Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Passion 101

Passion 101

By Tom Wachunas

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
- Thomas Merton -

“It’s no secret that in America, by the time students enter college, too many of them have been successfully conditioned against creative thinking for themselves. After all, we now have digital apps for that.” - June Godwit –

“Teachers open the door, but you enter by yourself.” - Chinese proverb –

When I think about this pesky, clichéd business of making New Year’s resolutions, I’ve found some relevance in Albert Einstein’s attitude, “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” Not that there aren’t things in my life that don’t need fixed, changed, or altogether trashed. And while applying Einstein’s take on the matter might smack of rationalized procrastination, it’s nonetheless true that the holiday ritual of making an annual promise to resolve shortcomings in my life became, long ago, a toothless if not unnecessary one. In the spirit of living in the moment, it’s all I can do to stay on the straight and narrow just for today. That said, every morning that I successfully get out of bed is in fact a resolution to show up for the task at hand, fully intending to chip away – with God’s help - at the mountain of defects (mine, not yours) that can obscure a clear view of the 24 hours ahead. For as much as I see a light in the distance, I still too often walk in the dark shadows of my own ineptitudes.

Standing on the threshold of A.D. 2011, today’s task at hand is further preparation for the spring semester (Einstein’s attitude now somewhat abandoned) at Kent State University Stark campus, where I have been teaching Art Survey for about four years. It’s an interesting name for a college course, and not to be perceived or presented as Art History in the conventional sense. Really, it’s a fancy name for Art Appreciation. But calling it Art Survey suggests an appropriate gravitas beyond the smiley-faced niceties often associated with ‘appreciation,’ and that’s fine with me. This is, to be sure, a distinction of my own, and not stated anywhere in Kent course descriptions per se. Still, to best tell you what it is exactly that I teach, I’ve often called the course, in all seriousness, Passion 101.

Rest assured that there are no delusions afoot here, no misdirected conceptions of ‘passion.’ Passion for anything – in this case, for art – is not some set of facts one memorizes or masters, as in axioms, rules, or procedures. In that sense, it can’t be taught at all. But if you consider education in its truest definition and function – leading or drawing OUT as opposed to pouring or stuffing IN – then the development of passion (or at least the beginnings of it) can be reasonably seen as any teacher’s goal, however elusive it may be. Here then all kinds of metaphors come to mind in describing my classroom presence: a lamp bearer, a planter of seeds, a door opener, a fire starter. Ahh… the joys of kindling a flame. My intent is certainly not necessarily to inspire students to become art collectors, art historians, or even practicing artists, though a few have considered those paths. It is simply to inspire inspiration itself, and from there the possibility for connecting with passion, with enthrallment.

Another useful expedient is to view teaching Art Survey as the diligent tilling and fertilizing of hardened earth. Hardened earth, just barely sustaining the basics of life’s more ephemeral but necessary nutrients - that’s how I view the hearts and minds of too many freshmen. Passions waiting to be stirred. Through no fault of their own they’ve yet to really embrace what I know to be the astounding vitality and power of art. Beyond the securing of food and shelter, making art, in all its forms, is arguably the most ancient and efficacious of conscious human actions. It is far more than the luxurious pursuit of a peripheral intelligentsia, or the arcane musings of isolated or eccentric minds. It is a fact of our existence, a response to being alive, an ongoing narrative of who we are and what is important to us. And I dare say a dialogue with all of Creation.

To spark a willingness to participate in that dialogue, to navigate through its most invigorating truths as well as its most confounding secrets and mysteries, is my resolution (revolution?) for today, and for as many tomorrows as may be granted me. To aspire to anything less would be a fruitless walk in the dark.

Happy New Year.

Photo: “Philosopher and Pupils,” oil, 1626, by Willem van der Vliet

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All of a Peace

All of a Peace

By Tom Wachunas

“The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” - Revelation 21:23 –

“ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” - Jeremiah 29:11 –

I know of no other season than this one wherein my heart abides, with equal measure, in joy and sorrow. Joy for the greatest gift I’ve ever received - undeserved, unearned, and only by grace and faith. Jesus Christ himself. And sorrow for so much of this world that chooses not to receive what was and still is so freely bestowed upon it.

But this post is neither a judgment on recalcitrant hearts nor a doleful plea to disconnected ones. Rather, it is simply an offering for your consideration. It is accompanied by my hope that it not rest unread in cyberspace, but be a source of reflection and encouragement in the twilight of A.D. 2010, before the dawn of a new year, and well beyond. To you my loyal readers, and all the artists whose work inspires my words, I remain humbled by and ever grateful for your energy, interest, and support. To those who, by His grace, might casually come upon this site for the first time, welcome. To all of you, I beg your indulgence and ask only that you read, with opened minds, this praise of the greatest gift ever given.

It is a providential gift that guarantees for all of us abundant, everlasting life. It is a gift fully illustrated - catalogued, if you will – with user-friendly instructions throughout the Bible. Consider this partial inventory of Scriptural descriptors:

Almighty God, Alpha and Omega, A man of sorrows, Author of Life, Author of Salvation, Beginning and End, Bread of Life, Christ, Deliverer, Despised and rejected by men, Eternal Life, Everlasting Father, Great High Priest, Good Shepherd, Heir of All Things, Immanuel, I Am, King of Kings, Lamb of God, Life, Light of the World, Lion of Judah, Lord, Lord of Lords, Love, Mediator, Messiah, Morning Star, Our Peace, Prince of Peace, Resurrection and Life, Rock, Saviour, Son of God, Son of Man, the Truth, the Way, the Word, Wonderful Counselor…


And YOURS for the asking, for the believing. OURS, then. Spread the wealth.

So, thank you for your attention to this matter. May your Christmas be filled with His light, and all your seasons blessed.

Photo: My 2010 Christmas image, oil, 8 ½” x 11” – an annual tradition in lieu of Christmas cards

Monday, December 20, 2010

Changing Faces, Facing Changes

Changing Faces, Facing Changes

By Tom Wachunas

“When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait.”
- Pablo Picasso -

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter.”
- Oscar Wilde –

Then again, some portraits may have nothing to do with feelings at all (at least not in the ‘spiritual’ sense of the word) – sitters’ or artists’. They are sometimes purely cerebral vehicles for exploring formal or aesthetic concerns. In any event, many observers of the timeless art of portraiture have shared Oscar Wilde’s assessment of just what it is we’re beholding when we gaze upon another’s painted or drawn visage. “The Changing Face of Portraiture” is the name of the latest exhibit in the large upper gallery of the Canton Museum of Art. The works presented here are from the museum’s impressive permanent collection. In Vignette, the museum’s printed guide to its exhibits, we’re asked, “What do we expect from portraiture?...We want more than ‘likeness,’ and we depend on the artist’s imagination to help us see past a subject’s outward appearance toward a larger reality.”

Those likenesses and ‘realities’ can reflect everything from an era’s dominant aesthetic trends and societal perceptions of personality or celebrity, to exploring social behaviors and class differences, or depicting the subtler psychological underpinnings of both artist and subject. All of these aspects of portraiture are evident in this thoroughly diverse and engaging range of works that includes classically refined canvases, elegant prints and watercolors, sumptuous impressionistic visions, stylized abstractions, and some roguish, funky experiments.

The relentless march of sociocultural changes in the world is startlingly evident when you compare the sweetly Neoclassical renderings here by Gilbert Stuart and Nelson Cook (both from the 1800s), to the visceral 1970s “Head With Purple Eyes” by William Gropper, or the equally jarring and surreal “Man With Doll” by Giacomo Porzano. And the austere flatness of Alex Katz’s “Polka Dot Blouse,” with its clear allegiance to Pop Art sensibilities, is a far cry from the lyricism and painterly sensuality in William Findlay’s 1937 “Portrait of Laura G. Findlay.”

Yet for all the variety of pictorial styles and moods through time (specifically 19th and 20th centuries) that we see here - whether bizarre, confrontational, cool and detached, agitated or serene, humorous or deadly serious – the show does indeed bring to mind what, it seems to me, has consistently driven human kind to make portraits in the first place. Surely it is an innate and universal response to our sense of wondering, an externalizing of our innermost desires to know and be known to each other.

Passing glances, concentrated stares, gazes both steady and averted. Human and animal, traditional and modern. You don’t need to necessarily know the specific subjects (real as well as imagined) in these portraits to regard them as fascinating symbols of how we see… seeing. Or consider them visions of how we literally face each other with questions - and answers - about being alive.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Portrait of Homer White,” 1921 oil by Gerrit Beneker, on view through March 6, 2011, in “The Changing Face of Portraiture” at the Canton Museum of Art / www.cantonart.org / (330) 453 - 7666

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Love's Light

In Love’s Light

By Tom Wachunas

“I have never done commercial pictures – only of things which moved me deeply – and for love, not money.” - Nell Dorr –

Continuing with the glories of black and white photography, another must-see exhibition is “Between Two Worlds: The Photography of Nell Dorr,” currently on view at the Massillon Museum, through February 27. Nell Dorr (1893-1988) was a Massillon native who learned the art of photography from her father, Massillon portrait photographer Jacob Becker. She was a contemporary of (as well as friends with) Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Other friends (and subjects) included the poet Carl Sandburg, silent film star Lillian Gish, and the prominent children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor.

The 75 images here present a remarkably diverse range of thematic interests on Dorr’s part, including portraits, landscapes, and some fascinating low- light / camera-less “abstracts” or “photograms” (on the second floor, where the exhibition continues from the first floor main gallery), which could fairly be called experimental and to some extent ahead of their time. Yet even at her most daring, all of her images consistently share an aesthetic approach that imbues them with ethereal, sometimes fleeting light. Many seem like they emerged from dreams and are on the verge of disappearing into them again.

We learn in the well-written text that accompanies the exhibit that Dorr was a proponent of “Pictorialism,” a Romantic-era aesthetic characterized by scenes in dreamy, soft focus, and one that largely fell out of favor by the mid-20th century. Elsewhere we read, “…Dorr never applied an exacting approach to the taking of pictures with regard to focus or exposure; it was in the darkroom where she concentrated her attention.” So Dorr steadfastly resisted what she saw as the hard-edge, cold detailing of straight photography. In that regard, I think a more telling label for her work could be Photolyricism.

That lyricism is like a poetic thread woven into everything Dorr photographed. She didn’t “take pictures” or even “make” them so much as she recognized a meaningful moment and unobtrusively borrow it. In the process, the softened forms in her compositions acquired a sensuous, even gently voluptuous aura. Yes, there are certainly posed shots, as in her adventuresome nudes wherein the models, like forest nymphs, are at one with their natural surrounds. But what all of her images exude is a palpable cherishing of those moments – a spirit especially poignant in her fanciful portraits of children, as well as her tender, sensitive mother-and-child portraits.

Rest assured this is not the stuff of greeting card sentimentality, though there is a great deal of sentiment evident. It is a guileless sentimentality, neither wishful nor saccharine, and sometimes with just a hint of latent wildness. For all of their “period look,” these images are classical immersions in something beyond a specific time, a certain place. Surely, though, not beyond our own cherishing.

Photo: “Tasha with Ribbon,” 1940s, by Nell Dorr. On view at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E. in downtown Massillon, through February 27, 2011. Admission free. For hours and information, please visit www.massillonmuseum.org or call
(330) 833 - 4061

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Passion Rekindled

A Passion Rekindled

By Tom Wachunas

“Democracy has corrupted Art. We’ve gone overboard to assure that virtually anyone with a camera can be ‘creative’ and make a ‘good’ picture, worthy of our praise. So now we’re adrift in a swelling sea of mediocre digital snapshots clamoring for attention, and it has become really quite difficult to discern true greatness when we see it. Welcome to postmodernist America.” - June Godwit -

We’re drowning in photographs, and they just keep coming at breakneck speed. First it was newspapers and magazines, then film and television, now this ubiquitous internet, this world wide web of mind-numbing visuals that suck the magic right out of being alive. Ironic, isn’t it? Here I am communicating to you via the very device I just skewered. But then again, life is full of absurdities, tilting at windmills, nonsequiturs.

“Simply put: I just feel jaded.” Those words are from the very articulate and sensitive statement by Stephen McNulty that accompanies his current show of photographs, titled “Finding Home,” at the Canton Museum of Art. Read the statement, and you clearly get the impression of an artist who was looking to reconnect with his own passion for truly seeing and celebrating what he sees, in a public milieu where both artists and viewers struggle with complacence and attention overloads and/or deficits. So he set out on a journey that took him to the expansive and magical landscapes of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Jaded no more, I should say.

Which brings to mind yet another irony, because in viewing past images by McNulty, I never got the sense that they were ever the art of a tired soul. Anyone who has met the man could understandably think he’s simply too young to grapple yet with such profound life/art concerns. But I do understand his statement. His words might well be the musings of an old soul, so to speak, smitten by the timeless splendors of the natural world, and passionate about staying fresh in elevating our own connection to them. At that, he’s a master. Even a warrior. If he worried about losing his edge, he can rest assured he hasn’t. Here, then, is inspiring visual evidence of his journey, and it’ll stop you in your tracks.

While the world-class color images here are certainly breathtaking and achingly sumptuous, one of the most gratifying aspects of this exhibit is the significant number of black-and-white images. I sometimes think there’s a cultural perception afoot that black-and-white photography is irrelevant, lifeless, old school, antique. It would be tragic if such a perception became viral enough to render the practice of this rich tradition extinct. McNulty clearly has a disciplined eye for, and ability to compose and present, wondrously variegated tonalities, from the subtlest grays to the deepest blacks. These images are crisp, heroic visions of mesmerizing textures, forms, and atmospheres. They resonate, amazingly enough, with real emotional energy that invigorates the soul, and can stand proudly with historically pioneering works by such luminaries as Ansel Adams or Edward Weston.

Every image in this show is an elegant invitation to stop and savor the majestic intricacies of spectacular landscapes, and a sparkling window on to what McNulty calls “…the evanescent beauty that still exists in the world…” He says at the end of his statement that he hoped his journey would let him see his hometown “…with new eyes and find a novel way of being part of the Canton arts collective.” As a participant in that collective, I for one feel enthralled and even blessed by the power of his vision. It’s one that is hopefully destined to enthrall far beyond the confines of a single arts community.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Light Study, Badlands #28,” by Stephen McNulty, from his exhibit, “Finding Home” at the Canton Museum of Art, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, through March 6, 2011. For information and museum hours, visit www.cantonart.org or call (330) 453 – 7666.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Heard in Heaven

Heard in Heaven

By Tom Wachunas

Handel, Mahler: Christine Brandes (soprano), Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor)

Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, USA, 05.12.2010 (TW)

George Frideric Handel: Overture to Theodora (1749), “Angels Bright and Fair” from Theodora, “Let the Bright Seraphim” from Samson (1741)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1901)

“Music of the Angels” was the theme of the December 5 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra. The program could have just as well been named “Music To the Angels.” In any case, there were many moments throughout the evening when Umstattd Hall reverberated with decidedly heavenly strains.

The orchestra was pared down to Baroque proportions for the program’s first piece - Handel’s Overture to “Theodora.” Kenneth C. Viant pointed out in his program notes that Handel considered the work to be his favorite oratorio. To a limited point that’s understandable, considering the overall intensity of the plot. The story tells of Theodora, a Christian martyr in 4th century Rome. Ironically, little of the story’s dramatic energy seems present in the overture, even in its faster second part after a staid, processional start. But the orchestra’s sound was certainly lovely enough to whet our appetites for the emotional fervor to come.

That fervor was provided abundantly by soprano Christine Brandes as she performed two Handel arias: “Angels Ever Bright and Fair” from “Theodora,” and “Let the Bright Seraphim” from “Samson.” The first aria comes during a pivotal scene in the oratorio wherein Theodora begs angels to take her away rather than be enslaved in the royal court brothel - a fate worse than death. For Samson, the aria is sung by a devout Israelite woman after Samson’s courageous death, and calls upon the angels to celebrate God’s saving power.

In his warm and astute pre-concert commentary on the program, MJ Albacete (Executive Director of the Canton Museum of Art) had explained that Handel’s arias were designed to allow individual soloists’ freedom to dramatically embellish the music according to their particular gifts. In that, Brandes was true to form. Her lower range is sonorous and expressive, providing a fluid spring board, so to speak, for her crisp and often searingly explosive upper-register accents. Certainly the high point of the evening’s first half came during the “Samson” aria. The music is scored with intricate soloing for trumpet, played here by principal trumpeter Scott Johnston with ebullient clarity. The duet of Brandes’ vivacious singing intertwined with the trumpet’s silky verve was indeed an extended moment of angelic soaring, and a clear delight to the audience.

In keeping with the evening’s ethereal content, after intermission the orchestra delivered a wondrously nuanced and stirring performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Structured around Mahler’s 1892 song, “Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life)”, and sung in its entirety by Brandes in the fourth movement, the music tells the story of a child’s vision of heaven. Watching Maestro Zimmermann conduct this beloved masterpiece – so rich in emotional energy, from perky and lilting to solemn and processional - brought to mind images of a master sculptor, mallet and chisel in hand, intensely and lovingly revealing a sumptuous form, section-by-section. Maybe that intensity of devotion to the task at hand explains Zimmermann’s baton leaving it, during the first movement, and landing (harmlessly) somewhere in the front of the house. In a particularly endearing moment, Zimmermann turned to the audience before the second movement and nonchalantly retrieved his baton (jokingly blaming the incident on pine tar) from an obliging gentleman in the front row. Such is Zimmermann’s oft-demonstrated grace and humor (I’ll bet Michelangelo wasn’t nearly as gracious when he dropped HIS chisel) which, interestingly enough, along with youthful innocence, are qualities that characterize much of this Mahler work.

Brandes’ singing of the final song was downright inspirational in its embodiment of childlike awe of heavenly wonders, its last line a fitting descriptor of the evening: “The angelic voices rouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy.” The music at this point fades ever so slowly to a lingering, sweet whisper – a gentle ‘tick-tock’ into eternity and…was that the sound of fluttering wings?

Photo: Cherubs from the Madonna of San Sisto, by Raphael, 1513

For concert and ticket info on the Canton Symphony Orchestra, please visit www.cantonsymphony.org

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thrills the Dickens Into Me

Thrills the Dickens Into Me

By Tom Wachunas

December 3d was opening night of the 29th annual production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” by the Players Guild Theatre in Canton. For all of that, the historic tale of one man’s transformation from misanthrope into ebullient disciple of benevolence has lost neither its relevance nor its emotional appeal. Nor, in the case of Players Guild stagings, its thrilling seasonal luster. Once again, then, this revered and long-lived community institution has successfully served up an abundant theatrical feast, with all the trimmings (and then some) that we’ve come to expect from such an iconic story.

This year, Joshua Erichsen (the Guild’s Producing Artistic Director) is the director, and he wears the role well, bringing to it his penchant for presdigitation (more on that later). Combined with the meticulously authentic period costumes designed by Susie Smith and Leslie DeStefano, the wowing light and sound design (including very effective use of ghostly reverb effects) by Scott Sutton, the engaging live orchestral music written by Steve Parsons with clever and compelling lyrics by John Popa, and of course the remarkably talented, energetic 34-member cast, you could rightfully call the evening a magnanimous conspiracy to enchant.

Second-grader Zachary Charlick brings a wide-eyed, genuine earnestness to his role of Tiny Tim Cratchit, all well-captured in the song, “A Child Alone,” that he sings, in one of the evening’s most touching scenes, with Michael Laymon , who plays Bob Cratchit. To that role, Laymon brings real tenderness as an actor and sincere warmth as a singer. Notably tender, too, is Amanda Medley as Belle, Scrooge’s erstwhile sweetheart. Her memorable singing in “I Have to Know” is achingly sweet and melancholic.

The ghosts of Christmas past and present are played by Kelley Edington and Tom Bryant, respectively. Edington’s voice in “Wandering,” like her character who takes Scrooge literally on a flight back to his youth, soars and haunts with piercing urgency. Bryant’s muscular performance also haunts, with infectious humor and palpable joviality, tempered with stern, fatherly admonishments.

And then there is the delightful matter of some creative legerdemain at work here. Mr. Erichsen’s magic touch begins with the set he designed, with its elaborate period tableaus built on rotating platforms. Almost instantly, building exteriors are changed into Scrooge’s bed chamber, or the Cratchit kitchen. Early in the story, the explosive entrance of Jacob Marley (an eminently spooky performance by Larry Weinberg) through the massive portrait over Scrooge’s mantle is topped only by his exit down through a trap-door spewing smoke, eerily colored with a hellish glow. During the party scene at nephew Fred’s house, notice how the parlor window hanging in midair shows snow falling only on the ‘outside’ of the glass.

Finally, as Scrooge, Don Jones – a distinguished veteran of many Guild productions - is a gently commanding presence as we witness his torturous journey through forgotten youth and into a future world that wishes him nothing but good riddance. With skilled finesses he morphs from scowling, distant and gruff self-centeredness into joyful selflessness – in short, a faithfully finished portrait of the man who eventually, as Dickens wrote, “…kept Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Certainly the same can be said of the Players Guild Theatre. The continued tradition of keeping this classic gem of a story shined and alive is truly a labor of love, and a blessing on all who see it.

Photo: Don Jones as Ebenezer Scrooge, courtesy Players Guild Theatre, located in Canton’s Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m., THROUGH DECEMBER 19. Tickets may be ordered at www.playersguildtheatre.com or by calling (330) 453 – 7617 / $22 for adults, $20 for seniors 60 and older, $17 for ages 18 and younger.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Spirit Catcher

Spirit Catcher

By Tom Wachunas

It’s been a very long time since I’ve encountered art so deliciously precise and moving in its capacity to draw out the very core of a person or place as that of Dean Mitchell. His show of 40 paintings at the Canton Museum of Art, called “Dean Mitchell: Space, People & Places,” is more than merely evocative. His watercolors are painterly embodiments of spirit - an ineffable architecture of life essences. While some comparisons to Andrew Wyeth are unavoidable, Mitchell’s astonishing brush work is a stand-alone signature, and the sultry white sunlight so prevalent in these visions, coupled with their gentle loneliness, is uniquely Southern.

There’s not a single work here that isn’t somehow stunning either for its technical excellence or its emotional resonance. More often than not, both of those aspects are conveyed with simmering élan. His compelling portraits of street musicians isolated on all-white (or nearly so) grounds, as in “Gulf Water Blues” or “Bongo Drummer” for example, are more sculpted than drawn into being. While their poses effectively capture their contemplative, sometimes weary hearts, you can still practically hear their music.

That same sense of sheer aliveness emanates from the sun drenched buildings that Mitchell paints. Some, like “Deer Skin” and “Preservation Hall” are dappled with rhythmic, sumptuous shadows that seem to dance across the structures’ walls. In all of his architectural renderings, Mitchell’s textures and physical detail embellishments are delightfully rich without being flashy, cold exercises in hyper-realism. Structures with souls, structures that speak. Even in their varying states of disrepair, or neglect from poverty they, like his portraits, are imbued with a dignity that is quietly heroic.

For all of his truly masterful technique – his impeccable sense of composition, his thrilling dexterity of touch, his fluent handling of subtle, earthy tonalities that appear to breathe right before your eyes – it would appear that Mitchell doesn’t just paint his subjects. He loves them. And in turn, it seems impossible for us as viewers not to do the same.

Photo: “Living on the Streets,” watercolor by Dean Mitchell, on view in “Dean Mitchell: Space, People & Places,” at the Canton Museum of Art, inside the Cultural Center for the Arts at 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, through March 6, 2011. Gallery hours are 10 a.m to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday / 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday / 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday / 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday (Closed Monday).

For more info visit www.cantonart.org

Monday, November 29, 2010

Strangers in a Strange Land?

Strangers in a Strange Land?

By Tom Wachunas

If you’re looking for another art review here, the best I can offer this time around is what you could call “The Consumer’s Art of Feckless Christmas Spirit.” In her Sunday Repository column (November 28), Charita Goshay seemed to subtly parallel the hysteria over airport body searches (which she called “…just the latest fishy controversy in a school of red herrings”) with a larger malaise at work in America. We want what we want when we want it. In the midst of consumer angst and demands over the economy, she reminded her readers that some retailers were open for business on Thanksgiving Day, noting that, “Economically speaking, we have to be encouraged by any uptick in consumer spending, but it is also disheartening that we can’t seem to take off even one day to decompress.” Disheartening? I think Goshay is being a bit too kind. It’s downright tragic. Decompress? The whole engine needs to be replaced.

With what? One look at the image accompanying this post will probably clue you in as to where this is leading, but nonetheless, I ask your indulgence as you read on. Call it sermonizing if you wish, but I just call it speaking my heart. In the last several years of teaching the Art Survey course at Kent Stark, I’ve never been comfortable with the text book dating notations for the art works we examine. The old ‘B.C.’ (before Christ) and ‘A.D.’ (anno Domini- “in the year of our Lord”) designations have been replaced with BCE and CE, respectively. The translations of these increasingly visible designations read “before the common era” and “common era.” Some scholars and readers translate the ‘C’ as ‘current’ and, yes, ‘Christian.’ Now, I’m not one of those raving zealots who decry this move as a vile secularist plot to altogether erase Christ from history. To a considerable degree, though, I think it’s more evidence of our culture’s efforts to be “sensitive” to religious pluralism. And as such, I do regard it as a distressing moving away from the centrality and significance of Jesus Christ and his Lordship in human affairs.

And therein is the tragedy. To dilute and homogenize Christ into just another good, loving man, or eminently wise teacher, is to completely miss his meaning, his mission, his reality, his divinity. It is to indulge in what C.S. Lewis called “patronizing nonsense,” and it is to our detriment. And so it is that I remain ever more saddened and perplexed by the social landscape we have fashioned around this time of year, by the urgency and energy we assign to such things as tempting and cajoling folks to shop on Thanksgiving Day, at 4 a.m. on “black” Friday, on “Small Business Saturday,” on “Cyber Monday.” As if it is our joyous duty as Americans to participate. Lemmings diving into the commerce abyss. How about replacing Christmas shopping days with Christmas stopping days? Stopping to remember, savor, come back to the source of who we are, what we have, where we should be going and what we should be doing every day. Stop for a moment – many moments – and think of the possibilities of a Christ-driven economy, nation, indeed world, the possibilities not for “the holidays,” but for a transformed CHRISTmas landscape.

As this year of 2010 A.D. draws to a close, stop and consider where your allegiances are. Whom do they serve? Whom do YOU serve? What would surrendering to the Lord of the Universe look like?

Photo: “Surrendered,” oil, 2003, by yours truly

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ascendance: Stark's Vision-Makers, Part 2

Ascendance: Stark’s Vision-makers Collected, Part 2

By Tom Wachunas

The many shortcomings of the recently closed Annual Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum are yesterday’s news. For a far more balanced and, piece-for-piece, substantial show of Stark’s artistic diversity and excellence, try and get to the Stark Arthology artists show at the Canton Museum of Art before it closes on Sunday (November 28). The show is the real-life component of the new (and first) book published by Indigo Ink Press, “Stark Arthology” (see my post from November 13). While the book’s excellent photographs (by Tim Belden) of the artworks are as fine as they come, no photos can ever be expected to fully capture all the nuances of other mediums. Many thanks to the Canton Museum for slotting what time it could, and the beautiful job in mounting the show.

Before going much further, honesty compels me to remind you that as in any juried exhibition (and in essence, that’s what Stark Arthology is), some real clunkers got in (though thankfully not near to the extent we saw in Massillon), and there are some startling omissions. C’est la vie. In any case, blame and/or bless the jurors. Let’s hope for a second round some day. Overall, though, this collection is considerably more stunning than stultifying.

Among the works here that have previously made their way through the exhibition circuit, some still thrill me to the marrow, regardless of when they were made or how often I see them. Diane Belfiglio’s astonishingly crisp acrylic painting, “Ascent With Geraniums,” (1997, page 15 in the book) is a gorgeous jewel of sunlit, architectural lyricism. Christopher Triner’s oil, “Autumnal Sunrise,” (2005, page 69) continues to hypnotize with its pulsating color clouds. Like Rothko on steroids. I had forgotten how the lavish, Baroque-flavored frame around Erin Mulligan’s delightful oil “Firebreathing Rabbits” (2005, page 56) acts like a portal into her surrealistic fantasy. And by our local master-practitioner and teacher of the old masters’ Flemish technique (also seen in the Mulligan work), Frank Dale, “Leitzel” (2005, page 29) remains among the most haunting, subtle, and beautifully composed portraits I’ve ever seen. Anywhere, anytime.

And while we’re on the subject of that technique, “Guilt” (2009, page 33), by Steve Ehret, is marvelously haunting too, as in macabre. Call it a collision between Harry Potter and Hieronymus Bosch. Among other surprising works (which is also to say that if they’ve been in other local exhibits, I must not have been paying attention), there’s Joe Martino’s mixed media “Jungle Moon” (2009, page 48), a tantalizing, fluid abstraction of tactile mysteries in the nocturnal wild. Abstract, too, is “Symphony” by Tiffany Marsh (not pictured in the book, though her “Juvenile Bluebird” is on page 47). Extremely so. It’s an utterly visceral image that at first appears to be pure accident. Paint and plaster combine (conspire?) to suggest scarred and blistered earth mixed with desiccated organic matter. On a brighter landscape note there’s the acrylic “Peace On Earth” (2010, page 21) by Renie Britenbucher, with its impossibly luminous hills in rainbow colors under a deep blue night sky. The scene is lovingly aglow with child-like wonder.

Placed about midway through the exhibit is a tall pedestal topped by “Grey Owl,” a sculpture made from what seem to be hundreds of small reclaimed steel scraps by Patrick Buckohr (his “Rhino” is on page 22 of the book). It’s a thoroughly dramatic and awe-inspiring construction. With it wings spread wide and talons opened to literally grab our attention, the owl is frozen in its ascent (or is it landing?), and appears to survey the visions around it and all who might join its scrutiny. A trophy of sorts, and fitting evidence of a triumphal, albeit short-lived show. In lieu of seeing it, then, the book is surely the next best thing.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Photo: “Grey Owl,” reclaimed steel, by Patrick Buckohr

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Curious Case of Telltale Trinkets

A Curious Case of Telltale Trinkets

By Tom Wachunas

While I’m fairly certain that the current show at The Little Art Gallery isn’t intended to be a subversive commentary on materialism, it nonetheless brings to mind commodities and consumerism. Maybe it’s the timing. Maybe it’s because I started seeing Christmas trees in stores and homes as early as two weeks ago. Maybe it’s because Christmas has become increasingly less sacred and reverential and more of a brand as the years march on. Dutifully stocking our store shelves on November 1 in preparation for “black Friday,” we’ve come to the point where “the holidays” have become one run-on sentence - a measure of economic health, a marketing ploy to immerse us in a constant barrage of glitz, glitter, and goods, beginning with Halloween and ending with eleventh-hour Christmas shopping, only to be reminded just a few weeks later not to forget Valentines Day. A run-on sentence of imperatives to get (and give)…stuff.

The show is called “Rhythm & Obsession” and features mixed media works by Russ Hench and wearable art by Judi Longacre. I’m not at all sure that the word ‘Rhythm’ in title is a clear reference to the specific nature of the work at hand. But ‘Obsession’ is arguably more applicable on a few levels: the obsession to find and collect all manner of baubles and tiny things and, more to the point, the obsession to arrange them in an artful, even exuberant manner. This show is very much about the playful and sumptuous visual design of colors, textures, and lots of tactile bric-a-brac.

Judi Longacre has brought her design background (graphic and interior) sensibilities to her wearable art – necklaces, bracelets, and broaches – that are a hybrid of antique and used buttons with “repurposed” (her word, and a delightfully apropos one at that) jewelry. The net effect is one that exudes a joyous simplicity with a flashy dose of vintage elegance. They’re a particularly appealing complement to the mixed media canvases by Hench.

Before venturing into those, though, I think his “watercolor reproductions” (a term I’ve not seen as a medium descriptor in a show before) warrant a few observations. These eight pieces are actually laser “printed” reproductions of watercolor originals. As Hench was careful to point out to me, they’re technically not prints in the true understanding of the term, though they can be regarded as limited edition images should he decide to sell more than one. The current technology of laser color reproduction is attractive to Hench, as the colors translate with more saturation and intensity than his originals. In any case, these pictures aren’t so much about exploring watercolor as a purely painterly medium as they are marvels of precise representational draftsmanship.

His mixed media canvases, on the other hand, are dazzlingly elaborate worlds unto themselves. Lewis Carroll would have had a field day with his word inventions for these strangely alluring wall hangings. Call them ‘suspendollages.’ Things such as beads, crystals, and a wide variety of trinkets hang suspended on strings and wires, often jewel-like, beyond the sensually painted and collaged picture planes. Hench says in his statement that his creations “don’t necessarily tell a story,” though he’s gratified when viewers find one. Indeed, with titles like “Row Boats to Heaven,” and “Kyla’s Perilous Game,” who could resist looking for a way to navigate these vibrant dreamscapes, these streams of material consciousness? For sheer physical thingy-ness, they’re unabashedly decorative, and as deep as you’d care to make them. And so very touchable, gallery etiquette notwithstanding.

So it’s true, I’ve got the physical trappings of Christmas on my mind. Hench’s canvases remind me of glittery lights and sparkling orbs and opening lovingly wrapped presents. As art, his pieces are lovely and even desirable objects. And as commodities, they’re the stuff of skilled and electrifying visions.

Photo: “Come Back to Tomorrow,” acrylic and mixed media by Russ Hench, on view in “Rhythm & Obsession,” The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, through December 18. Gallery hours are 10 – 6 MWF, 12 – 8 Tuesday and Thursday, 9 – 5 Saturday, 1 – 5 Sunday.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Watts Happening

Watts Happening

By Tom Wachunas

Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio

Richard Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger Von Nurenberg (1868)
Richard Strauss: Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24 (1889)
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)

One constant in the concerts by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is a big, lush sound you’d expect from a much larger orchestra. It’s always impeccably balanced and enveloping. While the level of the musicians’ technical mastery is certainly a contributing factor, another all-important element that gives this orchestra such an electrifying presence is its astonishing ability to identify and amplify the very soul of the music – a capacity nurtured, to be sure, by Maestro Zimmermann’s interpretive powers. It’s the difference between competent (albeit magnificent, as was the case here) playing, and genuinely inspired performing. In that regard, the orchestra delivered its November 14 program at Umstattd Hall with unfettered brilliance.

Zimmermann addressed the audience before performing the first selection, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger Von Nurenberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). At the end of his very touching and gently humorous remembrance of Linda Moorhouse, the deeply loved former CSO president and CEO who passed away last year, he nodded affectionately at the nearby empty orchestra chair on stage. It was certainly a poignant reminder. The Wagner work was a Moorhouse favorite, and so the performance, which perfectly captured the work’s exhilarating air of graceful majesty, was dedicated to her. This was surely a heartfelt start to an evening that would continually probe even more resonant emotional depths.

If you didn’t know that Richard Straus was just a young man of 25 when he wrote his tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, you might have thought the work came from a very old soul, struggling to reconcile deep existential concerns. The orchestra gave a thoroughly riveting account of this haunting, contemplative, and ultimately triumphal vision of a life lived and transcended. Particularly enthralling were the explosive, crackling passages wherein brass and strings seemed to be caught up in stormy spirals, suggesting perhaps thick plumes of dark smoke that dissipate into gentle, light-filled wisps.

The atmosphere in the hall after intermission was vibrating with a sense of both ebullience and growing anticipation of the appearance of guest soloist, the inimitable pianist Andre Watts. And once again, a remembrance. Watts was the featured soloist when Zimmerman conducted his first concert as the newly hired CSO Music Director 30 years ago. They have since performed more than 14 concerti together in various other venues. Their chemistry is indeed a seasoned and powerful one, and in eminently fine form on this occasion.

At the beginning of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 - with its low, dark piano chords reminiscent of gently rolling, distant thunder – Watts seemed to be tentatively negotiating his aural balance with the orchestra as the strings introduced the main theme. In fact it was this spirit of nuanced negotiation between keyboard and orchestra that did in fact resolve and settle into a remarkable symbiosis throughout most of the performance. You could actually see how Watts and the orchestra were listening to each other. This is, after all, an iconic work – a masterpiece of monumental piano pyrotechnics that could easily overshadow orchestral presence.

But even in its most dominant moments, Watts’ startlingly muscular power nonetheless illuminated the work’s poetry. And nowhere was that poetry more beautifully stated and balanced than in the lovely second movement. Here, it’s worth noting that the playing of the main theme by principal clarinetist Randy Klein was particularly memorable for its sweet, plaintive lyricism.

By the time Watts had finished the third movement, with colossal virtuosity and passion, it was clear we had witnessed something of a phenomenon. In a way I think he has re-invented this work, and in the end not so much negotiated with the giant, so to speak, as eloquently conversed with it. And passionate conversation can be draining.

So it is that many present may have been disappointed that no encore was forthcoming, even after bringing Watts back to the stage some four or five times to roof-rattling applause. But how does one follow an act like that? I was reminded of the proverbial victorious star athlete who leaves it all on the field after a super-human performance.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Gentle Fire: Stark's Vision-Makers Collected

A Gentle Fire: Stark’s Vision-Makers Collected

By Tom Wachunas

“The internet – the ubiquitous www - is a poor imitation of pulse, a digital cloud of cold cyber air. It doesn’t have an odor. It can’t be felt with flesh. Web pages don’t have a heft you can cradle close to your breast, cozy in bed or a favorite chair, soothed by the glow of a reading lamp. Give me my pictures and words in a book. Living things, I say. Books! Caress their pages as you turn them. They’ll return the favor. Go ahead, smell them. The aroma itself is an endangered species.”
- June Godwit -

Ahh, the sweet smell of success. I’ve been like the proverbial kid on Christmas Eve, breathless with anticipation, awaiting the release of “Stark Arthology.” The book is the inaugural publication from Canton’s non-profit publisher, Indigo Ink Press, and the first-ever anthology of Stark County artists - 69 of them to be exact. It’s due to hit many local stores on Saturday, November 20. So imagine my delight when Jessica Bennett – founder and executive director of Indigo Ink Press, and who also designed and edited the book – advanced me a copy hot off the presses (and oh yes, that smell!) with an invitation to review it. Yes, June Godwit, there is a Santa Claus.

Don’t write off the slender mass of this product as an indication that it is in any way inconsequential. As hard-bound paper products go, it’s as well-crafted and sparkling as any art anthology I’ve seen. Beyond that, the book is a seriously handsome, thoughtfully laid-out presentation of Stark County’ artistic energy. As a documentary of that energy, it is a sumptuous, revelatory homage to the diversity and depth - at times profound – of the creators in our midst. As such, this is a truly remarkable gift to both the artists and their devotees as well as an elegant invitation to the community at large to further embrace our burgeoning visual arts milieu.

Each artist page includes a photograph of a single work, artist’s statement and bio (of variable lengths and depths throughout), and a wondrously sensitive black-and-white head shot. Those subtle portraits are by Michael Barath and Thom Metz, while the excellent, true-to-the-original photographs of the artworks are (except where noted) by Tim Belden. The book, funded in part by a grant from ArtsinStark (with a portion of the book’s proceeds to benefit ArtsinStark’s SmArts initiative), also includes a foreword by David C. Kaminski, and introduction by publisher/editor Bennett.

In that astute introduction, Bennett notes that the artists’ words about their work are something they recognize as an expectation on the readers’ parts. Those words are nonetheless “…most often simple trappings – means to an end… But it’s the work that is the unexpected, the honest… The words are a well done fake, a counterfeit; the art is the genuine article.” I couldn’t agree more. This is after all not a literary anthology, but a testament to an entirely different language. Yet it is in its own right a “readable” language, beautifully visible here, describing a fire burning among us. Not a catastrophic blaze, to be sure, but certainly a figurative fire that burns consistently in the hearth of our local culture. It is a fire that casts a warming glow on what is both strange and familiar, ethereal and earthy, and on the guts and grace of living, fueled by the unique passions of these eminently gifted Stark County artists.

So here they are: Clare Murray Adams, Diann Adams, Sandy Adams, Kevin Anderson, Jeremy Aronhalt, Laura Barry, Tim Belden, Diane Belfiglio, Vicki Boatright (“BZTAT”), Craig “Uncle Dregg” Booth, Brandon Bowman, John M. Branham, Brittney Breckenridge, Renie Britenbucher, Patrick G. Buckohr, Jerry Adam Burris, Martin A. Chapman, Michele Cimprich, Joseph Carl Close, Carol R. DeGrange, Frank Dale, Lynn Digby, George DiSabato, Marti Jones Dixon, Steve Ehret, Donna Fuchs, Carolyn Jacob, Robert Joliet, Laura Kolinski-Schultz, Judi Krew, Bili Kribbs, David Kuntzman, Ted Lawson, Jeff Lowe, Billy Ludwig, Joanne Mariol, Brett Marriner, Megan Mars, Tiffany Marsh, Joe Martino, Nancy Stewart Matin, Bob Maurer, Sharon Frank Mazgaj, David McDowell, Stephen McNulty, Thom Metz, Wanda Montgomery, Erin T. Mulligan, Su Nimon, Scot Phillips, Tina Puckett, Mieze Riedel, Pat Ripple, Pricilla Roggenkamp, William Shearrow, Sarah Winther Shumaker, Hurshel Smith, Brittany Steigert, Judith Sterling, John Strauss, Christopher J. Triner, Angelina Verginis, Fredlee Votaw, Michele Waalkes, Michael Weiss, Keith Wilson, Shawn Wood, Isabel Zaldivar, Derek Zimmerman.

Indigo Ink Press and the Canton Museum of Art will be hosting an exhibit of StarkARThology artists at a ticketed launch party at the museum on the evening of Friday, November 19, where guests can get their hands on early copies of the book ($29.95). The exhibit will be on view through Sunday, November 28. Tickets for the launch party are $25 and are available at http://starkarthology.evenbrite.com , by calling (330) 417 -7715, or at the door. ALSO, on November 20, Borders Books and Music at The Strip in North Canton will be hosting a book signing from 3 to 5 p.m.

Photo: “Fire-Breathing Rabbits,” oil, 2005, by Erin T. Mulligan, courtesy Indigo Ink Press.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Up Close and Public

Up Close and Public

By Tom Wachunas

Look! Up in the sky! It’s…another piece of public art in downtown Canton! According to ArtsinStark, it’s public art work number 41. By now, those of you who have followed my musings about Canton’s public art installations know that a good portion of them have brought out the curmudgeonly gadfly in me. The works that I once complained about still set my teeth on edge. Those are simply bad art, and otherwise the lowest common denominators of artistic quality. It’s not reasonable to think they’ll improve with age. ‘Nuff said.

So relax. This entry isn’t a slam against the latest unveiled project, Joseph Close’s “The Sky Is The Limit.” Located on the Timken Campus Skywalk at the corner of McKinley and West Tuscarawas Street, the 12’ x 40’ “mural” is another slam-dunk for Close, and a welcome one for Canton’s public art profile. Coordinated by ArtsinStark, the project was originally the brain-child of attorney Allen Schulman, and sponsored by Aultman Health Foundation, Coon Restoration and Sealants, and Hilscher-Clarke. The theme of the work embraces the broad range of educational experiences available to students at Timken High School.

One of my earliest encounters with the work of Joseph Close was his enthralling “Gaia’s Hope,” another public artwork from 2007, located on the side of the parking garage at 3d Street NW and Court Avenue. Since then he has consistently produced works that have set him significantly apart from the Canton art pack. That’s certainly not to disparage the pack. Rather, it is to say that his work confounds easy definition or labeling. Frankly, I think he’s a tool-belted sorcerer, or a shaman-transformer with a brush in one hand, a blow torch in the other. With a palette more solemn than somber, he wrests dignity from industrial detritus, grace from garbage, poetry from the mundane.

While the symbolism in “Gaia’s Hope” seems somewhat arcane (yet utterly fascinating), “The Sky Is The Limit” is more viewer-friendly, with its painterly montage of images depicting pursuits of science, engineering, sports, and the arts. It’s imprecise to call it simply a mural. Yes, the pictorial configuration is “two dimensional.” But like “Gaia’s Hope,” the work is not so much a painting on the building wall surface as it is a tactile vision-cloud emerging from it – a relief sculpture of sorts.

And speaking of relief, it’s gratifying to know that that the planners and supporters of this marvelous addition to the local public art inventory got it right this time. Joseph Close has provided us with a work we can literally look up to, and savor for both its artistic integrity and its message: Canton’s hope.

Photo, courtesy ArtsinStark: “The Sky Is The Limit,” by Joseph Close.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Consider Yourself...Surrounded

Consider Yourself…Surrounded

By Tom Wachunas

Much of the local buzz about the recent Players Guild opening of “Oliver!” has been about the decision to present it not on the impressively-fitted mainstage, but in the William G. Fry Theatre – the Guild’s much smaller, “black box” venue. After all, the production has long and deservedly occupied a venerated place in the history of musical theatre, and so understandably takes on an expectation of sprawling dimensionality. In retrospect, the decision to somehow shrink this lyrical epic to a more intimate scale was a truly visionary one, and one that in no way dilutes or minimizes the show’s overall richness. In fact, in these close quarters, the show’s dramatic impact becomes all the more immediate and visceral.

For starters, there’s the wondrously inventive set design by director Jonathan Tisevich and technical/lighting designer Craig M. Betz. A series of raised platforms and ramps (looking like stressed wood and effectively conjuring decrepit, crowded urban conditions) allow for action to take place not just at eye-level, but above as well as around the audience. Space constraints being what they are here, the excellent four-piece orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons has been cleverly placed in a room off-stage. The room was equipped with a live camera feed for the musicians to keep in tight flow with the always energetic and crisp ensemble singing by an eminently talented cast.

To the role of the disheveled and eccentric Fagin, the cunning overseer of pickpocket street waifs, Greg Rininger brings a thoroughly riveting air of sinister camp that pours out hilariously when he sings “Reviewing the Situation” directly to some very surprised audience members. As Artful Dodger, Marina Dallas (who alternates with Dakayla Noble in the role) presents a delightfully spry portrait of the swaggering (oh that Cockney accent!), two-faced ‘guardian’ of Oliver. Playing the remorseless, vicious Bill Sykes, Aaron Brown basically stops the show (and your heart) with his thunderous entrance in the second act. His impeccably crafted cruelty takes on even more monstrous proportions particularly in light of the street-hardened yet tender loyalty of his ‘girlfriend,’ Nancy. In that role, Sarah Karam provides some of the evening’s most electrifying and heartfelt singing with her gripping delivery of “As Long As He Needs Me.”

The evening is certainly not without its moments of outright humor. Among those are the pub scene featuring the communal drunken revelry in the song “Oom Pah Pah,” and the scenes featuring the characters of the conniving and argumentative Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney, played by Dave Lapp and Emily Hubbard, whose singing voice lends an occasionally operatic edge to the proceedings.

Finally, as Oliver Twist, nine year-old Drake Spina (who alternates in the role with Morgan Brown) is on one level something of an irony. His singing in “Where Is Love” and the beautifully layered “Who Will Buy?” is sweet, direct, and gently compelling. Yet as a performer on stage - the focus of so much volatile attention from the population surrounding and assailing him – he’s not so much an actor as he is a haunting presence. His most physically animated moment comes in a brief scene wherein he attacks the relentless bully Noah Claypole (played with gleeful relish by David Burkhardt) for insulting his dead mother. Otherwise, young Spina’s low-key aura nonetheless effectively communicates a tired desperation, even a muted pain.

I’m reminded, sadly, that for all its magnetism and appeal as popular entertainment, “Oliver!” is at it’s core – despite its bright moments of humor, sympathy, and hope - a darkly unromantic indictment of societal cruelties and hypocrisies. I wonder if Charles Dickens might well be mortified today that the evils he so urgently and eloquently addressed in 19th century London (spawning awareness then of “The Great London Waif Crisis”) are, much to our shame, still abundantly with us nearly two hundred years later. And so it is that Oliver’s / Spina’s wistful innocence in “Where is Love?” resonates all the more with bittersweet relevance.

Photo, courtesy Players Guild: Greg Rininger as Fagin in the Players Guild Theatre production of “Oliver!” Showing at the William G. Frye Theatre, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue. N, Canton. Tickets $15. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30p.m., THROUGH NOVEMBER 21. To order call (330) 453 – 7617 or visit www.playersguildtheatre.com

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Exibitus Wimzicalis

Exibitus Wimzicalis

By Tom Wachunas

“I think we can agree that the bright orb we see glowing constantly in the blue sky above us is in fact the sun. That is a truth. If I paint a picture of it, it is no longer that truth. What happens then if we put aside all the tedious rhetoric and codes we heap upon this thing we call art? All we have left in the end is a story. So the only real truth in art is that the artist makes it. Embrace that, and you might see how all art could be fiction. Historical fiction, perhaps, but fiction just the same.” – June Godwit -

Suppose for the moment that “every picture tells a story” is true and, similarly, that a given picture is worth in the neighborhood of a thousand words, give or take a few hundred. Now twist these platitudes around a bit, and you might come up with “every story is worth a painting, a photo, and a sculpture,” and you get the quantitative gist of the latest exhibit at Anderson Creative.

Even the show’s ponderous title smacks of something mildly mischievous if not pseudo-scientific: “Habitat: From the Recovered Trunks of Sir Steph(v)en Thomas Buckonhalt Andergan.” Shades of vintage National Geographic stories set in exotic lands. The story here is written by Steve Shumaker, displayed via large text panels, and supported with illustrations by Erin Mulligan, collaborative photographs by Jeremy Aronholt and Stephen McNulty, and sculptures by Kevin Anderson, Patrick Buckohr, and Tom Megalis.

The premise of this spoof of natural-history museum exhibits is that Sir Steph(v)en Thomas Buckonhalt Andergan (his name a composite of the participating artists) disappeared in Africa, and only his steamer trunks were recovered – filled with journals, photos, paintings, and taxidermy specimens – along with his manservant, Riley. We learn that the fictitious British naturalist was a contemporary of American entertainer Al Jolson, and his intent was to join the pantheon of world explorers by discovering new and strange species. He meets an astonishingly well-groomed, mute “native” (Riley), who is really a jazz musician. Their adventures and discoveries are as surreal as they are hilarious.

Shumaker’s writing is spot-on in its easy-going style and wit, along with its gleefully mangled Latin assignations of bizarre wildlife, like Trithumbus Dimmus Copulous (The Three-Toed Stumphumper). The stunning, elaborately-set photographs are equally delightful, imbued with a distinct vintage patina, and lend an epic, even cinematic (and certainly comedic) sweep to the proceedings. Mulligan’s ink and acrylic paintings are excellently rendered studies in pure whimsy while preserving an “official” presence. And the sculptured “specimens” share a similar sensibility, though I think the polymer clay pieces by Megalis have a palpable edge here on faux- authenticity.

One particular episode in this playful saga best encapsulates for me the gently demanding spirit of this show. In the segment called “Hypnopede (Cantilimbus Mesmerizus),” we read of the explorer’s encounter with a single-eyed “frightening beastie” with 100 legs, to wit: “I soon found myself unable to move, rooted to the ground and unable to look away from the monster’s single eye. My thoughts began to cloud and, although my mind knew to run, my legs were not about to cooperate.”

So yes, there is much text to read here. I actually heard moaning and groaning from a few fellow artists about having to negotiate “another one of those kinds of shows.” Gimme a break. To bypass the text is to do yourself and the artists a great disservice. I’m reminded of a recent Geico commercial. To paraphrase, maybe those jackwagons and others who share their sense of inconvenience should come on back from mamby-pamby land and just tough it out. Sheesh.

My own legs took me back to the exhibit and kept me rooted – body and mind - a second time. Cantilimbus Mesmerizus. Mesmerize us indeed.

Photo: “Slingshot Elephants (Launchis Pachydermis)” ink and acrylic on board, by Erin Mulligan, courtesy Anderson Creative Studio, on view through November 27 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. www.andersoncreativestudio.com

Monday, November 1, 2010

Earthy Celestials

Earthy Celestials

By Tom Wachunas

The second chamber music concert in this season’s Aultman Primetime Series by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was a deeply edifying study in maximum delight from an economy of means. Katherine DeJongh, who holds the position of Principal Flute with the CSO, and CSO principal harpist Nancy Paterson, performed a program on October 28 in Cable Recital Hall of nine brief works spanning three centuries that was both imaginatively constructed and marvelously performed.

The first two works on the program – Bizet’s simple and lilting “Menuet from L’Arlesienne” from 1872, and Gluck’s beautifully pastoral “Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from 1774 – were very warmly played. They effectively set the stage for the concert’s longest piece, Vincent Persichetti’s “Serenade No. 10,” from 1957.

The eight short parts of this work comprise a ‘modernist’ montage of various tempi and historic style influences. Yet even at its most modern (including some fascinating percussive harp effects), the work never becomes astringent or inaccessible. More important, through all of the work’s intricate, technically challenging passages, both performers maintained a sure hold on its compelling lyrical undercurrents – an enthralling mix of moods at once pensive and adventurous. At times the music suggests a journey, beginning with a looming storm, then a contemplative walk in the rain (with harp harmonics sounding like the patter of raindrops), and ending a with playful, fast awakening to light.

Lyricism and emotional resonance continued to be very much a part of the next two segments of the program – both 20th century works. Paterson performed two solos – “Tango” and “Rumba” from Carlos Salzedo’s 1943 Suite of Eight Dances – with charming, bright precision. Who would’ve thought that the harp could so powerfully immerse us in such exotic panache? DeJongh followed suit with two riveting flute solos from Astor Piazzola’s “Tango Etudes”, including the achingly melancholic “Lento meditativo.” She played it on the alto flute, haunting the hall with a rich, dark, throaty sound.

The last three works- staples of the flute and harp repertoire – were by Gabriel Faure, Maurice Ravel, and Jacques Ibert. From the melodic nobility of Faure’s “Sicilienne” and the sultry majesty of Ravel’s “Piece en Forme de Habenera,” through the flute’s breathlessly quick scale runs and propulsive harp energy of Ibert’s sparkling “Entr’acte,” the duo was flawless. And just in case that piece’s very last note - like the triumphal stamp of a dancer’s feet – didn’t leave us all smiling (as in fact it did), the encore performance of Francois Gossec’s frolicking and celebratory Tambourine left us decidedly ecstatic.

The combination of flute and harp often has associations with music so innocently ethereal and cherubic that we can too easily perceive it as somehow lacking in classical gravitas. Not surprisingly, we might just as often regard theses aural pleasantries as airy, albeit sophisticated background music. What this concert so brilliantly brought to mind, though, in a manner both poignant and electrifying, is that the combined sounds can be remarkably muscular. And in the skilled hands of DeJongh and Paterson, this music of the angels heralded an ebullient earthiness.

For ticket and concert information on this and the CSO MasterWorks Series, visit www.cantonsymphony.org

Photo: Flute and Harp Duo, by Leslie Xuereb, www.allposters.com

Wednesday, October 27, 2010



By Tom Wachunas

“Home is the sacred refuge of our life.” - John Dryden –

“The sober comfort, all the peace which springs from the large aggregate of little things.” - Hannah More –

“The only fountain in the wilderness of life, where man drinks of water totally unmixed with bitterness, is that which gushes for him in the calm and shady recess of domestic life.” - William Penn –

“Femininity appears to be one of those pivotal qualities that is so important no one can define it.” - Caroline Bird –

“Really, I don’t know anything about femininity. Apparently men do. I know only that I very much like being a woman.” - June Godwit –

When originality evades me in backing into a commentary, it’s always fun to let someone else take the wheel. Clever, witty, or otherwise apropos quotations from others can go a long way toward setting a mood and building an ideological foundation. So here you have it – domesticity and femininity.

Both subjects are intertwined in a recently opened show (“Domestic Observances: Experiencing the Everyday Sacred”) at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. While the terms are not synonymous in the strictest sense, they tend to commonly appear in the same sentence if not context. The works in this show happen to be by two young women – Liz DeBellis and Brittany Steigert. They embrace the practices, accessories and ideas we often associate with “domestic life” and womanhood with a tantalizing and intimate pictorial honesty that’s appealing both visually and cerebrally. Decorative, yes, but never vapid.

The small oil paintings by Brittany Steigert, at once raw and tender, are mostly monotoned close-ups of household glassware and utensils. Their compositional simplicity and bias toward brown and sienna hues are reminiscent of antique sepia-tinted photographs. Mounted as closely together as they are here, I’m reminded of the lovingly-assembled collections of mementos and cherished, shelved knick-knacks one encounters in many “country kitchens.” What’s most remarkable about these paintings, though, is their fascinating technique and Steigert’s keenly observed renderings of reflective surfaces. While there is clear enough evidence of very deft brush work, the overall look of her glassy or metallic subjects is that they’ve been rubbed, buffed, or stained into existence. Like polishing tarnished silverware, or shining up dusty glass. Risen from the mists of memory? Perhaps. In any case, you can almost smell the tender, even bittersweet nostalgia.

The fiber works here by Liz DeBellis take the form of hanging quilts. I’ve seen lots of quilts in the past with more pattern variety, complex geometric symmetries, textures, and masterful stitching. Comparatively, DeBellis offers more basic and visceral ‘pictures’ that are nonetheless compelling in their uncluttered simplicity, compositional directness, and lyrical content. There is a certain wow factor to the metallic shimmer of “The Glow of a Full Moon,” with its aura of subtle color change around the hypnotic orb shining through bare tree branches. But for even more intriguing content, there’s “Dancing Roots,” an asymmetrical landscape comprised of plant forms with wonderfully strange fruit and blossoms, and a procession of tiny silhouetted figures prancing across the bottom border.

And on a more ‘monumental’ scale, there’s “Intentionality in the Modern Age.” This may be a coming-of-age testimony of sorts, or a meditation on identity. The dominating paper dress pattern, sewn onto a printed field of tightly clustered organic shapes in red, includes a somewhat clinical rendering of the human heart organ. It’s a motif loosely repeated in that field of clustered shapes (codified eternity?), along with floral configurations. And doves – those iconic symbols of the Holy Spirit. Maybe the finished garment is intended to be a destination, cut from the background fabric, as if donning sacred eternity itself, and declaring that home is indeed where the heart is.

Photo: “Intentionality in the Modern Age,” by Liz DeBellis, on view in “Domestic Observances: Experiencing the Everyday Sacred,” through December 4 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Painted Prayers

Painted Prayers

By Tom Wachunas

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 saints. – Ephesians 6:18 –

The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you. – Luke 17: 20b-21 -

Prompted again. This time by all those I know personally, and those I don’t know at all, who are hurting and assailed by wounds seen and unseen, fleeting or chronic, curable or terminal. Diseased in mind, heart, and/or body. Prompted by a litany of longing and supplication, a great crying out for comfort and hope.

Every word and image in the Wednesday, October 20 edition of The Repository floated on a field of pink newsprint in commemoration of Breast Cancer Awareness month. And there on page A7 were two articles about the artists participating in the online art auction ( www.cantonrep.com/thinkpink ) sponsored by The Repository and its sister publication, The Independent. The auction has inspired a genuine and generous response from our artists community, and I’m deeply grateful to be part of it, and for the commitment by Dan Kane and Erin Pustay in organizing it. Additionally, the project was yet another prompting for me to consider human suffering in general. This is certainly not to diminish the specific objective of the ‘Think Pink!’ initiative and the other participating artists, nor to ‘pitch’ my own work (called “Re-Paired”) in the auction per se. But I did see the project as an opportunity – a blessing, actually – to re-examine the process and intent of my own work as a visual artist. More important, I saw the initiative as time to link the making of a work directly to the act of praying, which is a very real event that has become an ever more present accompaniment to my studio activities.

And so it is that while I rarely use this forum to speak of a specific art work of mine (in fact I’ve done so only once, on May 28 of this year), I simply want to share a few thoughts about my contribution to Think Pink, and how it embodies my overall artistic vision of late.

Prior to 2000, the majority of my work as a visual artist took the form of acrylic and oil painting on canvas, as well as mixed-media sculpture that fit loosely into what became known as “Neo-Expressionism.” Over the past ten years, my creative activity has been increasingly reflective of my growing relationship with Christ. The result has been the evolving of a ‘language’ that embraces far more than just painterly concerns.

Recent works continue to be tactile narratives that are for the most part mixed-media painted assemblages. They are evidence (fossils?) of my attempt to engage all my perceptual sensibilities to excavate the merely apparent, and illuminate the fully real life of Christ’s Kingdom NOW, albeit symbolically. Call it an archaeology of the soul. These pieces are Spirit tableaus, constructed with a codified language of the heart, symbolizing hope, faith, discovery, and praise. They are in fact my prayers made tangible.

“Re-Paired” (the image that accompanies this post), while obviously a play on ‘repaired,’ is a prayer for re-connecting, for healing and for binding of wounds both physical and spiritual. It is a call to fix our attentions and affections on Christ and His promise - amid the mortal thorns and fragile pleasures of human life – of “life more abundant” in His Kingdom. Not only in the hereafter but, again, NOW. It is a promise sealed with His blood, and guaranteed by His victory over death. The recurring use of the rose motif in many of my pieces can be seen in several ways. But I like to see them as the simplest of reminders: He…rose. And He has invited us to do the same by clothing our selves with Him, by binding ourselves to Him.

You could call His invitation a divine subpoena of sorts. If that’s the case, consider yourself served.

Photo” “Re- Paired,” courtesy www.cantonrep.com/thinkpink

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From the Abyss, with Love

From the Abyss, with Love

By Tom Wachunas

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” - C.S. Lewis –

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear Scorn.” - Martin Luther –

“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.” - Ephesians 6:12 -

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I was in Cleveland recently to see a play at the Ohio Theatre – “The Screwtape Letters.” I wasn’t there as a critic, but rather to see how the 1941 novel by author and theologian C.S. Lewis would be adapted for the stage and, of course, to simply have fun and enjoy an evening at the theatre, sans notebook. So I wasn’t intending to write anything about it at all. That was then. Still, as it turns out, I don’t need notes. I first read the novel in high school. Now reacquainted with it in essence, the story simply won’t let me go. Further, I feel compelled – prompted, pushed, and otherwise encouraged – to acquaint someone else with it, even if indirectly. That would be you, dear reader. In a larger sense, it is my fervent wish that you read on with a willingness to be willing to search your self as it stands in relationship to art that glorifies God, and the forces that would keep such art – and you - from doing so. I say this fully aware of C.S. Lewis’ caveat in his introduction to his novel: “There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.” And when I speak of art here, I mean it in its broadest sense – all the forms of human expression –including popular entertainment genres - that draw our time, attentions and affections.

Lewis’ story has gone to Hell. It is told from a demon’s point of view. His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape encourages his earth-roaming nephew, Wormwood, via letters he dictates to his secretary, Toadpipe, in the fine art of leading human souls into the jaws of Hell, where the damned are food for devils. The vibrant and faithful-to-the original play adaptation by Jeffrey Fiske and Max McLean (who plays Screwtape) is for two live characters – Screwtape and Toadpipe. The unseen object of their assaults, a young man on earth, is “The Patient,” and God, also unseen, is “The Enemy.” McLean (who in real life works for The Enemy) is astoundingly gripping in his characterization, and Elise Girardin is wickedly lithe and funny as Toadpipe. The script/novel is a lightning- fast barrage of pronouncements that are both deeply rhetorical and pragmatically wise. It’s as diabolically sobering as it is searingly comedic.

The clever genius of Lewis’ storytelling here is in its uncanny, double-edged capacity to make us feel comfortable in our smug mockery of the devil and his schemes, all the while very uncomfortable confronting our impoverished spiritual state and our intellectual complacency in dealing with it. It is a story that is in effect an uncompromisingly Christian moral inventory of humanity, and one just as disturbingly true now as when Lewis wrote it. And ironically enough, Lewis doesn’t offer anything about the human condition that writers of the Old and New Testaments didn’t already know. I am reminded that God is indeed a patient God.

Lewis’ novel - and this play - is neither a reliquary of outmoded thinking nor an irrelevant modern-day fantasy. It’s art of the highest order. Veritas ad Deum ducit. Truth leads to God. So….

Dear Reader,

Find the book. Read it. Do something about it.

With affection,

Tom W.

Photo, courtesy www.ScrewtapeOnStage.com / Max McLean (seated) as Screwtape, Elise Girardin as Toadpipe.

For more information on this production as well as Fellowship For The Performing Arts ( FPA, Max McLean, President and Artistic Director), please visit www.ScrewtapeOnStage.com

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Slash and Learn: A Painter's Brush with Life

Slash and Learn: A Painter’s Brush with Life

By Tom Wachunas

Like the journeys of many painters, Chris Triner’s has been one well-traveled by others before him who have explored territories best called representational abstraction. In his statement accompanying his paintings currently on view at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, Triner speaks of his passion for nature, architecture, and simplicity. And as demonstrated in some of the works here, he has developed a unique hybrid visual language that articulates that passion with impressive success. Others just as clearly show the challenges that painters in this mode can often encounter when struggling with organizing their pictorial grammar and syntax, so to speak

As their were no dates posted with any of the works (yes, I agree with fellow artist- blogger, Judi Krew, that such omissions are often vexing), I needed to find out from Triner when some of his pieces were done, so as to better grasp his evolution. My desire for such was prompted by a guess as to what might be his newest work here. As it turned out, my intuition proved accurate. I’ll get to that momentarily.

Meanwhile, perhaps the least successful stop along the painter’s journey is his mixed media collage from 2003, “Frank Lloyd Wright Would Have A Fit!” Yes indeed. This is largely an exercise in texture and picture-plane fragmentation which veered disastrously off course, whatever that may have been. Similarly, “Nude Figure in Repose,” an oil from 2004, seems to be having an identity crisis. Is it a tribute to Cubist stylings and space, or a ‘pixelated’ fragmenting of the figure? While there’s nothing problematic about either formal approach per se, the blending of the two here has an undermining effect. Some of the over-worked color passages muddy-up what might be an otherwise remarkable ‘pose.’ Another mixed media work (I forgot to ask about the date) however, “Structured Faith,” with its charmingly configured architectural theme integrated with abstract space, is a considerably more satisfying visual experience.

From 2007 or thereabout, “Summer’s Last Stand” is a spectacularly sumptuous oil diptych that has all the expressionistic delicacy and verve of a very fine Romantic symphony. Triner’s blending technique is the picture of music itself, punctuated with brushy, lush accent notes that rise from subtle harmonies. That same subtlety seems to have evolved into the ‘backgrounds’ and color fields in various architectural landscapes around the same time. “Pixelated Valley” and “Olive Field,” for example, are more overtly structured, and their colors more intense, with shapes organized into rhythms. These still possess a succinctly lyrical sensibility, which is in turn very much present in the 2009 “Rapid Sky Movement” and the 2010 “City Rhythms.” In the former, the red mid-section of the painting – a stormy field of visceral, linear strokes like so many thin slash marks - practically pops off the canvas.

All of the aforementioned – undulating skies and grounds of blended colors, thin linear brush activity as accents, and rhythmically configured shapes – come together into a marvelously resolved unit in Triner’s most recent oil painting, “Utilitarian City.” Clear, confident, loose, and whimsical, even the pervasive wispy black ‘slashes’ aren’t just casual outlines. They’re “overlines” that function like connecting wires in this delightfully animated cityscape – like a swaying, upwardly- pointed dance.

Performance metaphors aside, all serious painting is indeed a journey to developing a unique language, and a maturing in speaking that language. So there’s bound to be some mispronunciations along the way. Having mastered those, Chris Triner has certainly become notably fluent in his present vocabulary. With his facile brush and palette, the voice he gives to yet unexplored dialects should prove to be an even more fascinating travelogue and, like the current one, well worth following.

A FINAL NOTE: This show, called “Colorful Endeavors,” runs through November 6, and also includes 78 (!!!) nouveau-antique jewelry pieces by Jess Kinsinger, presented in a remarkably refreshing manner. If rapturous smiles were jewelry, they’d surely look like this.

Photo: “Summer’s Last Stand,” oil, by Chris Triner.

The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499 -4712, ext. 312 / HOURS are MWF 10 -6, TR 12 -8, Sat. 9-5 gallery@northcantonlibrary.org