Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dog Gone

Dog Gone

By Tom Wachunas

   “I guess you don't really own a dog, you rent them, and you have to be thankful that you had a long lease.”  - Joe Garagiola

   “Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.”

    - Alice Sligh Turnbull 

    My previous post on the sculptures of James Mellick was yet another reminder of just how much my life has gone to the dogs of late. So for those of you who might find the following to be so much (mush?) sentimental journalizing, tough. Get over it. And while I’m at it, I might as well tell you that I cry at movies, too.

   Anyway, one morning three weeks ago, just before leaving home to run some errands, I went to the fridge as usual to get out a couple of balogna pieces to stuff into our dog Spanky’s bone. “Spanky,”  I called out, “I got yer treat!”  This had been a habit for the past 13 years or so – his cue to dutifully (and hungrily – my, oh my, how they’re always hungry) scamper to his cage where he snacked and snuggled when we were away from the house. Almost immediately it hit me - a feeling of disorientation and emptiness, followed quickly by a jolt of overwhelming melancholy. Spanky wasn’t going to have his treat that day, or any thenceforth, because he simply…wasn’t.

    There have been other similar moments – teary-eyed episodes, really - in my days since that one. Days flooded with the realization of just how many rhythms, rituals, and routines in our daily lives were built on Spanky’s presence.

    Days flooded with memories joyous and bittersweet. On the day that my wife, Martha, and I went to the breeder’s house in March of 2003, he was at first nowhere to be seen as we looked over his four siblings playing in the living room. We were right on the verge of choosing one of those black-and-white cuties to take home. Then, there he was, all of eight weeks old and the largest of the litter. A fluffy flurry of brindle-colored fur came tumbling down the steps from upstairs, gathered himself, and strutted into the room with all the dignity of royalty. Thereafter he commanded, and got, our affections.

   Memories. Like those first few weeks when I could hold him sitting upright in the palm of my hand. Or his first encounter with snow deeper than he was tall. By the time he trekked back into the house, he was completely encased in a coat of perfectly-formed tiny snowballs. Or the staccato clicking of his nails on the kitchen floor as he dashed for the side door and waited eagerly every time one of us asked him, “Wanna go for a walk?”  

   Though the oppressive heat of August is still a few months away, my dog days began on the evening of May 6, when Martha and I returned home from the vet, gingerly lifted Spanky’s blanket-wrapped body out of the car, and buried our beloved Shih Tzu. The Little Lion now rests with the Tiger Lillies in our back yard. A star has fallen from the firmament of our lives, and we are Siriusly saddened. I wonder, can dogs appreciate puns?

    Whimsical queries aside, I’ve been wondering a great deal about what dogs might be given to appreciate after living out their lives of blessing their human companions with countless soul-soothing delights. I think it’s neither presumptuous nor heretical to imagine that the all-merciful and loving Creator of Everything would in turn provide a haven of happiness for creatures such as this. Is the Scriptural promise of eternal reward meant only for us humans?  

    Spanky’s last few months were increasingly heartbreaking to witness.  A number of ailments had put him into a dark and silent place. But his final moments on the vet’s table were mercifully quick, and without pain or struggle. And though blind and deaf when he left this place, I imagine his regal strut all over again as he saw the open arms of his Creator and heard his words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Followed, of course, with, “Spanky! I got yer treat!”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Eloquent Totemic Remembrances

Eloquent Totemic Remembrances

By Tom Wachunas

   “…Rather than focusing on the ugly side of truth, my intent is to focus on the nobility of those who sacrificed life, limb and spirit in service to their country and thus, to us.”  - James Mellick

   …Mellick doesn’t just sculpt his forms “out of wood” in the subtractive sense so much as he seems to lovingly caress them into being… ARTWACH review, September 3, 2012

    EXHIBIT: Wounded Warrior Dogs: Celebrating America’s K-9 Heroes, wood sculpture by James Mellick, at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH JULY 17, 2016 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666

    One adaptation of an ancient tale tells us that after humans were expelled from Eden, a chasm began to separate them from all other animals. Humans feared and hunted the animals, who responded in kind. But one animal - a dog – paced anxiously as he watched the chasm grow ever wider and finally leaped across toward a man. As the dog was clinging desperately to the edge of the precipice, the man reached down and pulled him to safety. Thereafter the two remained the best of friends.

   Artist James Mellick writes in his statement accompanying his stunning wood sculptures currently installed in the lobby of the Canton Museum of Art that, “…Our culture is so invested in dogs that they have become the totem animal of human kind.” His observation is particularly apropos when considering what “totems” are historically – likenesses of animals or other natural forms made to symbolize blood relationships with human clans or families.

    Indeed, “blood relationships” of a kind are very much at the ideological center of these works. While they don’t illustrate such connections in the biologically genetic sense, they nonetheless bring to mind that making war seems to be, tragically enough, in our societal DNA.

    Mellick’s constructed canine anatomies are assemblages of separately carved and/or layered parts of highly polished woods. It’s a fascinating method that reinforces the sense that these dogs, once terribly wounded, have been put back together and rehabilitated. Incorporated prosthetic devices in three of the sculptures, such as a knee joint or a leg, look like state-of-the-art medical devices made for humans.

    And therein we can find an inroad to a deeper appreciation of the dual symbolism in Mellick’s pieces. Yes, the indisputable sublimity of his workmanship makes his sculpted objects a completely arresting homage to these animals and the vital services they have traditionally rendered during wartime. But again, these representations are also about the meaning of the relationship between human soldiers and their canine compatriots, and in turn their relationship to us. We can savor them far beyond seeing the dogs only as trained servants doing a “master’s’” bidding. They speak to a unique bonding, an esprit de corps, a shared duty and identity in the midst of harrowing conflict and rescue. As such, Mellick invites us to see the dogs – their journeys and deeds - as votive allegories of the selfless courage and sacrifice of all wounded veterans.

    To put it another way, Mellick’s sculptures are exquisite proxies, at once beautiful and heartbreaking. The most compelling work in this grouping may well be the largest, called The Way Back. The dog is dramatically distressed (Mellick bleached and burned cedar wood to augment the effect) -  struggling to walk, starving, fur disheveled and looking like so many knife points, one eye swollen shut, one thigh deeply scarred.

   The way back indeed…from the precipice.

    PHOTOS, from top: The Way Back / Not Forgotten / Wounded Warrior #1 /   

Monday, May 16, 2016

Magical Medicine

Magical Medicine

By Tom Wachunas

    For those of us familiar with Disney’s 1964 family film classic, Mary Poppins, featuring the memorable chemistry between Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, it might be understandable to wonder how a stage version (this one opened on Broadway in 2006) featuring local talent could possibly measure up. But perish the thought. This is, after all, the Players Guild Theatre, and just about every aspect of this mainstage offering is, as the title of one song suggests, practically perfect.

  Directed by Michael Lawrence Akers (who also choreographed the show along with Bart Herman), the well-practiced cast is, in a word, extraordinary. The big ensemble songs are executed with a practically tribal intensity, replete with luscious harmonies and commanding choreographic bravura (even the final curtain call is an electrifying act in itself), all skillfully synced with the vibrant live orchestra led by Steve Parsons. And the set pieces designed by Joshua Erichsen, especially the chimneyed London rooftops spread across the stage in Act Two, are impressive.

   In the title role of the nanny hired to serve the troubled Banks family in 1910 London, Meg Martinez is an utterly magnetic presence, even if she does seem a bit nervous hanging on to her flying umbrella. She’s an eminently gifted singer as well as very attentive to her character’s more subtle psychological underpinnings.  Yes, she’s genuinely bubbly and loving. Yet despite her infectious charisma, she’s also a wise loner in a complicated sort of way, and fully capable of answering any sassy challenge to her position with sardonic wit.

   Those challenges come primarily in the form of George Banks, the family patriarch with misplaced priorities, and early on, the rambunctious children, Jane and Michael. As the irascible Mr. Banks, Micah Harvey is compelling in his own right, obsessed with his job as a banker and exuding a chilling detachment from his children as well as his wife, Winifred, played by Amanda Medley. Like the children, she’s starved for really authentic love. Medley’s piercing, bittersweet voice is a poignant embodiment of fragility, longing, and frustration initially, but as the story progresses, we watch her gather confidence when her hopelessness is palpably transformed into family healing. Through it all, young Brooklyn Fockler as Jane, and Adam Petrosino as Michael, perform with endearing  - at times even startling – panache. To quote another iconic song, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius, they “…always sound precocious.”

   Also quite astonishing is the vivacious energy that the versatile Justin Edenhofer stirs up in his role of the street-hardened yet tender Bert (Dick Van Dyke’s role in the film). He’s something of the amiable ringmaster of ceremonies here. And nowhere are his lithe and limber capabilities more  apparent than in the thrilling ensemble number, Step in Time, wherein he’s literally soaring above the crowd, gingerly stepping across the twirling tops of wire brooms held aloft by his fellow Chimney Sweeps. An equally enchanted scene ensues a little earlier in Act Two as Michael (Adam Petrosino) gleefully guides a spot-lighted kite that dances in the air above the stage during Let’s Go Fly a Kite.

   Among other delectable highlights are the hilarious performances by Julie Connair and Matthew Heppe as the easily-panicked household servants; Joey Cogan as both an animated marble statue in the park and Jane’s haunted toy doll, Valentine; and Annie Giancola as the stern and spooky Miss Andrew, a “holy terror” of a nanny who can sing with operatic intensity.

    It’s far more than just a spoonful of sugar that makes Mary Poppins’ magical medicine go down with such efficacious and certainly entertaining, results. Sweet, even syrupy, to be sure. But more importantly, this wondrous concoction is also laced through and through with an earnest message of real kindness and compassion – enough to soften the hardest of hearts “…in a most delightful way.”     

    Mary Poppins, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio/ THROUGH MAY 29 / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday / Tickets: $26 adults, $23 seniors, $19 ages 17 and younger,  at 330.453.7617 or

    PHOTO, courtesy Scott Heckel, Canton Repository: Justin Edenhofer as Bert, and Meg Martinez as Mary Poppins

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Come What May, Part 74

Come What May, Part 74

by Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: 74th Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery. THROUGH MAY 31, 2016 / located in the North Canton Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio /  330.499.4712  x312 /

    Full disclosure: I’m excited and grateful to report that I do have a piece in this show, and it was awarded Second Place in the Mixed Media category. I wrote about this newest work here on April 1. Here’s the link if you’re interested: 

   If only for the disappointing dearth of non-objective abstract works here (one exception being the First Place in Mixed Media winner, Daniel Vaughn’s Lego decoration, Which Way?), this exhibit is certainly not a comprehensive survey of the visual arts in Stark County. Interestingly enough, though, the 52 works in the show are deftly mounted (thank you, Elizabeth Blakemore) so that the overall content seems more varied than it actually is. In the 2D realm, the preponderance of landscape and nature imagery is punctuated with a few other subjects, among them figural/portraiture and still-life.

    Yet within this generally limited range of genres, there is an entertaining diversity of stylistic and technical approaches ranging from the sweet and ornamental to the genuinely compelling, from the ridiculous (Mike Uhren’s Red Hot Sexy Smoker, Second Place winner in the Acrylic category, gives dubious new meaning to “eye-popping”) to the sublime.  

    Among the more sublime landscapes are two small, horizontal gems of  subtle light: Heather Bullach’s oil painting, The Rising Sun, confidently rendered in unfussy brushwork, and Ron Watson’s Rainclouds Near Hartville, a darker study in colored pencil that was awarded First Place in the Drawings and Original Prints category.

    The Second Place winner in that category, a black-and-white woodcut print titled Veuve, by William M. Bogdan, is one of the few pieces here really potent with both cerebral and emotive heft. Call it thoughtful gravitas. His arresting entry is an arrangement of two figures – husband and wife, presumably (Veuve is French for widow)- caught in a moment of loss or mourning or letting go. The seated husband figure is a blank white silhouette – a ghostly emptiness - still holding on to the recumbent wife. Particularly fascinating is the miniaturized version of an earlier Bogdan print (Marriage in Silverdale, from 2014), presented here as a picture in the background of the composition, depicting a married couple standing. As Veuve is a chapter in a history, it could also be seen as a symbol of Bogdan’s own history as an artist.

    Haunting, too, is Erin T. Mulligan’s startling, hyper-detailed Self Portrait as a Grown-Up. In this elegantly creepy picture of angst, her beehive hairdo is a weighty home to demonic bugs.

    And speaking of chapters in history, Michelle Mulligan’s Art “Her-Story” (Second Place award in the Three-Dimensional category) is a delightfully crafted parade of doll-like figurines, all meticulously adorned after some of art history’s most iconic representations of women. Gourd-geous work.

    This year’s “Best In Show” award brings up the same concerns I’ve expressed in the past about the whole idea of juried art shows. Just blowin’ in the wind, I guess. Still, to remind you, here’s an excerpt from last year’s May Show review: … designating prizes, especially the “Best in Show,” can be particularly problematic if not plain silly…It’s not as if there exists a magic formula or universally accepted canon of standards for determining the last word on aesthetic superiority. Such awards are necessarily declarations of opinions (albeit educated ones, one would hope) – a decidedly subjective exercise – on the part of the jurors.

    So it is that this year’s honors went to Pat Waltz for her fabric, stoneware, and embroidery sculpture called Petite Pinto. What can I say about this curious tchotchke? With all due respect for Waltz’s remarkable technical skill, not much…lest I be accused of beating a cute horse.

   PHOTOS, from top: Red Hot Sexy Smoker, by Mike Uhren / Petite Pinto, by Pat Waltz / Veuve, by William Bogdan / Self Portrait as a Grown-Up, by Erin Mulligan / The Rising Sun, by Heather Bullach

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Taking and Making

Taking and Making

by Tom Wachunas

      “A great photograph is a full expression in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety. And the expression of what one feels should be set forth in terms of simple devotion to the medium – a statement of the utmost clarity and perfection possible under the conditions of creation and production.”  - Ansel Adams

    EXHIBIT: Masters of American Photography and Massillon’s Masters, at Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon, THROUGH MAY 15,  330.833.4061

    Before reading further, I ask that you click on the above link to read Judi Krew’s astute review of a remarkable adjunct exhibit in Massillon Museum’s Studio M, Image to Image: Photographs by Walsh University’s Photojournalism Students, on view through May 29. Krew makes some salient points that are certainly in harmony with my thoughts that follow here.

    As records of material reality, think of photographs as fossils. Not too unlike the petrified remains of once living things embedded in stratified earth, they are the remnants of moments (albeit in two dimensions) no longer actually present, but embedded in memory, itself a stratified element of human consciousness.

   The exquisite gathering of masterful images currently on view at Massillon Museum, organized by Massillon Museum’s curator, Heather Haden, is comprised of photographs from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, and from the Massillon Museum’s own impressive permanent collection. The exhibit reminds me that examining the history of photography – well encapsulated in this exhibit - could in some ways be called Paleontology of the Psyche.

    In the mid–to-late 19th century, cameras did much to liberate the art of painting from the conventional standards and practices of pictorial verisimilitude. Yet practically from the beginning, regarding photographs as legitimate works of fine art was, for a substantial number of artists and critics, a prickly proposition. Ironically, there was a time (and to some extent still is today) when photographs thought to be the most artful were those that looked like they really wanted to be paintings.  Even more interesting to consider is that today, in some if not many circles, for better or worse, one measure of creative excellence in the world of painting is the degree to which an artist can make a painted surface look like a photograph. Apparently we still cherish our illusions (and ultimately a photograph is indeed illusory) and the talents that realize them.

    Speaking of “…some if not many circles,” I’ve known for years that there are those unfortunates who continue to hold that a photograph cannot be a work of fine art. There are many factors contributing to such a myopic perspective, foremost among them being the mistaken distinction that a true artist actively crafts tangible materials to “make” or “create” something while a photographer simply “takes” a picture, which is to say that he or she merely appropriates or replicates something already extant.

   And of course, as Judi Krew similarly observed in her review, it doesn’t help the cause for appreciating photography as a discrete art form in this world when ubiquitous point-and-shoot devices have assured the viral and numbing presence of vapid imagery vying for our too-divided attentions. When it comes to photography, it’s an increasingly daunting endeavor to distinguish between the schlocky and the sublime, the inane and the important. Too often we can’t see the trees for the forest.

   That’s why exhibits such as this one are so necessary and rejuvenating, provided we take the time to engage willful seeing. In the Ansel Adams quote at the top of this post, the ending reference to “…under the conditions of creation and production” covers a wealth of variables – both technical and aesthetic - in embracing photography as art. Those photographers we can recognize as true artists grapple with the same formal, conceptual, and emotional issues and questions that any visual artist would in making a work in any other medium. Yes, making. Ansel Adams also once rightly observed, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

   To clarify the Paleontology analogy, photographs aren’t fossils in the sense of being something lifeless. Fossils speak of and to something beyond their immediate materiality, something of history and life itself. So it is with photographs. Great photographs – and there are many in this exhibit -  aren’t merely iterations of something the artist captured or took. They are, rather, eloquent declarations of the artist being taken and perhaps even enraptured by a moment in time. When we look, we too become willing captives.

    PHOTOS, from top: Pepper No. 30, by Edward Weston / Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange /  Balzac (by Rodin) – The Silhouette, 4 A.M., by Edward Steichen /  Monolith, The Face of Halfdome, Yosemite National Park, California, by Ansel Adams