructive wake, or collectively decide to alter our treacherous course?

     From that perspective, this exhibit brings a significantly elevated, new meaning to the notion of “viewer participation” or “interactive art.”

    PHOTOS, from top: Travelers by Sayaka Kajita Ganz, 2013, Reclaimed plastic and metal, 57 x 24 x 26; 2 @ 45 x 16 x 18 inches /  Budding Boy by Julie Heffernan, 2010, oil on canvas, 78 x 56 inches, Courtesy of Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco and P.P.O.W., New York / Save the Seashore by Walter W. Ferguson, 1993, oil on canvas, 27.5 x 37.75 inches /  La Bajada Bluff by Scott Greene, 2013, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches, Collection of the Artist, Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco  /  Driftnet (Pacific White-Sided Dolphin and Lysan Albatross) by Robert Bateman, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, Collection of Birgit and Robert Bateman

Environmental Impact produced by David J. Wagner, L.L.C.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Spellbinding Study Hall

A Spellbinding Study Hall

By Tom Wachunas 

    “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

    -St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary and educator-               

    EXHIBIT: Ludlow Prep, 1929: A Schoolroom Installation by Craig Joseph and Clare Murray Adams, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH SEPTEMBER 28 / 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

    In his statement for this show (, Translations curator Craig Joseph writes about his creative process in a way that brings to mind how a garden happens. Arid ground, tilled, seeded then nurtured with water and light, can give rise to lush flora – from lifelessness to fecundity.

   Antique photographs, especially portraits, can seem like dry dirt, yielding only dusty remnants of lives once lived. Yet with photographs like the one that inspired this installation - a 1920s school group portrait found in an attic – we nevertheless intuitively trust that what we’re seeing actually existed in some specific place and time. On their own, though, such photographs are often mute, two-dimensional documents. Without stories, they remain cryptic compressions of past realities.

     Enter Craig Joseph’s imagination. With that, he has tilled and sowed the tightly packed soil of the photograph as it were, and cultivated it with the life-giving light of his remarkable poetry.

    The once anonymous students in the group portrait have acquired names and assigned seats, on which their faces are reprinted from the original photo, in a re-created vintage classroom furnished with 21 flip-top desks (along with the teacher’s desk). Each desk incorporates a written remembrance of the student, telling us who they became. Joseph has endowed this imagined community with plausible identities and unique biographies. Welcome to the deskography tableaux of a school called Ludlow Prep.

    Joseph’s poems are at once concrete and intensely lyrical marvels of description. Many of them possess an aura of what might best be called intimate authority. I got the sense that the people and life circumstances presented here aren’t simply fictions, but rather adopted personae… that the author truly knows them. In a word, uncanny, but not in any unsettling way.

    Enhancing that aura, Joseph’s choice to collaborate with assemblage artist Clare Murray Adams was surely spot-on. Adams has always demonstrated an astute sensitivity to how embedded memories can be revealed through visual and tactile association. Put another way, her configurations of particular objects and textures effectively evoke and/or illustrate intriguing stories.

    This is an impressive, fruitful collaboration wherein Adams has meticulously assembled the mélange of period memorabilia and found objects that comprise the desk contents. Ephemera of a bygone era, here made fully present. Harmonious with the spirit of Joseph’s writings, her arrangements of physical materials further enliven the installation with an emotive blend of reverential solemnity and lightheartedness.

    For visitors to the exhibit, only one test is administered in this schoolroom. It’s the test of real time and willingness to be wholly immersed in a wondrously designed sensory experience. Baptism by study, if you will.

     Sit, see, read, touch, even smell these lives of Ludlow raised up from the fertile ground of the artist’s imaginations.

    PHOTOS courtesy Translations Art Gallery.      

Monday, September 16, 2013

Elysian Fields On Fire

 Elysian Fields On Fire

By Tom Wachunas 

    In the creative set designed by Christopher Lesho, two potent symbols from Tennessee Williams’ most acclaimed play, A Streetcar Named Desire, remain visible at one end of the North Canton Playhouse mainstage throughout the show. One is a street sign marked Elysian Fields, where Stanley and Stella Kowalski live in a shoddy, claustrophobic apartment. It’s no small irony that the avenue is named for the mythological resting place of virtuous and heroic souls. Additionally, the adjacent signs bear the names of streetcars – Desire and Cemetery. And it is certainly at the intersection of desire and death where Blanche DuBois, a road-weary, wilted Southern belle, visits her younger sister Stella in the blistering summer heat of New Orleans.

    But this is no congenial family reunion. It is, rather, a desperate reconnoitering. Here is a smoldering battlefield, where terribly flawed personalities and volatile histories circle each other warily at first, then ultimately collide in an unforgettable firestorm of psychosexual and emotional tension. Generally speaking, this production brings an American classic to electrifying life via the impeccably skilled ensemble cast directed by Mary McManaway.

    In her role of Stella, Tessa Gaffney offers a subtly impassioned, deftly constructed study of affections torn asunder. She stomachs her husband’s various abuses with an almost cavalier romanticism. Inexorably caught between her fierce (sometimes mystifying) spousal loyalty and equally fierce defense of her demented sister, she’s finally forced to make an agonizing decision not too unlike Sophie’s Choice.

    If there’s any relief from the viciously contentious life transpiring in the Kowalski apartment, it’s provided by the married couple living upstairs, Eunice and Steve. In those roles, Kathy Lewis Snyder and Jeff White are delightfully gritty and at times downright hilarious, particularly in their beer-lubricated, implied lovemaking bouts that follow a vociferous fight.

    It is a memorable and convincing tonal palette – a facile chiaroscuro of character - that Al LaFleur IV brings to his portrait of Stanley Kowalski. On the one hand he’s every bit the “commoner” and “animal” that Blanche finds so abhorrent - insufferably proud, relentlessly sardonic and rude, with a hair-trigger temper. On the other, he’s genuinely protective and affectionate in an awkward sort of way, even to the point of sniveling repentance.

   For sheer sustained, emotive intensity, though, the fire that burns the hottest in this torrid tale is in the character of Blanche. ‘Riveting’ doesn’t begin to do justice to how effectively Marci Sailing Lesho nails the role. In truth, there are arguably too many moments when her Southern drawl is so mannered, so rhythmically affected, that her words become sing-songy mush. Maybe it’s an over-the-top attempt to bring out the powerful lyricism of Tennessee Williams’ language. In any event, it’s a forgivable enough flaw when encountering the gripping substance Lesho brings to her character’s monstrous narcissism, pathetic delusions and elaborate deceptions. And speaking of gripping substance, when Blanche screams, it’s a bone-rattling aural phenomenon.

    Her deceptions are systematically exposed, destroying her sanity, not to mention her last chance at real love, embodied by Ted Paynter in his role of Stanley’s best friend, Mitch. Paynter delivers an absorbing portrayal of disarming transparency – an engaging mix of tenderness, anguish and anger.   

    Let’s briefly consider expectations. Who, after all, could ever wholly forget the unprecedented power and startling rawness of the 1951 film? That film, the one wherein Marlon Brando’s sweat-drenched cries of “Stella! Stella!” became, forever it would seem, one of our most indelible markers of great acting. But that was indeed film, this is the stage. Each has intrinsic methodologies and challenges in communicating authentic human drama.

    So yes, there are echoes of the film in this production. But the theatrical challenges are well-met here, and I think those filmic echoes are sufficiently faded enough for us to hear truly momentous, unique voices. Voices immersed in compelling immediacy. Bravo.

      A Streetcar Named Desire, SEPTEMBER 20, 21, 22 at the North Canton Playhouse, 525 7th Street, North Canton. Tickets: $13 Adults $12 Seniors and Students. Buy Tickets Online at   or call the box office at 330.494.1613  Showtimes: Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:30pm

    PHOTOS courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Al LaFleur IV as Stanley Kowalski, Marci Sailing Lesho as Blanche DuBois

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Picture This

Picture This

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Picture This: Captivating Photographic and Digital Visions, featuring the work of Jerry Domokur, Mandy Altimus Pond, Stephen McNulty, Su Nimon and Michele Waalkes. THROUGH NOVEMBER 8 at Gallery 6000, located in the University Center Dining Room at Kent State University Stark campus, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton

    OPENING ARTISTS’ RECEPTION ON THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 19, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Please RSVP to Gail Thomas at (330) 244-3503 or

    Once again I’ve donned my curator hat in offering this Gallery 6000 exhibit of works by five artists whose works I have greatly admired in the past. Please keep in mind that Gallery 6000 is not a conventional art gallery with retail business hours (though most of the works are for sale). The space is an elegant, airy dining room, with the walls fitted for hanging art works. Best times to visit are weekdays before and after lunch -  mornings from 9 a.m. to 11.a.m. (you might need to ask for the overhead track lights to be switched on) or 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. That said, I respectfully beg… er, uhm… request that you attend the opening reception cited above.

    The abstract digital manipulations by Jerry Domokur are intricately layered images that magically evoke both mechanical and organic structures and processes in flux. Whether in super-charged color, such as his Tsunami, or in black and white, his compositions sizzle with spontaneity and hypnotic spatial ambiguity.

    Su Nimon’s original photographs of local, often iconic architectural landmarks are digitally processed to reduce detail and limit color. Their look is deceivingly simple and “high contrast,” yet remarkably resonant with fascinating nuances of mood and formal structure.

    The photographs by Mandy Altimus Pond explore what she calls “conceivable fantasies.” With real, recognizable elements (people, props, locations), she creates unusual situational contexts, such as the ghostly Waiting for William, and otherwise dreamlike, intriguing narratives.

    “Stunning” and “breathtaking” are simply inadequate descriptors of the pigment ink prints by Stephen McNulty. The four magnificent wilderness pieces here are technically and aesthetically brilliant. His work is a vital and inspiring photographic witness to the awe-inducing power and beauty of nature.

    Inspiring, too, are Michele Waalkes’ digital photo transfers onto fabric and other materials. Works such as her Porta are beautifully subtle, serene meldings (i.e., two images combined) of natural and architectural settings that create a sense of contemplative journeying. I continue to think of them as physical metaphors for the metaphysical act of meditation.

    And to varying degrees, it is a similarly meditative sensibility that I think is threaded throughout this eclectic gathering of works, and one I hope will in turn prompt an edifying experience for all viewers.

    PHOTOS (from top): Tsunami by Jerry Domokur; Waiting for William by Mandy Altimus Pond; Thru the Arch by Su Nimon; Porta by Michele Waalkes; Milford Falls, New Zealand, by Stephen McNulty  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Artful Fostering of Hope

An Artful Fostering of Hope

By Tom Wachunas 

    “It’s not just about a ‘good production’ anymore. It can’t be.” So wrote Jonathan Tisevich back in 2010, when he directed Annie at the Canton Players Guild Theatre. His program notes at the time expressed his hope that the production would somehow move theatre goers toward making a difference in the lives of marginalized children in the real world.

    Tisevich is back in the director’s seat for this current run, and once again shares that same hope, demonstrating a remarkable giftedness in eliciting palpable sincerity, believability, and generally unflagging energy from his cast. While consistently sustaining the story’s spunky child-appeal, his directing lets the story rise above the platitudes of a musical comic strip. This Annie exudes a very adult moral urgency. Yes, the mood often waxes sentimental, but strongly dosed throughout with bittersweet relevance.

    That mood is established from the outset by Annie, played by Brianna Swinford, and her 16 orphan cohorts. Swinford’s rendering of Maybe (a duet with Bella Gambone as the orphan Molly), wherein she imagines what her parents might be doing and prays for them to return, is achingly wistful. Throughout the evening, her impressive singing is infused with tonal purity and warmth. Her performance of the iconic Tomorrow is charming, mellow and airy rather than show-biz brassy. Additionally, she brings to her character a wholly disarming blend of tomboyish pragmatism and indefatigable optimism.

    And it’s a similarly infectious, sizzling gusto that informs all the orphans’ performances, starting with their fierce, electrifying communal romp through Hard Knock Life. The adorable second-grader, Bella Gambone, is practically a show unto herself, particularly when as she apes the booze-gulping orphanage supervisor, Miss Hannigan, played by Trisha Joy Fites.

    Fites’ portrait of Hannigan is a fairly riveting study of blatant self-absorption - at once a darkly humorous caricature of inebriated swagger and a sociopathic reality. Her malevolence is especially chilling in her brooding performance of Little Girls.

    Meanwhile, Jason Green is outright hilarious, in a scary sort of way, as Miss Hannigan’s con artist/ jailbird brother, Rooster. And Taylor Scott is deliciously animated in her role of Lily, Rooster’s ditzy girlfriend, imbuing the character with vaudevillian verve.

    As Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, Jay Sigler projects an endearing awkwardness in his early time with Annie, which progressively blossoms into real affection. His singing seems tentative and lacks the relatively soaring technical finesse that Heidi Swinford brings to her lovely portrayal of Grace, Warbuck’s assistant. That said, Sigler nonetheless embodies the convincing authenticity of a man anxiously courting new possibilities, a man embracing both self-awareness and selflessness. He tenderly communicates as much during the second act when he sings Something Was Missing.

    One example of effectively nuanced direction here comes at the end of Act I, after Warbucks has announced his intention to locate Annie’s parents at any cost, thus sacrificing his desire to adopt her. While the ensemble singing throughout most of the evening is certainly zestful enough, the energy in You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long is distinctly understated. Even as the words of the song ostensibly express joyous optimism, the mood is an ironically solemn, subdued conveyance of sorrow at the possibility of Annie’s departure.

     And once again, the Players Guild employs the tried and true pairing of vivacious choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers with the jazzy ebullience of the live orchestra directed by Steve Parsons. It’s a winning combination that thrusts the nostalgic musical spirit of the 1930s into fresh, sparkling relief.  

    In the end, I was reminded that Warbucks’ real wealth isn’t to be found in his bank balance. It is rather in the overflow of his genuinely caring heart - a willingness to answer a child’s hope.

    Seen in that light, and in these times so saturated with intractable cynicism and despair, maybe the most efficacious take-away from this  uplifting work of musical theatre is the hope that life could indeed imitate art.

    Annie, at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton. Performances THROUGH SEPTEMBER 29, at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $25 adults, $23 seniors, $19 for 17 and younger. To order, visit or call 330-453-7617.
    PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Brianna Swinford as Annie; The orphans; Trisha Joy Fites as Miss Hannigan; (left to right) Jay Sigler as Oliver Warbucks, Brianna Swinford as Annie, Heidi Swinford as Grace

    For other commentaries by Tom Wachunas on the performing and visual arts in the greater Canton area, visit ARTWACH at

Monday, September 2, 2013

Celebrating Interconnectivity

        Celebrating Interconnectivity
        by Tom Wachunas

        “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”
         -Jackson Pollock

        EXHIBIT: Out of Impulse, work by Betsy Cavalier, at The Little Art Gallery THROUGH SEPTEMBER 29, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 N. Main Street, North Canton
      My first encounter with the work of Betsy Cavalier was in April of this year during the Impossible Gardens group show at Translations Art Gallery. On that occasion, I wrote of her installation, “… Betsy Cavalier’s delightfully sprawling concoction of clustered bulbous forms - made from stuffed panty hose, weather balloon latex, insulating foam and found objects – is an appreciation of the garden as a multiplicity of interconnected organic systems.”

     This time around, her 3D installation piece, Out of Impulse, displays the same spirit of ‘delightfully sprawling concoction’ along with a similarly wild inventory of material ingredients (including my personal favorite, “…Random Dusty Handmade Fuzz balls…”). Central to Cavalier’s aesthetic is the consideration of a concept in science called interconnectivity. In her statement for this show, she summarizes the concept as describing the individual components of a given system being dependent upon and interacting with each other.

    Generously spilling out from walls and ceiling into the gallery space, Out of Impulse is an intensely tactile assemblage of variably scaled protuberances. Some are sensuous and rotund, often suggesting birthing more of their kind. Others are bundles of smaller spheroids, trussed up into tight groups, and still others are hung in rows, contained in transparent “skins” distended into long connecting strings. Viewing the installation is an altogether immersive experience, not unlike walking through a massive 3D schematic of internal anatomies or cellular/ molecular structures – micro gone macro.

    The same spirit of mapping out complex organic and/or mechanical networks coming together and pulling apart is very much at work in Cavalier’s equally tactile paintings. Her visual language is much more effectively articulated on her ambitious large canvases than with the eight small paintings in the gallery’s glass showcase. Those are, while pleasantly decorative  (maybe studies for the larger projects?), far less compelling by comparison. In this particular mode of painting, more is more and bigger is better.

    It is indeed the scale of the large abstract paintings that allows Cavalier to generate truly magnetic micro/macrocosms. I was drawn inexorably into their layered thrall. Combining oil paint, latex or acrylic paints and ink, along with enamel and spray, the paintings seethe with visual tensions and textures both visceral and atmospheric. Here are fluid, improvisatory syntheses of painted shapes and marks, large and small, which are poured or flung with abandon, as well as drawn with purpose. They simultaneously explode outward, as if exhaling an underlying force, and congeal, progressively inhaling my attentions to the more detailed embellishments that lay deeper inside the picture plane.

    Cavalier’s visual systems or networks of richly varied (and at times colliding) motifs on the same plane read nonetheless as fertile, symbiotic and otherwise unified entities. One network gives rise to, or hosts another. While her conceptual motivation might well have spawned heady encounters with murky gravitas, it is her unabashedly neon palette that thrusts her paintings into an electrifying conviviality and even pure joy as they celebrate fecundity itself.

    PHOTOS, courtesy Little Art Gallery curator Elizabeth Blakemore, from top: Out of Impulse; Interconnectivity II; The Spreading of Something; My Experiment