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 ( ) 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

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 / 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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Business As Usual

Business As Usual

By Tom Wachunas

“There is always a demand for fresh mediocrity. In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.” - Paul Gauguin –

“The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind.” -John Stuart Mill –

“We modernists are far too willing to forsake the sublime in favor of celebrating crude dabbling. Know this: history has already given us all the standards we require. We are at our best when we accept that we cannot rise above the Masters. We can only stand beside them.” - June Godwit -

It’s never a good thing when the truly excellent works in a group show are the minority components, or when genuine depth is overshadowed by hodge-podge variety and hollow facades. The last annual juried Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum was ten months ago. Gee, a year goes by so quickly these days. It’s baaack. And just like the early 2010 edition, this month’s annual show of 71 works culled from 320 entries is, for the most part, an anemic affair that makes me wish I had been in the jurors’ room when they deliberated. I guess it’s all just another exercise in what-if hindsight that makes jurors such easy targets. How quickly we remember.

A considerable amount of space has been given here, once again, to rather bland photographic works, both straight and digitally affected (or infected). In either case, most of the entries can’t hold a flash bulb to Stephen McNulty’s lush and expansive “Valley of Shangri-La.” Behind the camera, he’s simply in a world-class league all his own.

Among the sculptural mixed media works, “Family Group” and “Interiors” by Clare Murray Adams are truly intriguing. The former is set of four long sticks set upright on the floor, leaning against the gallery wall. Each of these domestic totems is a codified portrait of sorts, wrapped with various fabrics and trinkets. The latter is a collection of fiberous and waxy “rocks” set on a mantle, with opened zippers, revealing “clothed” interiors.

“Woman with Orange Stripe” is a stark and utterly arresting portrait of a Black woman by Marcy A. Axelband. Her riveting eyes seem intensely focused, but are they probing us, or her own condition? The matte surface is like dried earth, thinly scarred and scratched. The broken vertical orange stripe – a metaphor for her suffering, perhaps - balances her stance which oddly seems both tentative and firmly planted.

Speaking of tentative firmness, the largest painting in this show is also the most delightfully unrefined in the traditional sense of stretched canvas and elegant frame. You’ll never see “Girl in Uggs” by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker in any slick ads for fancy footwear, though the artist’s signature, like a designer brand, is nearly as prominent a feature as the ruinously crude shoes. Paint by Parker. Call it postmodernist posh panache, maybe. And typical of some of postmodernism’s more subversive tendencies, this thing is quite ugly in a beautiful sort of way. Still, there’s a lot of chutzpah beneath this unstretched foray into painterly mark-making. Amid all the smudgings, erasings, and coverings-over, the shoes are really incidental to the true subject at hand – the painter’s decision-making process itself.

For sheer, unfettered fun, there’s the hilariously surreal oil painting, “The Ravens Drive Trucks” by Erin T. Mulligan –like an elaborately framed book jacket for a Twilight Zone children’s tale. And equally hilarious is Robert Gallick’s found-objects sculpture “Button-eyed Jack Muzzled and Hog-Tied.” I hope the artist realizes it’s a wonderful homage to Saul Steinberg.

Finally, I never stop looking for good, old- fashioned, unashamedly presented BEAUTY, painted or drawn. I’m certainly not dismissing abstraction and experimentation as such, particularly when such explorations are as engaging as the works here by Isabel Zaldivar, or Sherri Hornbrook. But the specific beauty I’m talking about is the kind found only in highly skilled, sensitive, and evocative representational renderings of natural or objective reality. There are examples of that here, though precious few. “Cranberries” by Jyodi Patel is a luscious, red oil gem of a still life done in the Flemish tradition. The gray-and-white graphite drawings by Carl Alessandro are notably soft and subtle while possessing astonishingly detailed sensuality. And Brian Robinson’s sumptuously colored pastel landscapes are masterful embodiments of light and texture - a pure joy to behold.

So OK, there are some very fine pieces here. But only some. Now, back to the easy targets. The jurors for this exhibition, perhaps over-zealous to present a diverse exhibit, have compiled a collection largely memorable for its spectacular mediocrity. Other than that, it’s a great show.

Photo: “Girl with Orange Stripe,” mixed media by Marcy Axelband, on view in the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum, through November 14.
121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon/ (330) 833 – 4061

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Strings Attached, Gloriously

Strings Attached, Gloriously

By Tom Wachunas

An air of anticipation has hugged the loyal audience of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) like a warm blanket for weeks now, and understandably so. October 10 marked the opening of the 2010-11 Masterworks Series at Umstattd Hall. But this is no ordinary season. As Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann stepped up to the podium, he was greeted by an affectionate standing ovation, in acknowledgement of his 30th anniversary as CSO Music Director and conductor. Not that the audience had reason to expect anything less than an excellent concert, but when all was said and done, even the most seasoned listeners were, in the end, extraordinarily elated.

Credit, in large part, must admittedly go to Beethoven. Equally important,however, is the matter of Zimmermann’s stated personal and passionate identifying with the Seventh Symphony, which closed out the evening. The program prior to that, though - which included Inspiring Beethoven by American composer Kevin Puts, and Dvorak’s American Suite - was ingeniously selected to whet our appetites for soaring lyricism, melodic power, and unfettered rhythmic panache.

The title of the Puts work became all the more intriguing after Zimmermann explained its concept (also laid out by the composer in the program notes), citing its metaphorical image of Puts inviting and inspiring the spirit of Beethoven to come forth. And, it would seem, he did. Very early in this single-movement work, Puts quotes two measures of Beethoven’s pulsing rhythm from the first movement of his Seventh Symphony. Then, after a crescendo into an explosive exclamation from the percussion section – which was more audacious and crisp throughout the evening than I’ve ever heard it – the piece became an ocean of swelling emotional tides. Sometimes doleful, sometimes dream-like, we hear Beethoven negotiating his deafness and despair. Later the orchestra became a gathering storm of cacophony that seemed to miraculously resolve into a sustained, even light-filled quiet. Here then was the orchestra as collective aural poet and communal Muse.

In the CSO magazine-format program for the season (a delightfully new and substantive addition this year), Zimmermann speaks of his enthrallment with the sound of strings that inspired him to become a conductor. So the Dvorak work here was a fine vehicle for him to show his oft-demonstrated mastery at drawing out the single most compelling quality of this orchestra – its astonishingly skilled, lush and unified tapestry of string sounds. Dvorak’s American Suite has long stood in the shadow of its famous cousin, New World Symphony, but its comparative modesty seemed far from the minds of the musicians on this occasion. They played it with a palpable, celebratory energy that brought its nostalgic nobility and dramatic lyricism to refreshing life. Particularly notable throughout was the precision and warmth of the many pizzicato passages that imbue the work with so much charm.

“This piece literally saved my life…,” Zimmermann says in the program article about him. He was referring to the first time he heard a recording of Beethoven’s Seventh, just prior to beginning his college studies in 1963. And here, while Zimmermann’s typically relaxed conducting style was clearly evident, belying it was a subtly perceptible, quivering intensity just as clearly communicated to the artists in the orchestra. The Seventh is in his blood, the very life of it in the orchestra. The performance proceeded at a breathtaking pace, yet never once losing a lick of precision or thunderous snap, never once diluting the work’s awe-filled drama or its imperishable spirituality. The final movement – a veritable joy train gathering speed - was a roof-shaking celebration of pure, rollicking vivacity. Liszt is said to have called the Seventh “the apotheosis of rhythm,” and similarly, Wagner said it was “the apotheosis of the dance.” Either way, the immediate and ebullient response from the audience was ample proof that we had just undergone an experience of religious dimensions.

Photo: “Concert of Angels and Nativity (detail)” oil on wood, 1515, by Matthias Grunewald.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Right Times, Right Places

Right Times, Right Places

By Tom Wachunas

In the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 – 2011 Season brochure, Gerhardt Zimmermann is quoted, “This piece literally saved my life…” He was referring to his passion for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, one of the program selections that opens the season celebrating his 30 years with the orchestra. During a conversation over a leisurely lunch in downtown Canton last April, I asked him to elaborate.

He explained that prior to his studies at Bowling Green State University (begun in the fall of 1963, and where he earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree), he saw himself simply as a band conductor, had never listened to classical music per se, and didn’t even own a record player. “The music department chairman said that would be a nice Christmas present,” he recalled, “and so my parents went into a furniture store and bought me this little baby-blue Voice of America record player, and along with it came five free records.”

One of the recordings, which Zimmermann still owns, was of Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s seventh symphony. Zimmermann was clearly moved by the memory as he spoke in slow, measured words, “And I took that sucker to bed with me every night for a month and played it. It was, ahhh… I mean the rhythm and the intensity and everything.” With an infectious, hearty laugh he added, “So when I sat in an orchestra after that I was primed and ready to bite the bullet, so to speak.”

What preceded – and certainly followed - such an inspiring epiphany is, on the face of it, a study in serendipity. Born and raised in Van Wert, Ohio, Zimmermann’s earliest aspirations were anything but musical. “My dream was always to be second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, because I loved Johnny Temple,” he recalled. “I had Polio when I was seven, but I thought I could get over it all the way until I was in junior high school. I was stubborn about it, even though the doctors said I would never walk again.”

In the fourth grade, after satisfactorily learning to play the Tonette (at that time a requirement for all elementary school students), he was asked if he’d like to be in band. He was discouraged from taking up his first choice - drums. “You know, you should really take a real instrument first,” he remembered the band director telling him. And here came that infectious laugh again, with just a bit of mischief, as Zimmermann shared an afterthought, “Now, I use that against my percussionists when I need it.”

As it was, he chose the trumpet, and envisioned himself becoming a band director someday. Fast forward to his audition on second trumpet during a rehearsal with the Bowling Green orchestra. He had never previously heard an orchestra in a live setting – only a handful of recordings. “After that rehearsal, that did it,” he said. “All the colors that you hear with the strings and the winds. That was it. I didn’t want to be a band director anymore. I just fell in love with the string sound.”

From this point onward, the interview became something of an autobiographical marathon as Zimmermann recalled, with astonishing detail, all the faces and places (too numerous to list completely here) along the winding road that ultimately brought him to Canton. “I guess the reason I say all this,” he explained, “is that I tell my students that finding a conducting job is 90 percent luck. You need to be in the right place at the right time. Once you find that break, then you’d better have that extra ten percent to prove yourself.”

His college days were peppered with various teaching jobs in elementary and junior high school music programs. In one bewildering and unusual situation (student teaching), he was required to teach elementary school violin while learning it at the same time. “I had to sit on those silly little chairs that the fifth graders sit on. Well, you learn by fire.”

Zimmermann earned his MFA in Orchestral Conducting at the University of Iowa in May of 1972. Several months later he began teaching at Western Illinois University. In his first year there he tied for second place in a conductor competition in Chicago, overseen by Georg Solti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He remembers Solti saying, “It is unfortunate that you are a conductor. You will not be able to get enough power out of the orchestra.” A year later, Zimmermann learned that Solti’s comment was meant to convey that his (Zimmermann’s) physical condition would undermine his ability to withstand the rigors of the conductor’s life. One need only peruse his bio on the Canton Symphony website to see vigorous evidence to the contrary. Reflecting on Solti’s assessment, Zimmermann said, “That’s when you learn about prejudices. Not skin-color prejudices, but other kinds of assumptions.”

During the summer after his first year at Western Illinois he actually turned down an offer to be assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. “I didn’t have the guts to go into the head of the music department at Western and say I’m resigning, since I was the fourth conductor in four years, and the school year would begin in six weeks” he mused. But several months later he was persuaded to reconsider. He went to St. Louis to hear a concert and discuss the job, accompanied by his fiancĂ©e, Sharon. The story prompted another observation about his life journey. “She’s still my wife, which is another unusual thing for a conductor,” he said proudly. “I’ve been married for 36 years to the same woman.”

Zimmerman’s eight-year tenure as assistant conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra began in the summer season of 1974 and was comprised of one year under Walter Susskind, three years under Jerzy Semkow, and four years as associate conductor under Leonard Slatkin. During his seventh year, 1979, his manager found out that Canton was looking for a conductor and was interested in hiring Zimmermann. Reluctant at first, Zimmermann came here to hear the orchestra. After the concert he went out with Linda Morehouse and Bill Blair (who had gone to St. Louis to hear a concert that Zimmermann conducted), talked until 2 a.m., and accepted the job.

Looking back at that time, Zimmermann observed, “I needed to make the next step from being an associate. I needed to have an orchestra of my own. They wanted the best orchestra they could have and I felt there wasn’t any of the board politics that can muddy up the works. It was a good fit. I think this orchestra, like the North Carolina orchestra when I went there in 1982 (where, concurrent with his position in Canton, he was Music Director and Conductor for 21 years), was hungry. They were hungry to play well and they wanted someone to demand that they play well.”

Is there a philosophy behind the chemistry between conductor and orchestra? Zimmermann has told every orchestra he’s ever worked with, “The better you get, the more I’m going to demand from you. There’s only one sound I have in mind, and that’s the sound of the Cleveland Orchestra, the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic… I don’t care whether you’re students or not. That’s the ideal you should always work toward.”

The Maestro acknowledges that in pure technique, there are orchestras that give “cleaner performances” than he might offer. But he’s not willing to settle for technical excellence alone. “I would hope my performances at least bring some excitement to the table,” he said. “So most of the time in rehearsal, I work a lot on musical ideas – the sound. I have found that if you start there, fifty percent of the technical problems will take care of themselves, instead of wasting too much of your time on just that (technique), and then you don’t bring it up to that higher level.”

He added that beyond the remarkably disciplined and gifted individuals who actually perform the music, there is another vital component to the healthy working atmosphere of the Canton Symphony Orchestra. “It’s amazing how much an orchestra depends not only on who’s sitting in those chairs, but the leadership from the board and the management.”

So, really, how is it that a boy with Polio goes from dreaming of playing professional baseball in Cincinnati to showering Canton with the glorious music of the masters for 30 years? Only serendipity? Just the random vagaries of luck? Or something of a higher order? Late in our talk, Zimmermann at one point paused and, with a look of genuine wonderment, said, “My career has been very unorthodox. Someone somewhere helped me, was taking care of me.” And for all of that, we’re blessed that he had his extra ten percent well in hand, proved and multiplied now beyond measure, as he continues to regale us with the rhythm and the intensity and…everything.

Photo of Gerhardt Zimmermann courtesy Visit that website for information on the orchestra’s 2010-11 season.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Time It's Personal

This Time It’s Personal

By Tom Wachunas

Last night I heard a grown man cry fire in a crowded theater. He incited the attending throng of opinions, dispositions, biases, and moral stances within the confines of my assumed solid frames of reference about art and artists to rush wildly hither and yon, and they’re still smoldering. A riot of thinking broke out.

The man in question is Craig Joseph, who played the lead in Lee Blessing’s stage satire about government arts funding practices, “Chesapeake,” now showing at the Kathleen Howland Theatre in downtown Canton. Did I say ‘played the lead’? Mr. Joseph IS the play, as it’s a one-man affair. So it would be a hollow compliment to say you can’t take your eyes off him. There’s nothing else to look at in this production – no set, no props (other than the startlingly real fidelity of off-stage dog barks), no lighting changes. This nearly two-hour (with an intermission) monologue is delivered in a black box. And yet it explodes with all the complicated colors and textures of clashing ideas and personalities. Joseph is a proverbial and otherwise riveting man of a thousand faces (and voices to match) who, under the direction of Ingrid DeSanctis, brings Blessing’s tale – maddeningly compelling and preposterous – to cantankerous and hilarious life.

“Chesapeake” is the story of performance artist Kerr (pronounced cur) who has been stripped of his NEA grant through the machinations of a powerful conservative homophobic congressman from Virginia, Therm Pooley. Kerr decides to turn his plight into his finest performance piece ever by kidnapping the Senator’s beloved Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Lucky (aka ‘Rat’), and turning the nationally popular pet against his master. By the end of act one, Kerr’s plot backfires and results in tragedy. Act two is an unexpected romp into surreal if not magical transformations for both Pooley and his nemesis.

The content here is eloquently – even poetically – written, and is unmistakably drawn from the volatile 1980s when Senator Jesse Helms waged his war against the ‘curs’ of the art world who used NEA funding to foist their ‘despicable’ and ‘immoral’ art on the outraged masses (who at the time, by the way, were paying 88 cents a year, per capita, for the privilege). This prompted a bevy of guerilla art attacks on the conservative, big-money art establishments of the day – translated here into Kerr’s attack on Pooley. Blessing presents a picture of the issues that in some ways undermines what would appear to be his overarching support for uncensored government subsidizing of the arts – a sabotage of sorts. On the one hand, his “hero” Kerr unapologetically celebrates deliberately inflammatory and vapid art content, with the self-important, fiery declaration, “even failed art is better than no art at all.” So then on the other hand, Kerr’s teary-eyed, loving prayer (to a God whose existence he doubts) for embracing the healing power of art to enlarge and enrich us comes off slightly more as insipid moralizing than real heroism. He’s an adult who claims his sacred right to be forever the incarnation of neoteny – a permanent juvenile, a perpetual puppy. If nothing else, the play brings to light our societal confusion of rights with capacities.

Amid all the personal, philosophical, and religious tensions entwined in this topical ‘fiction’ that still cry for resolution, Craig Joseph has completely invested himself in the intricate, often beautiful verbiage, and the succinct portraits of the characters that surround Kerr. Joseph does so with memorable panache, and an astonishingly keen ability to balance both comedic absurdities and searing drama with startling credibility. He’s the real hero of the evening.

Photo: Craig Joseph, who plays Kerr in Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake.” At the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in the lower level of Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW in downtown Canton. Performances run Oct. 8 – 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Admission $10 at the door.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hot Licks, Crazy Chops, and All That Jazz

Hot Licks, Crazy Chops, and All That Jazz

By Tom Wachunas

Aegolius could stand it no longer. They had been walking in silence for what felt like too long since the music ended, and he simply had to know. “So then,” he asked Nyctea, “did you like the concert?”
She stopped walking and, still looking straight ahead, answered slowly, “I think…it was very…cool. Isn’t that the word you use for this kind of music?”
“Oohh yes, YESSS,” Aegolius gushed. “Very cool indeed! And that axe man! Crazy chops!”
“Crazy chops?”
“Uhmm…he is an excellent guitar player.”
“Ahhh,” Nyctea nodded, a gleam forming in her eyes. “Now I remember. Supermurgitroid!”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

While some of the slang indigenous to the jazz music of the 1940s and 50s is not commonly used anymore, it is nonetheless a language as unique as the music it described. My own appreciation of language often compels me to find, or invent, descriptors appropriate to the art I encounter. And so it is that the art of Elizabeth Babb presents something of a challenge, albeit a delightful one. Her oil and water media paintings, along with woodcut prints, are currently on view through October 30 in the Main Hall Gallery at Kent State University Stark, in a show called “Jazz Zounds.”

I’ve often gone to the world of music to get at defining the spirit of various artists’ visual explorations, and it’s apropos here, given, for starters, the show’s title. Babb is clearly enamored of jazz – here the kind of jazz with wildly variable rhythms, textures, and shifting, organic thematic structures.

When I spoke with her, the word ‘intuitive’ crept into our discussion, which was understandable enough. But she’s somewhat reticent in latching on to the term, seeing it as too suggestive of generic associations with femininity. Fair enough. Improvisatory, then. Ahh, now we begin to get at how her pictures seem to formalize the energy of musicians exchanging free-form, spontaneous solos that thread through and around a melody.

Beyond musical metaphors, there are clearly other influences afoot. Several of Babb’s paintings have a distinctly, though not strictly Cubist esthetic at work – mostly in how the picture plane has been fractured and fragmented, its ‘space’ pushed forward into flat shapes of varying size and character. Those shapes, in turn, are often embellished with ornamental flourishes of brushy arcs, dots, and stripes, and always painted with confident, expressive fluidity. This, combined with an electric palette reminiscent of the Fauves from early in the 20th century, as well as a design sensibility sympathetic to Art Deco configurations, makes for a hybrid body of work (these pieces are from 2005-2007) that is at once visually busy and intricate, and unashamedly decorative.

“World on a String” is a marvelous example, with its staccato arrangements of hot and cool accents, improvised and into an architectural and figurative landscape of sorts. And the stunning black-and-white woodcuts (three called “Jazz Man”) are intimate, playful nods to Picasso-like portraiture.

So, Expressocubideco is one possible assignation. Then again, I can just as easily defer to…supermurgitroid. Crazy chops, man.

Photo – courtesy Jack McWhorter: “World on a String,” oil, by Elizabeth Babb, on view in “Jazz Zounds” at Main Hall Gallery, Kent State University Stark, through October 30. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to noon.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sense and Censorability

Sense and Censorability

By Tom Wachunas

“Censorship is advertising paid by the government.” – Federico Fellini –

“Censorship is the height of vanity.” - Martha Graham –

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” - Pablo Picasso –

There’s a wealth of implications and questions folded into that last quote. On one level, the artist is promulgating censorship of art. On another, we’re confronted with the task of defining just who or what is innocent, chaste, and sufficiently prepared. And in this era of moral relativism and giddy tolerance for ideological pluralism – an era that many discern as “the last days” – the task itself seems to be a futile exercise. Lincoln had it right, even though he wasn’t talking about art: You can’t please all the people all the time.

And so it is to be expected that not everyone who sees “Uncensored,” the national juried exhibition currently on view at Anderson Creative, will be pleased. In fact I recommend that even the most free-thinking adults think twice before having “ignorant innocents” in tow – be they children or, for that matter, colleagues who are easily incited to fits of mortification and outrage over “objectionable” content, conceptual and otherwise.

The show is one project among several upcoming in Canton acknowledging National Anti-Censorship Month. Culled from more than 80 submissions from across the nation, there are works here by 25 artists, with a healthy dose of locals in the mix. The selected works – each with an accompanying artist’s statement – present an eclectic range of messages that embrace politics, war, religion, and sexuality. It’s a celebration of not-so-strange bedfellows, really, and somewhat to my surprise (relief?), on the whole rather tame compared to the “censorable” art that caused so much iconoclastic furor in the late 1980s. Even the uniformly gray gallery walls have a calming effect that sets off the work quite handsomely, and in the process, intended or not, act as a metaphor for the gray areas that surround what we might consider to be inflammatory or obscene. It’s often a very thin line between “good taste” and what tastes good.

Some of the artists here, according to their statements, have experienced censorship of their work directly, others indirectly, and still others have made works that knowingly deal with potentially “controversial” issues. It’s hard to take offense at the charmingly executed collage, incorporating very sketchy renderings of seven nude women, by Gail Wetherell-Sack, called “You Go, Girl!” Still, she explains that she was asked by a local presenter (who shall here remain nameless - I censor myself), mounting a First Friday display of her work, to not show any nudes, as Christians would be in attendance. Never mind that in these times, “Christian” as a term is, unfortunately, open to interpretation, as is “obscenity.” So I can well imagine the same presenters being utterly horrified by Kim Truesdale’s jarring but well-painted oil of a fully frontal, spread-legged nude “virgin,”- part of her exploration of Islamic promises to martyrs.

Elsewhere in matters of religion, “Religious Flight,” a mixed-media work by Laurie Fife Harbert, is a gripping admission of her stuggles to come to terms with her own spirituality amid societal promptings, pressures, and legalistic definitions. Gripping too, literally and metaphorically, is the painting “First Love” by Lisa Jackson Wood. It’s an unabashedly beautiful and honest testament of faith in and affection for Jesus, which is itself, ironically enough in our volatile era, an act of courage.

One question that comes to mind throughout this show is what we define as truly obscene in our culture. Vicki Boatright offers her angry but poignant “Government Whitewash,” an explosively tactile mixed media indictment of administration complacency and denial in the face of Katrina’s devastation. I’ve never seen a more emotionally potent and visceral piece by her –surely her best in this mode of working. Then there’s another kind of complacency and denial addressed in Shawn Wood’s photograph that speaks to the rising Neo-Nazi ideology in Europe (and here, for that matter), “History Repeats Itself.” It’s a close-cropped portrait of a Hitlerian face, his index finger drawn up to his pursed lips in a haunting shhhhh.

The small oil on mylar paintings by Jim Boden are reminiscent of the 1970s mangled Polaroid self-portraits of Lucas Samaras. Boden’s images of smeared, distorted anatomies have a deceivingly earthy beauty that belies their subject matter – government practices of war-time torture glossed over as “enhanced interrogation.” Don Parsisson’s “State of the (Dis)Union” is a pair of giant (9’ high) back-to-back chairs, curved to lean away from each other, painted Republican red and Democrat blue, each with an upside-down American flag attached. Distress signal indeed. Unreachable by us little folk, this is the social climate of our time: Would-be political leaders seated on their thrones, incapable of seeing eye-to-eye, spewing their venomous dogma into the wind.

Judi Krew’s engaging “Porcelain for the Paranoid” collage features a pristine white toilet against a cosmetic populace - a backdrop of faces with a vast diversity of pasted-on expressions. Her statement addresses a fascination with waste elimination. I’m reminded that when it comes down to determining what is most edifying about the art we digest, only time (sooner than later?) will tell whether or not we see the more excretory practices and expressions of our day for what they are. Then all will, as it were, come out fine in the end.

Photo: “No Art,” by June Godwit/Group Scud, New York City, circa 1987.

“Uncensored” at Anderson Creative, through October 31, Tuesdays- Saturdays 12-5,
331 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton.