Saturday, December 14, 2019

Unwrapping the Christmas Presence

Unwrapping the Christmas Presence

"Amended Big Bang Theory" - acrylic, fabric, paper, found object

By Tom Wachunas

   …The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…  John 1:14

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…   Hebrews 11:1  

   Did the practice of giving and getting gifts (i.e., “presents”) at Christmastime begin with the simple notion that it was the wise thing to do, as in a grand identification with those three “wise men” traveling from afar to worship a new king? They were probably astrologers – readers of tiny, distant cosmic lights.  So when did remembering the “magic of Christmas” morph into the ritualized retail mania, the elaborate ceremonies of rabid consumerism which so much of our society engages today? 

   What light are we following? Have we become so enamored of Christmas presents that we’ve become insensitive to the Christmas presence? Immanuel, God incarnate, with us, here and now.

   It wasn’t until around 2001 that my artwork developed into a materiality of a Christocentric nature - a codified language of the heart. Back in 2008 I made a piece I called “A Brief History of Everything.”  Stark and simple, the work was comprised of nine crumpled index cards, painted in blotches of black and white, and mounted horizontally on a narrow board in a sequential row to suggest stages of opening up into an all-white field. It was inspired by the Big Bang Theory, science’s best explanation of how the universe came to be.

   I recently made a variation on the same theme, this one called “Amended Big Bang Theory,” measuring 48” tall, 10” wide, 4” deep, pictured above. The theory states that the cosmos began as an unimaginably small singularity, a less-than-microscopic mass of immeasurable density, which exploded some 14 million years ago into all manner of cosmic pieces still speeding away from us. Of course there’s no definitive scientific accounting for the origins of that singularity. No explanation of how, why, or for that matter…who. We simply assume that “it” was always…there.

    Faith is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Just like the physical universe described by Big Bang theorists, real faith is an actuality in a perpetual state of expanding, or unwrapping, as it were. By extension, growing from the tiniest intuition - a singularity in its own right – or the smallest seed of willingness to seek and believe what science alone can never apprehend, I have found that in matters of spirit, faith is indeed a great and constant outward reaching of the soul which can indeed give rise to empirical certainty.

   “Amended Big Bang Theory” is a vertical sentence, or if you will, a prayer and a Christmas greeting. The white expanse at the bottom is not so much a period or an end to the sentence, but a beginning. It’s not a tiny, distant cosmic speck, but a large, tangible presence of light. It’s an echo of John the Baptist’s welcoming Jesus into the world we know, on to the ground where we stand, forever into our midst. Behold, the Lamb of God…

   My prayer for all you readers – both now at Christmas, and every day - is that you nurture the seeds of your willingness to let faith grow and bear fruit.

 Happy Holydays.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cryptic Kisses and Other Tangible Tensions

Cryptic Kisses and Other Tangible Tensions

Lock Born

Kissing Stones

Void in Echo

Site of a Scene: in RED

Site of a Scene: in a Blue Tint

EXHIBIT: Distance Loop, a solo exhibition featuring works by Melissa Vogley Woods / ending on December 5, 2019 / at The William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio

 / Gallery Hours for the remaining duration of the exhibit: Tuesday- Wednesday, December 3d and 4th, 11:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m., AND Artist’s RECEPTION / Gallery Talk: Thursday, December 5, 12:30pm

    Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Canton anymore.

    What makes the Lemmon Gallery a vital and truly inspiring venue for viewing contemporary art is its singular purity of design and potent agency of purpose. Here’s a place apart - a gorgeous retreat from the commercially familiar, a challenging alternative to the locally safe and insular, a venturing away from the comfortable and provincial. The art shown here springs from a serious curatorial commitment (thanks for this installation to Andrea Meyers) to presenting fresh, provocative aesthetic visions and practices from beyond our immediate region.

   The announcement for this installation described the work of Melissa Vogley Woods - a multidisciplinary artist from Columbus, Ohio -  as focusing “…on the nature of internal and external conflict and resolution with additional interests in erasure under patriarchy and homespun methodologies against it.”  Heady stuff, to be sure.

   A recurring motif in Woods’ sculptural assemblages is the human mouth, in the form of thick, curvaceous lips made from scagliola. Scagliola is a mixture of pigments and plaster that can be fashioned to look like marble. In “Lock Born,” an oblong rod of thin steel loops out from the wall, holding up a row of 12 marbleized orifices that hang in midair like so many pendants on jewelry chains. Depending upon your viewing position, the lips appear to come at you from a distance, starting with smaller, closed mouths at the far end that progressively get larger as they open wider. There’s an eerie, indeed primal sensuality about this work (a quality apparent in other pieces here as well) which suggests something slowly emerging from tight-lipped silence into an utterance – a single word, a phrase, maybe a shout. Or is it simply an exhaled breath? 

   The four very large canvas paintings included in the installation, collectively under the theme of “Site of a Scene,” are lavish, glimmering abstractions in acrylic, marble dust, various grounds, and water-based mediums. These are magnificently complex and ambiguous panoramas wherein measured, regular patterns and structures collide with, or melt into organic pools and atmospheric pockets of rich color. Rigidity and fluidity in dramatic moments of equipoise. A visual theatre of integration and disintegration all at once.

   Other sculptural pieces here confound easy definition or categorization. They can seem alternately like garden totems, strange gravestones, or perhaps distant cousins to cairns – forms, dating to ancient times, made from stones piled up as memorials or landmarks. Memorials of what? Mended or broken relationships? Loves lost and found? All of the above?

   So I’m left in a state of inquiry, of continued looking, wondering, even guessing. But with art, it’s always the lingering questions, not the instantaneous or obvious answers, which I’ve found to be the most compelling affirmation of being alive. And besides, in the end, who doesn’t savor a really good mystery? 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   The November 9 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra CSO) was a particularly eclectic program of five works exploring the theme of storytelling, beginning with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. In the genre of opera buffa, there’s hardly a more scintillating curtain raiser than this madcap orchestral frolic. The fast-paced music is replete with crisply punctuated rhythms and many shifting colors, and the ensemble played it impeccably.

   Following this invigorating romp into unfettered jollity, the musical temperament shifted dramatically with Concerto Dei Fiori (Concert of Flowers), a one-movement piece for violin and chamber orchestra composed in 1996 by Sylvie Bodorová. In the course of her career spanning from the late 1970s, she has become one of the most sought-after and performed champions of contemporary Czech musical culture.

   Concerto Dei Fiori is a piquant melding of moods, at once somber and sweet, tumultuous and meditative. All of the work’s thematic tensions were articulated here with mesmerizing panache in a sensitive dialogue between the small ensemble and the featured soloist, CSO concertmaster Cristian Zimmerman. His remarkably fluid playing was imbued with an emotive intensity that very effectively evoked the music’s sensations of wandering and discovery, of slowly ascending from brooding darkness to blossom in the promise of light. His electrifying cadenza nearly midway through, pierced by savage dissonances, was a grand unleashing that gave way to stratospheric high notes, finally ushering in a stately hush as the ensemble quoted J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele : “Adorn yourself, of beloved soul, leave the dark den of sins, come into the clear light, begin to shine with glory…”

   Following that gorgeous moment of found serenity was a story of a different sort - Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for soprano and small orchestra. Barber set this fascinating work - perhaps best called a free-form operatic poem, or “word painting” - to text written by American poet and novelist James Agee (1909-1955). The words form a distinctly dreamlike remembrance of a sultry summer evening, presented from the perspective of a child, and made all the more enchanting here thanks to the rhapsodic intonations from soprano Hilerie Klein Rensi. Beyond the sheer radiance of her actual singing, which was often inflected with a lilting, conversational timbre, Rensi’s performance was suffused with a captivating theatrical expressivity. She seemed to float effortlessly between wistful   moments of wide-eyed childlike wonder and the more bittersweet musings, implicit in the text, of an adult all too aware of mortality and impending sorrow. Throughout, the ensemble invested Barber’s seductive and haunting melodies with a crystalline, even magical dimensionality. 

   The concert ended, as it began, on a dazzlingly felicitous note, this time with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. This lavishly orchestrated work is a rambunctious Hungarian rondo with special attention given to the clarinet. The orchestra rose to the moment with all the lush sonority and clarity we’ve come to expect from this accomplished body of gifted artists. Yet interestingly enough, it was the performance of the work preceding this enthralling climax that remains in my mind as the most extraordinary musical encounter of the evening – Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. 

   Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann introduced this eminently familiar American classic - which I’ve always heard played by large orchestras - with a humorous and touching reminiscence about meeting, knowing, and savoring Aaron Copland. Then he faced his ensemble, now pared down to a scant 13 pieces (as originally performed in 1944) and proceeded to essentially transcend mere familiarity. You’d think that with such a small group of players, the scope and depth of Copland’s idyllic vision would be somehow diminished. Instead, they simply proved that less can in fact be more. ‘Tis the gift to be simple indeed. I’ve never heard this iconic work performed with more genuine emotional sensitivity, more sweeping lyrical elegance, than on this occasion. What was old had become new again. Better than beautiful, it was sublime.     

Monday, November 11, 2019

Prank and Circumstance

Prank and Circumstance

Dede Klein and Benjamin Gregg

April Deming (l), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Micah Harvey

Lames Alexander Rankin (l.), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Micah Harvey, Shani Ferry, Dede Klein

Dede Klein, Micah Harvey

By Tom Wachunas

Photos by Jeremy Aronhalt

   The series of four plays comprising the 2019/20 season from itinerant Seat of the Pants Productions are offered under the theme of ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ described as “…posing questions and inspiring dialogue about how we engage with the foreigner, alien, or person who is different in our midst.” There’s something curiously appropriate, even poetic, about landing the first play of the series in a venue as theatrically nontraditional as Canton’s Habitat for Humanity of East Central Ohio.

   Directed by Craig Joseph, Ripcord is a wickedly delicious comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire that centers on two elderly widows who turn their time in an otherwise pleasant senior living facility into a mutually adversarial habitat. Talk about odd couples. From the start, chronically cranky Abby (Dede Klein) complains about everything. She can’t stand her bubbly, newly-arrived roommate, Marilyn (April Deming). Abby pleads with a senior center staffer, Scotty (Benjamin Gregg), to assign Marilyn to another room, but to no avail. So when Marilyn - who says she never gets angry about anything – makes a bet, Abby - who says that nothing scares her - jumps at the chance.

   The wager? If Abby can first succeed in making Marilyn angry, Marilyn moves out. But if Marilyn can first frighten Abby, Marilyn can have the bed she wants - the one closest to the window with a beautiful view of the park outside.

   Pull the ripcord.  A madcap game of oneupsmanship ensues, escalating into ever more mischievous practical jokes, and thrusting both women into a scenario of painful revelations about their respective pasts.

   The theatrical acumen of Craig Joseph’s entire cast is marvelous. As Abby, Dede Klein presents a visceral rendering of feral grumpiness, colored by a tired cynicism that at times feels, frightfully enough, misanthropic. Similarly startling in her authenticity, April Deming paints a spot-on portrait of Marilyn’s seemingly unflappable kindness and garrulous optimism. It’s fascinating to watch these hopelessly conflicting temperaments subtly morph from a slapstick clash of wills into a pathos which perhaps neither character could have anticipated at the beginning of their prank war.

   The supporting cast performs with equally impressive aplomb.  Benjamin Gregg is downright endearing as the dutiful resident aide Scotty – patient, infectiously funny, but increasingly exasperated by the womens’ ceaseless shananigans. He’s sure they need to get out more. So at one point, he invites them to visit the haunted house attraction where he’s been hired as an actor. There, he plays a prisoner bellowing his melodramatic pleas for mercy and tearful goodbyes as he’s repeatedly executed in the electric chair. Amidst all of this scene’s belly laughs, there’s a fleetingly heartrending, indeed symbolic moment, wherein Abby stands away from the crowd, not so much scared as haunted by sadness, gazing down at a baby doll that’s been shoved into her arms by a desperate  woman (Shani Ferry) pleading for someone to rescue her child.

   Meanwhile there are first-rate performances by Shani Ferry as Colleen, and Micah Harvey as Derek, Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law. Marilyn has enlisted them as co-conspirators in her elaborate plots to scare Abby. In one particularly ingenious scene, we see all of them tethered together for a skydiving adventure led by a stoned-out instructor played by James Alexander Rankin, who later plays Abby’s estranged son, Benjamin, with riveting poignance. In another scene of bizarre, gut-splitting hilarity, Micah Harvey, disguised as a ridiculous rabbit with fiery eyes and gold fangs, attempts to rob Abby at gunpoint as she sits reading on the park bench. She’s perturbed, sure, but definitely not scared. Yet.

   Some darker truths about these embattled women are further revealed. But some truths can be freeing. In the end there’s a brief, gentle smile of truce as they sit near that prized window overlooking the park. This wildly entertaining freefall has placed them, and us, in a path of peace.

   Ripcord, at Habitat for Humanity East Central Ohio, 1400 Raff Road Southwest, #Ste A, in Canton, Ohio / Performances on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15 & 16 at 8 p.m., Sunday Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

Starring: Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Shani Ferry, Micah Harvey, and James Rankin. Directed by Craig Joseph; assistant directed by Kyle Huff, and stage managed by Allison Harvey. Set design and construction by Kevin Anderson; Scenic artist - Tim Eakin; costumes by McCarty & Morgan Custom Costumes; lighting by Ayron Lord; props by Lisa Wiley; sound engineer - Megan Slabach; sound design and original music by John Gromada.

   Tickets $25,  at Evenbrite 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Color It Joyful

Color It Joyful

By Tom Wachunas

   A suggestion: dust off your bible and open it up to Genesis, chapter 37. Therein begins the iconic drama (which continues for several more chapters) about a family torn apart by envy and hate. Jacob favors is son, Joseph, more than any of his other 11 sons, and makes him a spectacular robe of many colors, befitting, it would seem, a king. Joseph flaunts the garment, along with his gift for interpreting prophetic dreams, which include a vision of Joseph ruling over his entire family. This causes his already jealous and angry brothers to hate him all the more and subsequently plot his demise. Rather than kill him outright, they sell him to a caravan on its way to Egypt. Then they stain his precious coat with goat’s blood, presenting it as evidence to Jacob that his most beloved son had been killed by a wild beast. Prior to the joyous reconciliation some years later with his family, Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison, yet ultimately rises to a position of power and prestige second only to the Pharaoh himself.

   This has certainly been the adventurous stuff of many children’s Sunday school lessons. In many ways, that presentational spirit of a child’s perspective remains at the core of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a perspective carried over from the show’s humble beginnings as a very short “pop cantata” performed by a London children’s choir in 1968. Appropriately enough, then, the scintillating Players Guild production, directed by Jonathan Tisevich, begins with Rachael Armbruster as the effervescent Narrator, addressing a group of 12 wide-eyed children seated attentively at her feet. Throughout the show she effectively adopts the persona of an ever-friendly teacher, with a notably bright singing voice, brimming with bubbly warmth and enthusiasm. Interestingly, that pleasant persona is something of an ironic presence considering the gloomier underpinnings of Joseph’s plight.

    As Joseph, Jonathan Gruich is a commanding figure who brings real emotional heft to his singing. He’s wholly believable, either as the dashing, prideful dream-sayer, the slave wrongly accused of lusting after the wife of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard) and languishing in prison, or the powerful man who shows Pharaoh how to save Egypt from famine and in the process re-unites with his brothers and forgives them. Meanwhile, Todd Cooper’s portrayal of the strutting, booty-bouncing Pharaoh-in-a-jumpsuit is a deliciously shameless Elvis imitation that brings down the house.  
   So indeed the proceedings never become too dark or heavy-handed. There are in fact numerous truly hilarious passages, often thanks to the male ensemble playing Joseph’s brothers. After they break the bad news about Joseph, elderly father Jacob (Matthew Heppe) limps about in a state of very sincere sorrow while they intone “One More Angel in Heaven” with faces and voices wildly contorted into remarkably individualized expressions of feigned grief and not-so-secret glee. And much later, as they reflect mournfully on their situation in the chanson-style “Those Canaan Days,” the humor is all the more pronounced via their thick French accents.

   Additionally, the women and children ensembles are equally engaging singers and dancers. When these ensembles combine, a kind of tribal intensity ensues, with deeply sonorous vocal harmonies soaring through the brisk and nimble choreography by Lauren Dangelo. Beyond the bejeweled colors of the wild costumes by Suwatana Rockland, this dazzling gem of entertainment shimmers in a delightful pastiche of musical colors as well – from 1920s Charleston and vintage Elvis, to Calypso and Country Western, to name only some – driven by the infectious artistry of the live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons. 
    Everything seems to move so fast and furious. And just when you think the story has ended, that you’ve heard that final note of an electrifying communal hurrah, the entire cast rolls right back out in a raucous romp - a protracted medley of just about every tune in the show. It’s a madcap recap of unmitigated ebullience. It might at first seem like too much for too long.

   But then again, think for a moment on the terrible and terrifying condition of the world we live in these days. Can there ever really be such a thing as too much joy? Thanks, Players Guild, for the invigorating memo. 

   Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat / at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / Through November 17, 2019 / Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.  (shows at 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 16) / $34 for single tickets, $27 for 17 and younger, $31 for Seniors / available at   or call the Box Office at 330.453.7617

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Thinking Inside the Box

Thinking Inside the Box

By Tom Wachunas

The Massillon Museum’s Stark County Artists Exhibition will be on view beginning November 2nd, and will run through January 26, 2020. On, Thursday, November 7, from 5:30 pm - 8:00 pm, there will be a FREE reception in the main gallery, now called the Aultman Health Foundation Gallery. Awards will be announced at 7:00 p.m.

Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio  Phone: 330-833-4061 / The Massillon Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm

   I’m pleased to report that a recent work of mine, Deus ex Machina #3 (the third in a series), was accepted into this juried exhibition. I think of it as equal parts freestanding sculpture (an altered computer tower) and 3D drawing (graphite and a bit of photo-transfer).

   A blessing and a bane.  A tool and a torment. A fertile world and a wasteland. The Internet. The cloud. The web. What have we wrought? The imposed scribbles, smudges, symbols, and scripts constitute a calligraphy of sense and nonsense, truth and fiction. A 3D essay on confounding dualities. My intent is not to posit answers, neither to condemn nor to glorify, so much as to raise questions. So what indeed have we wrought? A treasure chest of incalculable riches, or a Pandora’s box of unspeakable ills? A servant, or an inscrutable taskmaster? Digital Deity? The god of our age?

   I hope to see you all at the reception on November 7.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star

A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star

By Tom Wachunas

“…This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life.”
- Jennifer Higdon, writing about blue cathedral

   With Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann in the pulpit, as it were, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) took us to church with the first of the three works on its season-opening  October 12 program. Written by the acclaimed contemporary American composer, Jennifer Higdon, in 1999, blue cathedral is a tone poem inspired by the searing loss of her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, to cancer.

   Higdon has explained that she thought of cathedrals as symbolic portals, leading from our world into spiritual realms beyond. Resonant throughout the work is the suggestion of a contemplative walk down cathedral aisles, a slow rising past pillars and glittering stained glass windows, through an immense ceiling to a vast blue sky, only momentarily clouded with sorrow tinged with anger, and finally  to a peaceful state of transcendent celebration.

    Special attention is given in the music to the flute, which Higdon learned to play when she was 15, and the clarinet, her brother’s instrument. Here, both soloists – flautist Jenny Robinson and clarinetist Ethan Usokin – delivered achingly poignant dialogues amidst soft, shimmering chords from the strings, with the flute eventually fading out as the clarinet progressed alone into ecstatic quietness. Additionally, elegant percussive effects brought a haunting dimensionality. A variety of crystalline chimes and ringing bells augmented the sensation of being in a sacred place, including a passage wherein members of the string section gently rotated the small Chinese meditation balls they held in their hands, making a sound like distant wind.  All told, the orchestra rose to this wholly mesmerizing work with a reverence so palpable, so moving, that I felt physically uplifted.

   While blue cathedral is certainly an empyreal journey, the second selection on the program, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor -  with its unforgettable opening of a three-octave plunge down the keyboard – is a more earthbound experience, though no less compelling in its fervent soulfulness. Strangely, I’ve encountered some critical assessments of this work over the years which too quickly labeled it a tired warhorse. I’m sure that the CSO guest soloist, Eva Gevorgyan, would heartily disagree.

   There was nothing hackneyed about how this 16 year-old rising star performed the concerto with not only impeccable technical prowess and clarity, but electrifying emotional intelligence as well. An especially arresting element was Gevorgyan’s physical deportment. Her entire performance was infused with a quirky yet somehow endearing theatricality, as if she had adopted the animated mien of an entranced ballet dancer. In those passages when she wasn’t playing, she often gazed dreamily upward, listening intently to the ensemble, arms slowly swaying, hands poised in midair, seeming to gently grasp and sculpt the music itself.

    Gevorgyan’s articulation of the cadenza at the end of the first movement was a breathtaking display of youthful, sinewy vigor, and beautifully complemented by the delicate, nuanced wistfulness of her playing in the elegiac Adagio movement.  Her powerful rendering of the majestic final movement brought the audience immediately to their feet amidst giddy howls of approval. The encore, Alexander Scriabin’s Poem, Opus 32, No.1, was an all-too-brief moment of elegant, introspective lyricism.

   After intermission, the orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major was in every sense a brilliant exposition of the work’s almost dizzying array of moods, textures, colors, and rhythms. Still, even after the sonorous magnificence of the jubilant finale, what remains most bright in my appreciation of this extraordinary evening is Gevorgyan’s  riveting ride on Grieg’s warhorse.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Of Site and Sight

Of Site and Sight

"Tapestry" (2019)

"To lay your head on water" (2018)

"Constellation Group" (2019)

"Effigy" (2014)

By Tom Wachunas

   “…Overall, I equate my process as one akin to meditation rather than image making or craft. Repetition is employed to mark time’s passing, and with it I build elaborate surfaces covered with minute hand embellishment.  In this private, performative act of making I became a witness and a recorder.”  - Danielle Rante

EXHIBIT: Double Visions - solo exhibition featuring works by Danielle Rante / THROUGH OCTOBER 31, 2019 / at The William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio
Artist’s Gallery Talk: Thursday, October 31, 11am Gallery Hours:  Monday-Thursday 11:00-6:00 pm, Friday 11-5 pm

   Hanging on the walls in one corner of the gallery – an alcove, of sorts, tucked away from the six large works on paper featured this exhibit – is a horizontal stretch of unrolled graph paper marked with words, numbers, and colored sketches of circles. Loosely pinned just above and below is an array of small photos of terrains from around the world, along with various dried botanical specimens.

   This seemingly impromptu arrangement suggests a travel log, a navigational chart, or maybe a bulletin-board journal of geographical sites visited and explored. As such, the display is an inviting portal to appreciating the conceptual essence Danielle Rante’s works on paper.

   Double Visions indeed, these thoughtfully wrought pieces show Rante to be an inquisitive voyager who transforms the material nature of a place or surface into a poetic contemplation. Her colored pencil drawings are hypnotic compositions, at once atmospheric and architectural, straddling the material and the ethereal, and replete with delicate detail and exquisite ornamentality.  Even more striking are her cyanotypes. To look at them is to be drawn into gorgeous, undulating cyan fields to encounter sublime empyreal dramas, where tiny earthbound floral and organic forms take on a galactic dimensionality. Like star maps.

    The cyanotype process (from the Greek word cyan, meaning “dark blue substance”) was invented by the British scientist, Sir John Herschel, in 1842. Not requiring a conventional darkroom or camera per se, images were produced by placing objects directly on to photosensitive (chemically treated) paper and exposing it to light to make what were then called “photograms.” The process was soon used to make architectural documents which we know as blueprints. Interestingly, the botanist Anna Atkins, considered to be the first female photographer, used the process to make an album of collected algae specimens in 1843.

    The notion of collecting, examining, and savoring, both scientifically and aesthetically, is a resonant presence in Rante’s cyanotypes. These configurations are made up of multiple, identically-scaled units of paper, arranged in a way that brings to mind the ground grids typically constructed for meticulous archaeological excavations. In Rante’s explorations, the terrestrial merges with the celestial. Our act of seeing becomes itself a spiritual exercise, a meditation. Site becomes mesmerizing sight.

Friday, October 4, 2019

An Epic Passage to Canaan

An Epic Passage to Canaan

Hidden Passage

A Brief Respite

Look for the Grey Barn Out Back


Friend or Foe?


By Tom Wachunas

      A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We want to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”  – Frederick Douglas

   EXHIBIT: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad / at The Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH OCTOBER 20, 2019 / 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / /330-453-7666

  “For over 14 years, Jeanine Michna-Bales logged countless hours of meticulous research and traveled extensively to create this series of images. Her efforts culminated in the release of this body of work in February 2017, as well as the release of the trade publication from Princeton Architectural Press in Spring 2017, and the launch of a traveling exhibition from Mid-America Arts Alliance that is currently touring the United States until 2024…”
- from the artist’s web site, at:

   After just a single step into the main exhibition space at The Canton Museum of Art, you’ll immediately feel engulfed in dimness. It’s an unexpected sensation of tangible dusk. You’re there to see pictures, but instead notice, at first, only dark brown-black rectangles on the walls. Curious, maybe even cautious, you get your bearings as you draw nearer to these things. With each step, your tentative walk in the waning light of day, as it were, becomes a progressively commanding sensation of being pulled  in, closer and closer, to peer through what might seem like windows on to landscapes where full-fledged nightfall reigns. Your eyes finally do adjust to their seemingly indecipherable opacity until, until…

   You’re immersed in a tenebrous immediacy. Looking into these beautifully subtle photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales is to embark on an epic journey. As viewers we become vicarious travelers in an extraordinary odyssey: The Underground Railroad. Aided by the highly engaging and informative auxiliary exhibits here of other photos and artifacts, we become effectively sympathetic witnesses to a secretive trek, fraught with danger, following some of the same night-shrouded routes traversed by an estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped their Southern oppressors between 1830 and 1865 to find freedom in the North.

   Who could navigate these forbidding paths, enfolded as they are in gloomy night, with any sense of certainty? Who could determine actual nearness or distance with any sense of assurance? In these intensely compressed terrains, even shadows feel indistinguishable from the forms that cast them.

   Still, there’s light. It might be a whisper, a far-away glimmer, a ghostly reflection in a swamp, the risen moon, a pitch-black sky perforated by tiny stars, an illuminated farmhouse window. But light. A beacon, however faint or bright, of possibility. The idea of rescue, of safe haven. A call to compassion.

   And who would deny the timeliness of this exhibit? Michna-Bales’ stunning images resonate powerfully with our current – and volatile – societal concerns about immigration.

    Her art also reminds me of the original meaning of her medium - Photography, from two Greek words for light-writing. Interestingly, in all of their sumptuous tonal murkiness, these pictures are indeed a clear enough writing, a narrative. In the end, it’s not so much a story about the weight, the impenetrability, of darkness. Instead, it’s a compelling affirmation of light, and the dauntless determination to pursue it.