Monday, February 26, 2018

Weighing Options - An Altared State






   Weighing Options - An Altared State

By Tom Wachunas

“… Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”  – Ephesians 6:10-18

    Preparing for my solo exhibit at The Little Art Gallery (“Altared States,” slated to open on July 19) has been an arduous task lately. Decisions, decisions. A few days ago, sorting through dozens of artworks crammed into my tiny studio, I noticed a piece from 2008 which had been hiding in plain sight, gathering dust for the past ten years. I can’t even remember its original title, though ‘redemption’ might have been part of it. But very recent terrible events, both local and elsewhere in this country, have prompted a tentative re-naming of “SOS.”  

   There’s something childlike about the construction. Painted on a thick wood board 43” tall by 5 ½” wide is the black cosmos, dotted with splotchy planets, stars, galaxies. From the bottom, a thin shelf protrudes, painted to suggest that it’s on fire, and holding a small green toy dragon. The devil’s dance floor. Just above the faux flames is an actual basket containing a spheroid wad of printed paper - a crumpled National Geographic map of the world. The basket hangs on a fish hook tied to one end of a thin white string – a lifeline - running down from the top of the board. Standing on that top edge is a tiny plastic lamb with the other end of the string knotted ‘round its neck. 

   As I lifted the piece from the surrounding artsy clutter, I wasn’t thinking about whether or not to include it in my exhibit. In fact, at that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the recent media footage of hurting and angry people holding signs emblazoned with “No More Thoughts and Prayers.”  No more thoughts and prayers?  Really?  OK, I think I understand what they mean to say, frustrated and enraged as they are, but I fear they may have missed something vital in the process. 

    So, as if encountering this dusty art of mine for the first time, I stared at it, hard and long. At that lamb, that lifeline. At that hook, sharp like a sword. I remembered the words of Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 4:19): “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then, I simply… longed. And the longing turned into praying.

  I certainly don’t mean to judge any person’s heart in these matters. Here, though, is a cautionary observation. Maybe for too many folks among us, praying, if it happens at all, can become an impotent ritual, a timid voicing of platitudes, a formulaic posturing, a bromide for solace in suffering, a howling wish for divine intervention and deliverance. Here’s a thought: The divine intervention and deliverance, the solace we so often desperately seek has already happened, long ago, and yet continues, ever in the living person, the perfect, unconditional love and Spirit of Jesus Christ. If only we choose to accept the gift of him dwelling in us.

   As a believer and disciple, I’ve come to realize that praying is not just a contemplative prelude to asking God to do something, but an empowering action in itself. In and through Christ, prayer is our intentional interaction with God - our decision to hear and actively live out his plan for us. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence,” we are told in Hebrews, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  

    And this, from Romans 8:31-39... What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

   He prays for us still. His prayer has become my prayer. And may it never become less.    

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Sublime Witnessing






A Sublime Witnessing

By Tom Wachunas

…And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it /And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it / Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin' / But I'll know my song well before I start singin' / And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard / It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.  Bob Dylan, from “A Hard Rain's a Gonna Fall”

    E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015), author of the 1975 historical fiction novel, Ragtime (adapted for an eponymous drama film in 1981 and a Broadway musical in 1998), once stated, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” He also observed, “Writers are witnesses. The reason we need writers is because we need witnesses to this terrifying century.” While Doctorow was referring to the 20th century, I would add only that in 2018, and still for the same reasons, we need all the arts.

   So there is indeed an aura of timely, relevant urgency that emanates from this soaring Players Guild production of Ragtime, directed by Jonathan Tisevich. He also plays a central character in the story. It’s a thoroughly exhilarating partnership with his cast of 40 performers. Together they sing and move with infectious, dazzling proficiency through the vivacious choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers and the wondrously crisp, warm melodic pastiche from the live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons. Though set in America’s volatile early years of the 20th century leading up to World War I, these eminently versatile performers make the then of the story so unnervingly familiar and real that it stands as a sobering reflection of our now – afflicted as it is by a malaise of weighty sociopolitical issues including, among others, racial bigotry, poverty, and immigration. 

   In this drama of societies in conflict, Tisevich plays Tateh, an intensely solicitous and resourceful Jewish immigrant and father looking for a new life in America. His singing voice is a marvel of opulent expressivity, and particularly magical when he intones the gentle imagery of the song “Gliding” while embracing eight year-old Sophia Tsenekos. She plays Tateh’s daughter, and throughout the daunting circumstances encountered by her father, she’s consistently agile and endearing - an adorable spirit of uncorrupted hope.

   In his role of the Harlem ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr., Christopher Gales is an altogether compelling presence with a beautifully sonorous voice - equal parts authoritative muscle and disarming sweetness. He’s a riveting embodiment of Coalhouse’s desperate (and violent) search for justice and equally desperate efforts to win back the heart of Sarah, whom he had abandoned before knowing he had fathered her child. As Sarah, Joy Ellis is a charismatic powerhouse who portrays the complex pathos of her character with remarkable panache. Her achingly tender voicing of “Your Daddy’s Son” is one of the evening’s most heartrending moments, as his her electrifying duet with Coalhouse in “Wheels of a Dream.”

   It’s fascinating to watch the magnetic Heidi Swinford in her role as the frustrated matriarch of an affluent white family. Her impassioned duet with Tateh, “Our Children,” is powerfully optimistic and tender. More powerful still, a little later she progressively sheds her fears and vulnerability to free herself from patriarchal oppression, and declares as much in her searing ballad, “Back to Before.” Meanwhile, Christopher Hager turns in a convincing counterpart as her husband – often absent from the household, self-absorbed, and struggling to deal with the forces at work in the world around him. Additionally, there’s young Ezra Bernstein as the prescient, often bemused son, full of curiosity about, and commentary on, the situations unfolding around him.

   Offsetting the gravitas threaded through this narrative, there are refreshing moments of a different if not lighter nature. Among those is the hilarity of a riotous, all-male chorus gathered to watch a baseball game; the unforgettably giddy interludes from Sarah Marie Young as the bubbly, sassy, and slightly daft showgirl, Evelyn Nesbitt; and Joshua Erichsen making delightfully dashing appearances as the disappearing Harry Houdini. 

   Never disappearing from this musical epic of colliding cultures, though, is an ever-present sense of yearning, of offering up a collective supplication, a plea for relief from the hard rains that have fallen on our divided society. This is most apparent when the full ensemble is gathered to sing “Till We Reach That Day” at the end of Act I, and again in Act Two during the stirring climax of the Epilogue. The splendorous polyphonic power of the ensemble singing is utterly heart-rattling.

   Call it a glorious prayer, then. Truly sublime art, such as this radiant Players Guild production, can be like that.


  Ragtime /  Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 4 - Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday / TICKETS: $29 ages 18 to 54, $26 ages 55 and older, $22 for 17 and younger / Order at 330-453-7617 and

   PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers: Joy Ellis as Sarah, Christopher Gales as Coalhouse Walker Jr. / Sophia Tsenekos as Little Girl, Jonatahn Tisevich as Tateh / Sarah Marie Young as Evelyn Nesbit / Heidi Swinford as Mother

Monday, February 12, 2018

Modes of Transport








Modes of Transport

By Tom Wachunas

Double, double toil and trouble; /Fire burn and caldron bubble./
Cool it with a baboon's blood,/ Then the charm is firm and good.
   - “Song of the Witches” excerpt, from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

   “The finished surface holds the memory of what has been imprinted upon it by pressure, sometimes by moisture heat, and by time. It also bears the memory of an experience, an encounter with nature, or the hands of the artisan…”  - Nancy Farr Benigni
  
   EXHIBIT: CONFLUENCE: Textiles and Organic Prints By Nancy Farr Benigni / Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 2, 2018 / Gallery Hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

   Rest assured that the above excerpt from Shakespeare is not to imply that the work of visiting artist Nancy Farr Benigni is in any way hellish or sinister. The quote is intended only as a kind of gateway to appreciating the mystique of her mark-making methods. In this context, think of ‘caldron’ as a causal device, such as a vat for mixing dyes, or for that matter, any procedure for causing  paper and textiles to hold us firmly in their thrall. There’s a preternatural allure, maybe even a spirit of alchemy, to Benigni’s works, embedded as they are with the potential to take us to some where, to some time. They evoke, conjure, transport.

   When is the last time, for example, that you traversed a wooded glen, a verdant meadow, a forest floor? Did you see – I mean really see – what you thought you were looking at? Did you closely examine the ground? Did you stoop down to touch it? Smell it? Listen to it? You were standing on a microcosm that spanned millennia.

   Another way to sense the surface on which you were walking is as a primordial fabric - a vast network of stratified patterns, textures, and colors woven together. Then you might imagine the loamy earth under your feet as a kind of loom - a frame for stretching out the warp and weft of protean organic materials arranged by natural forces. [‘Warp’ and ‘weft’ are the basic weaving components used to make thread or yarn into fabric. Longitudinal warp yarns are held in stationary tension on a loom while the transverse weft is drawn through, inserted over-and-under the warp.]

   Each of the individual components of this installation – woven fiber hangings imprinted with organic shapes, and prints on paper - is untitled. Think of them as chapters or episodes in a continuous journey presented under the collective title of “Confluence,” referring to the artist’s merging of creative procedures. “There is a mysterious quality,” Benigni writes in her statement, “in the processes of opening a bundle of leaves that have been steamed with paper or cloth, opening a woven piece gathered and bound with shibori knots, or the shifting threads of a painted warp as it is woven.”

   Pictorially, that ‘mysterious quality’ often comes through in the prints that suggest ghostly foliate fossils. In a compacted sort of way, the artist’s methods can be seen to imitate and accelerate some of nature’s own mechanisms for producing such forms.

    Further, Benigni’s beautifully woven vertical banners harken to ancient cultural practices of adorning textiles and garments, including the use of carved textile stamps. Some of those stamps, which Benigni has been collecting since her college days at Kent State University – remarkable works of art in their own right - are included in the exhibit (shown above in the last photo). I highly recommend a visit to her spectacular website (click on link at top of this post). See her edifying blog entries for an in-depth look at some aspects of her textile art.

   This installation at Kent Stark’s Main Hall Art Gallery is an altogether elegant articulation of a tactile metaphysic. Consider it a way of connecting to, touching, and remembering… histories. Our present act of intentional, close scrutiny can itself be a mode of transport into its mesmerizing charm, which is indeed “…firm and good.”

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Retrospectacles







Retrospectacles

By Tom Wachunas

   "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 our weary souls."  -Diane Belfiglio

   EXHIBIT: Architectural Visions – acrylic paintings and oil pastel drawings by Diane Belfiglio, THROUGH FEBRUARY 16, 2018 / at Malone Gallery, in the Johnson Center at Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio. 
 
 
   MEET THE ARTIST at the CLOSING RECEPTION on Thursday, February 15 from 6:00-8:00pm.

   While this exhibit of 15 acrylic paintings on canvas and 14 oil pastel drawings on paper is a retrospective of works made between 1997 and 2012, Diane Belfiglio’s aesthetic still feels elegant, bold, and fresh to me. I suspect it will always be so, which is a good thing. Hers is an oeuvre I consider to be a see-worthy vessel that remains buoyant and sturdy in turbulent waters – intact and unabashedly beautiful in our splintered culture too often floundering in pointless pop junk and ugly sensationalism.

   And so in the same retrospective spirit, I offer the following excerpts from some of my past commentaries. I first encountered and wrote about Belfiglio’s work in 1998.
___________________________________________________________
   From New Art Examiner, May, 1998:
   In Angled Ascent, we look upward at an L-shaped concrete staircase to the entrance of a red brick building. A patch of geraniums grows against the brick at ground level. Most notable in this painting is the handling of the shadows from the ornate green railing cast upon the steps. The shapes of the shadows jump off from the steps like gentle graffito, a signature, a calligraphic sign of light. In the real world, we often take for granted such settings as this one—stairs to a building—as unremarkable and pedestrian. But in the hands of Belfiglio, a clearly accomplished technician in the realm of drawing and otherwise rendering reality, the common becomes the extraordinary…

   From Dialogue Magazine, January, 2001:
…There’s magic in the minutiae. Belfiglio’s images are not frontal views of facades with panoramic surroundings. Rather, she focuses on an isolated corner or dormer here, an unusual window adornment or staircase there. The shapes of shadows cast by sunlight take on a distinct physicality, as if built into the surfaces on which they rest. In Victorian Vignettes IV, a steely blue shadow protrudes across the bright pattern of hexagonal shingles like a dancer darting along a tile floor.
   For all of their meticulous faithfulness to something recognizable, the paintings never succumb to the often-pointless technical flamboyance so common in Photorealism. On the other hand, there is no liberal application of paint, no tactile surfaces, no frenetic brushwork. Yet the paintings are nonetheless sumptuous in their luxuriant light and playful rhythms of form and shadow. At times they conjure the spirit of Edward Hopper minus the angst, or the great Impressionists sans impasto.
   There is something akin to reverence in the way Belfiglio approaches her subjects, as indicated in her statement for the show: “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 our weary souls.” True to the works’ raison d’etre, these are contemplative visions for our thoughtless times. As such, they are acts of courage on canvas.


   - From ARTWACH, July 2009,
 

  …Belfiglio pulls it all together via a combination of highly skilled draftsmanship, masterful composition, and a remarkable (and absolutely necessary) understanding of color. And so it is that while the raison detre behind Belfiglio’s most recent work remains consistent with her past acrylic architectural series, the overall look has undergone a significant evolution, due in large part to her shift into oil pastels…
…Perhaps one way to fully appreciate the new direction in Belfiglio’s work is to think of her earlier paintings as boldly voiced sentences, or matter-of-fact statements articulated with muscular and cerebral confidence. These new pieces are quieter, though no less engaging. Like ballads beautifully sung.
 


   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Installation view / 2. Angled Ascent, acrylic, 1997 /  3. Victorian Vignettes IV, acrylic, 2000 / 4. Lawnfield Reflections, acrylic, 2004 / 5. Digression into Detail V, oil pastel, 2
a portfolio of BelīŦglio’s work can be viewed on her website: