Friday, December 30, 2011

The Tales We Weave (part 2 of 2): "Focus: Fiber 2011" in Canton

The Tales We Weave (Part 2of 2): “Focus: Fiber 2011” in Canton
By Tom Wachunas

Another smaller, but vibrant work that requires a shift in viewing posture is Bonnie Patterson’s “Bitter Root.” The ‘ground’ for this piece seems at first to be an abstract field, and on one level it is. The multiple fabric swatches are heat transfer images of Montana topographical and geological images – a mapped landscape interspersed with a few larger images of Washington, D.C. When visiting this not- so- plain(s)- state(ment), tilt your head about 45 degrees clockwise to read the embroidered longhand text along the bottom half. Politics and poetry meet in a kind of folk-art embrace of social and environmental concerns. A story being told.

And it is indeed a narrative, often autobiographical sensibility that informs many other works here. In that sense, such works, for all their clearly modern look, speak nonetheless to early textile art traditions of storytelling as well as a passion for pure, decorative pattern.

June Lee’s “Who We Are” is a deceivingly simple presentation of five black, hand-sewn shirts with white collars, made from translucent Korean cloth. These are school uniforms, hovering in midair above five sets of disembodied, brightly colored fabric hands on the floor. Each set of hands is poised in a specific gesture. These would be signals, Lee tells us in her statement, passed (unseen by the teacher) between students. The piece is a stark, quietly provocative ‘story’ of declared individuality in the context of strictly imposed conformity - a new twist, perhaps, to ‘kid gloves.’

“Amazing Grace” by Cynthia Lockhart is an intensely explosive pastiche of hand-dyed and painted fabrics, lace, collage, and applique. Its spectacular opulence of color, shapes, and textures is a fittingly exuberant homage to divine presence along life’s meandering pathways. Another homage is “Gothic Vessel (after Duccio)” by Jennifer A. Reis. This one, spectacular in its own right, is to Duccio di Buoninsegna, a 13th century Italian painter of religious subjects. The intricate, swirling beadwork in this Madonna icon is wondrously evocative of shimmering golden mosaics. And speaking of beadwork, the three works by Simone Schiffmacher transform a burger, fries, and taco (each presented on a gold leafed cafeteria tray) into dazzling, jeweled trophies of a sort - an impressive, labor-intense apotheosis of junk food.

Among the more abstract, patterned works, Rumana Hawa’s “Unison Vault” is another fascinating example of Jacquard weaving, and utterly enchanting in its interlocked shapes. They’re every bit as complex and maze-like as the artist’s accompanying statement. Something maybe about metaphysics, metaphor, and/or the spirituality of math. Arcane language aside, the delightful proof here is in the looking. So be hypnotized, be very hypnotized.

Without having relevant statistics to back up or dispute any assumption that the fiber arts are still primarily ‘womens’ work’ (aside, possibly, from the context of international high-fashion clothing design), it is interesting to note that the work in this show is in fact predominantly by women. Having said that, Adam Kessler’s pieces, “Solar System Fan” and “Human Fan,” are remarkably unique entries. And it’s not so much because they’re by a male, but because of their appealing intimacy and facile embroidery of figures sewn through elegantly shaped wooden blades. At once hard, soft, and airy.

The conceptual play between hard and soft is very much at work in M.E. Ware’s “Power Suit for Modern Mothers.” Hard, as in a critical look at cultural stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles and appearances. Soft, as associated with delicate or feminine, and the raw material of the work – felted laundry lint! This freestanding work, humorous and severe, is made entirely from grayish lint that’s been sculpted into a clothing store mannequin wearing a woman’s business suit – a cautionary stepping out, perhaps, from dingy domesticity into tainted corporate power-grabbing.

Like so much of this exhibit, it’s a potent, inventive melding of intellectual and visual muscle…and grace.

Photos courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Amazing Grace” by Cynthia Lockhart (top), and “Gothic Vessel (after Duccio)” by Jennifer A. Reis. On view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton, Ohio. (330) 453 – 7666

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Tales We Weave (part 1)

The Tales We Weave (Part 1)
By Tom Wachunas

Over the past several decades, the “feminine needle arts” have convincingly outgrown their historical niche as decorative, functional craft. Quilts and embroidery samplers, for example, were once perceived in the West as the purview of women who were not otherwise encouraged to participate in a man’s world of ‘serious’ art making, and seen as relatively milquetoast mediums when compared to such ‘high art’ pursuits as painting and sculpture. But the creative and certainly ingenious manipulation of textiles (including weaving, quilting, embroidery, knotting, beadwork, and applique, among other methods) now occupies a significant and vital place in the world of contemporary fine art. Abundant and compelling evidence is currently on view in the spectacular exhibit called “Focus: Fiber 2011” at the Canton Museum of Art.

Coordinated with the Textile Art Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the show is a stunning cross section of fiber works by 39 artists from across eight states. The exhibit was juried by internationally prominent fiber artist Dorothy Caldwell, who selected 50 pieces from 278 submissions. In her statement for the show, she tells us, “I was struck by the audacious use of eccentric fabrics and casual construction – the unpredictable carrier of a message.”

Audacious…unpredictable…message. Yes indeed to all three. The range of scale, methods of construction, and visual/conceptual content here are remarkably deep, often surprising, and consistently intriguing.

In the hard-to-miss large scale department, there’s the razzle-dazzle “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie. It’s a joyously electrifying union of digital ink jet images and embroidery, with beadwork and other intricate embellishments. This preternatural panorama – a psychedelic Garden of Eden tapestry, really – is made on six hanging cotton panels, each measuring 10’ in height and collectively spanning 19’ across. Absolutely mesmerizing.

Large (10’x4 ½’) and mesmerizing too, but in a much more understated way, is “Cell Tower Stretch” by Catherine Theodore. Her hand-dyed rayon and cotton threads are ‘Jacquard woven’ (a computerized loom mechanism/process that produces a tight, smooth, gently raised texture) into a lush, bluish-gray field beautifully interwoven with other colors that quietly offset the black silhouette of a cell phone tower, thus imbuing a thoroughly modern industrial structure with a classical elegance.

“In a Different Light” by Xia Gao is, again, very large (approx. 15’x7’) and even more subtle. This impressive expanse of buckram (a stiffened cotton/linen) is screen printed with an abstract, all- blue “pattern” that suggests an aerial view of earthbound organic detritus. The configuration looks as if literally lifted from the ground, like an elaborate collograph or stencil. The entire work hangs about three feet away from the wall, suspended from brackets, and is perforated all over with tiny burn holes. It begins to make more sense after reading Gao’s accompanying statement (something I highly recommend for all the works in this show).

Therein we learn that the work addresses Gao’s personal connection to the state of Nebraska and that the tiny holes were produced by burning incense sticks through the fabric. The randomness of the organic plain becomes a kind of organized spiritual plane that passes light through the holes, making for the delightful surprise of dozens of silhouetted images projected on the wall behind. The images are largely of human figures engaging the natural landscape. And so the work takes on a fascinating sculptural dimensionality as it requires us to shift our physical orientation to it, to see it not just from the conventional front and center pictorial position, but from behind and underneath as well. It’s a powerful, pro-active metaphor for shifting our perspective on relationship with the natural landscape.

For that matter, it brings to mind the overall heft and beauty of this show (more comments to be offered soon in part 2) – a refreshing, thoroughly engaging conflation of tradition and innovation.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie, on view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton, Ohio. (330) 453 – 7666

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wholly Holy Holydays

Wholly Holy Holydays
By Tom Wachunas

“The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man…We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects – Hatred – Terror – Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.” -C.S.Lewis -

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:29 –

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished! - Luke 1:45 –

Today is Friday, December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. Years ago, my wife, Martha, told me that she calls this day “Christmas Adam.” It’s an endearing assignation, and not hard to figure out. Adam came before Eve. Today puts me in mind of first things first. Primary attentions. Priorities. So here’s a few thoughts on Christmas.

One particularly impactful essay by C.S. Lewis (quoted above), originally published in his 1970 book, “God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics,” begins, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” Lewis immediately follows the question by observing that it has “…a frantically comic side.” I’ve come to regard the wording of his observation as meaning ‘tragically ironic.’ He continues, “For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us?”

In occupying my thoughts with great persistence over the past several weeks, this ‘real question’ is to me in many ways a real shame, if only because I pray on it too much just seasonally, or on Sundays, and not enough daily. Otherwise, I allow our terribly addled world to prey on my time and allegiances, thus too often making its priorities my own. Thinking about such things especially at this time of year is easy enough, even as it might smack of cookie-cutter religiosity or a hollow sense of tradition and spiritual ‘duty.’ Is the question one to be trotted out annually like a favorite Christmas bauble, only to be packed up and stored away until next year?

Additionally, throughout this Christmas season of 2011, I have often painted in my mind’s eye the image of a weary Jesus asking the world at large, “What have you made of Christmas?” And the only way for me to honestly respond is to daily come back to what, exactly, I am willing to let Jesus, my Creator and Lord, make of me. It is a matter far more urgent than just “keeping” Him as a great teacher, or feel-good abstraction of goodness in a season that bears His name. The truth, indeed the reality, is that He came to reveal, and keep ALL of us in, what he IS - living, unspeakably glorious Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace. Forever.

First things first. By His grace, believing IS seeing. May your eyes, then, be filled with the light of Jesus. Merry Christmas.

Photo: My 2011 Christmas oil painting/greeting card.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Accessing Ambiguities

Accessing Ambiguities
By Tom Wachunas

“What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach…It is about the hurt of not being able to express yourself properly, to express your intimate relations, your unconscious, to trust the world enough to express yourself directly in it…Some questions are too painful to answer. Some questions we are unwilling to ask. And some are impossible to answer.”
- Artist Louise Bourgeois, from a 1988 interview with philosopher and critic Donald Kuspit –

“Joy and Departure” is the intriguing name of the current exhibit at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, featuring paintings by Joe Martino and sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. If I read the statement that accompanies the list of works correctly, the thematic premise of the show is that both artists’ works here were intended to be seen together as somehow complementary in their departures from familiar reality so as to evoke unexpected joy and fascination on our part. In the process of putting the show together they have to some extent, in a few of their pieces, cross-fertilized each other’s work.

I can certainly see how “joy” might be one outcome of seeing Joe Martino’s pieces - as in the joy of encountering enthralling new visual structures in the context of scientific exploration. This isn’t surprising when considering that Martino is a retired teacher of chemistry and marine biology.

His mixed media abstractions are elaborate, heavily tactile, shimmering gatherings of forms - both geometric and irregular - that float in and on undulating fields of variable color, ranging from dark and earthbound to stunningly electric. Some of the forms look scraped on to, or out of, the surface, making for some delightfully ambiguous figure-ground passages. Other forms appear poured or spilled on to the surface in organic configurations that are often set off with elegant, thin contour lines of raised paint, as if mapping a topography.

These are complex and meticulous works, alternately suggestive of explosive astronomical events, astral clouds, and microbial minutiae. Telescopic and microscopic. With its often metallic iridescence, Martino’s nebulous geometry can be preciously decorative. But I don’t mean ‘decorative’ in any pejorative sense. Rather, his pictures are vibrant, intuitive celebrations of spectacles both familiar and wondrously mysterious.

And it is mystery, more than overt “joy,” that abounds in the sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. With various combinations of terra cotta, porcelain, rope, wire, and wood (among other materials), she makes objects that are (even at their most whimsical) invariably visceral and arresting. Feltes’ aesthetic is firmly rooted in solidarity with that of art world luminaries Louise Bourgeois, Magdalena Abakanowitcz, and Eva Hess. Feltes calls them her “saints.”

I can see why. Without being too blatantly derivative, what Feltes shares with those 20th century mentors of mixed media sculptures and installation art is a well-honed ability to let the juxtaposition of her chosen physical materials be intensely expressive of spirit and psyche. Particularly in her three freestanding works (“The Necessary Sacrifice,” “Fruitful,” and “A Mother of Two”), there’s a raw, even primal emotionality at work. These metaphorical constructions have the look of ritual objects, like ancient shamans’ ceremonial charms, that speak of vexing enigmas or pain. But there’s also an abiding sense of anticipation and promise, of impending arrivals, of conversations incomplete, literally hanging in the balance. Suspended thoughts. Her strange, bulbous forms might be carcasses or entombed nightmares. Then again, eggs, cocoons, or ripe fruit. Fertility and birth, harvest, mortality. Sublimated fears and anxieties, or channeled dreams?

In accessing and trusting their own experience of living, conscious and unconscious, contemporary artists will often leave us challenging ‘statements’ that stop in mid-sentence, as it were. Ambiguities and dichotomies in flux. Much of the “art experience” in this postmodernist era is in fact more dependent than ever upon us, the viewers, to resolve or at least sustain the dialogue. Annette Yoho Feltes’ ‘voice’ is a young but burgeoning and uniquely important one in our local arts milieu, and one that merits our continuing attentions.

“Joy and Departure” will be on view through January 14 at The Little Art Gallery, located inside the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Liquid Urban Light

Liquid Urban Light
By Tom Wachunas

“Watercolour could have been used more by the modernists. It is so direct, and when the white paper convention is accepted, so powerful, even brutal, that it would seem an ideal medium.” – David Milne –

What would David Milne (who died in 1953), among Canada’s most prominent artists of the 20th century, make of the popularity and high visibility of watercolorists in our northeastern Ohio midst? Would he consider their work ‘modernist’ in the sense that I take the above quote to mean? Would he see a powerful, “even brutal” employment of the medium?

I’m sure that he would indeed encounter some truly original and engaging practitioners of the medium in our artistic population. To get there, though, he would have to wade through a preponderance of entrenched traditionalists. Not there’s anything necessarily insipid or invalid about the niceties of a tightly painted still life, floral arrangement, quaint seascape, or sentimental landscape. But quaint and sentimental is one thing. Saccharine and generic, no matter how well rendered, is quite another. Looking at exhibitions in these parts over the past 20 years, it seems to me that we’re remarkably heavy with lightweight and otherwise unremarkable watercolor painters.

Ted Lawson’s work decidedly does NOT fall into that demographic. Ample evidence is currently on view in his exhibit, called “A Moment in Time,” at the Canton Museum of Art. With the exception of two aquatic-themed images, all of the watercolor paintings here are cityscapes – some of Canton, but most of Manhattan.

All of these urban visions share a photographic sensibility in their soft detailing and in how the scenes have a viewfinder- in-the-moment sort of framing. This isn’t surprising, since Lawson does work from photographs. But what’s most uncanny is how his bold, luminous colors and fluid technique manifest light, imbuing his images with the plein air vibrancy and spontaneity so characteristic of the Impressionists. “Washington Square Park” is a stunning panorama of contrasted light. Wispy foreground trees hover over cars parked in the shade and pedestrians in silhouette, while the famous landmark arch and the city structures in the distance seem to shimmer in soft sunlight.

There’s also the matter of Lawson’s impeccable sense of design and composition, both in form and color distribution. While these pictures are certainly representational, they’re built upon seeing abstractly. Many of the scenes have an almost architectural dynamic in how visual textures are constructed, with concentrated areas of small details and shapes balanced against larger, more airy passages. In “Union Square Saturday,” the light is diffuse, befitting the rainy day depicted. A cluster of umbrella shapes moves rhythmically, as if dancing across the middle of the picture plane, floating in sharp counterpoint to the amorphous reflections glimmering on the wet pavement at the bottom.

For all of their liquid charm, the paintings nonetheless project a compelling, visceral immediacy. And occasionally even real drama, as in the aptly titled “Night Fever.” It’s a practically hallucinatory, furiously red vision of head light glare colliding with the sparkling metal of passing traffic.

These are exquisitely exciting impressions of transient episodes in city life. Lawson has managed to turn the clamor, clutter, and largeness of the urban milieu into a sublimely poetic visual experience. Interestingly enough, though his brushwork generally has little in common with that of Claude Monet, I’m still reminded of Monet’s abiding passion for translating light into form. The French master once observed, “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”

Simply necessary to love. For my part, with Lawson’s work, that’s a necessity – indeed an invitation - joyously met.

Photo: “Riding the Bike Lane” watercolor by Ted Lawson. On view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton (330) – 453- 7666

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Evocations: The Art of Martin Bertman

Evocations: The Art of Martin Bertman
By Tom Wachunas

My first encounter with a Martin Bertman painting was in 2008 at Second April Galerie in downtown Canton. Call it a summoning. From 20 paces, a small piece called “Before Awakening,” one of the 25 Bertman works (oil, acrylic, watercolor, and mixed media) currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art, is a portrait that, despite being faceless, beckoned with great insistence. As if reconnecting with a long lost friend, I’ve been awakening to his work, caught in its mesmerizing thrall, ever since. And so it has truly been an honor and gift most memorable that I have had the opportunity to curate this show that I call “Evocations.”

Bertman’s configurations – some abstracted, some more clearly representational - reside in a place both primal and modern. Here, a raw primitivism and a pictorial refinement resonate with equal intensity - like dance partners entwined in an ever moving, passionate embrace. While it is apparent that a number of historic influences (Symbolist, Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist, to name some) are threaded throughout his ouvre, the artist has deftly personalized those sources and re-organized them into a unique, compelling visual vocabulary of intriguing motifs and emblems. Yet for all of its personal content and sometimes obtuse symbolism, this is an iconography that nonetheless evokes an accessible, deeply human spirituality.

Evokes what, exactly? ‘Human sprituality’ embraces a decidedly broad canvas, as it were, of painterly exploration. Bertman’s surfaces often have a tactile physicality, though not of the heavy impasto sort. His subtler brush strokes – whether sweeping and lambent (as in “O’Keefe’s Desert”), or mincing and stippled (as in “Moses”), are invested with energetic, gestural spontaneity. His imagery can be both familiar and approachable (“Cubist Still Life” and “Large Leaf,” for example), as well as inchoate and elusive (“Night Birth,” or “Light and Dark”). The most consistently abiding conceptual element throughout these pieces (representing approximately 20 years of work) though, is their narrative resonance. There are fascinating tales being “told” here, some with gravitas, some lilting and innocent. In that, Bertman is as much a thinker and storyteller as he is a painter. And these visual voicings revel in a superbly poetic language, generously imbued with potent mystique.

Look long enough, and I think you’ll feel somehow drawn to not just the artist’s private musings about being alive, but also into the rich milieu of collective human thinking about history, myth, and matters of the soul. Not so surprisingly, then, after you read Bertman’s statement posted with the exhibit, you would hopefully sense how these are indeed images a life-long teacher of philosophy could or would make.

Residing in many of Bertman’s works is a distinctly European aesthetic sensibility, often evoking the spirits of Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, or Henri Matisse, among others. And the color! Always the color – sumptuous, intense, vibrant like the Fauves, emotionally gripping like Van Gogh, playful like Picasso.

Yet always distinctly Bertman. Bertman the painter/ philosopher, the synthesizer, the weaver of tales. The celebrator of seeing. The sublime evocateur.

Photo: “Before Awakening” by Martin Bertman, on view at the Canton Museum of Art through March 4, 2012. More information at (330) 453 – 7666 and

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pressler at 87: Imprecise, but Passionate

Pressler at 87: Imprecise, but Passionate

By Tom Wachunas

While there was nothing particularly ‘Christmasy’ about the program offered by the Canton Symphony Orchestra on December 4, the atmosphere in Umstattd Hall felt nonetheless distinctly festive and anticipatory of something very special. That would be, of course, the return of legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, last heard here in October, 2009, when his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 was met with thunderous adulation.

And so it was that the first work on the program – Mozart’s Overture to Abduction from the Seraglio – was a rollicking call to attention, replete with joyous bursts of cymbals, triangle, and drums. It’s a scintillating, rambunctious piece, and the orchestra rose to the occasion with cheerful panache. In retrospect, the work demonstrated the orchestra’s crisp mastery in the percussion section, and heralded the more expansive, emotionally gripping percussive scope of the evening’s final selection.

In dramatic contrast to such a brisk start, the beginning of the program’s next entry, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, seemed like a whispered message - a simple four-note piano theme quietly delivered by Menahem Pressler. In its day, such an introduction was a daring departure from standard concerto openings, and served to establish a meditative commencement of an unfolding, ornate dialogue between piano and orchestra. As Kenneth C. Viant astutely observed in his program notes, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto is the least “demonstrative” of his five piano concertos and “…one in which inward drama is favored over outward display.”

This doesn’t mean that the contemplative nature of the work isn’t without its technical challenges for the pianist – usually in the form of repeatedly intricate, cascading arpeggios. Presslers’s physical dexterity was less than optimal here. He is, after all, in his 87th year – all the more astonishing when considering he still conducts prestigious master classes and dazzles international concert audiences. Yet even as his performing mechanics may have been uneven, such imprecisions did little to diminish Beethoven’s compelling lyricism.

This was particularly apparent in the second movement, Andante con moto. The scoring is such that the initially heavy, dark-sounding strings are ultimately subdued, through a call-and-response sequencing, by the piano’s insistent, gently plaintive articulations. Throughout the movement, and then into the vivacious finale, Pressler’s playing exuded remarkable poeticism along with his own passionate enthrallment with the music, eliciting immediate, gleeful shouts of approval and a standing ovation from many in the packed auditorium.

Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s delightful penchant for convivial banter with the audience was in fine form as he introduced the next work on the program – Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel). He informed us that the second theme in the work had at one point become the theme music for a famous vintage radio program, and challenged anyone in the audience to identify the show. He awarded one woman a CD of his Vivaldi Four Seasons recording for correctly naming the 1930s serial drama, The Shadow.

Meanwhile, the shadowy theme in the Saint-Saens work actually represents the presence of Hercules, dressed as a woman, as he encounters Omphale, the Lydian Queen whom the gods had sentenced him to serve. The orchestra captured all the lush, subtle crescendos of this graceful work with sublime finesse, the strings stretching out Omphale’s spinning wheel thread into a single note - a high, achingly soft finale.

That ending was in turn an effective transition into the ethereal strings – conjuring dawn on a quiet sea - that began the evening’s concluding work, Claude Debussy’s evocative, powerful La Mer. Rarely have I heard a work so rich in orchestral textures, tempo variations, and fascinating timbres. This was Debussy’s monumentally ambitious and heroic interpretation of the sea in all its manifestations, visceral and airy. And I’ve never heard this orchestra so rapturously engaged in the moment – from the alternately sonorous and mellow strings and eloquent majesty of the brass, to the intensely sparkling swells of percussion and the bright, buoyant effervescence of the winds. More than just a stirring masterpiece of mimetic orchestration, this was a transcendent journey to remember.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Humbuggery and Grace

Humbuggery and Grace
By Tom Wachunas

“Come in! Come in, and know me better, man!” -The Spirit of Christmas Present, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843) –

This year marks the 30th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol” by the Players Guild Theatre in Canton. Promoted as having enhanced special effects and music (this is the version with music by Steve Parsons and lyrics by John Popa, originated in 1997), I nonetheless considered bypassing the event.

I saw the show last year and raved about it. Lately, though, I’ve felt a dampening of the proverbial ‘Christmas spirit’, further jaded by the encroachment of newer national “traditions” such as Thanksgiving night camp-outs at retail stores in a growing readiness to greet the Spirit of Christmas Consuming. And the straw that broke the reindeer’s back, as it were, was the report of a bragging California woman who pepper-sprayed fellow customers in a mad fit of “competitive shopping.” Black Friday to be sure. Scrooges’ searing opinion of society’s dispossessed – “Are there no prisons?” - has yet a new application. Humbug to you all, I said. I fart in your general direction.

Fortunately I repented of such extreme cynicism – surely a Scrooge moment - and came to my senses long enough to revisit one of literature’s most treasured Christmas narratives, lovingly retold here by a 32-member cast under the joint direction of Joshua Erichsen and composer Steve Parsons (with assistance from Jeremy P. Lewis). The instrumental music alone, provided by an impeccably polished 11-piece orchestra, is robust and scintillating, able to lift even the Scroogiest heart. There’s a distinctly fresh luster, too, in the charming, energetic choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers.

Joshua Erichsen’s scenic design - with its thrilling fly effects, meticulously sculpted sets of 18th century architectural facades that swivel to reveal period interiors, and clever use of a trap door in the stage floor – brings remarkable dimensionality to the proceedings. But the real magic here is to be found in the songs, the singing, and the characters’ lively performances delivered by an inspired cast of truly professional quality.

Walter Shepherd is a warm and earnest Bob Cratchit, and his song, “A Child Alone,” with Zachary Charlick – delightfully authentic as Tiny Tim – is one of the evening’s most tender moments. Heartrending, too, is Amanda Medley in her role of Scrooge’s erstwhile love, Belle, who brings her sweetly riveting vocal finesse to the soaring ballad, “I Have to Know.” Also soaring, literally and otherwise, is Kelley Edington as the Ghost of Christmas Past as she flies and sings the ethereal “Wandering” with an incredulous-looking Scrooge in tow. And Justin Edenhofer is genuinely convivial as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, while equally strong in his dual role of the young workaholic Ebenezer, particularly as he sings “Ten Minutes More.”

It’s pleasantly surprising to see a woman cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present. To that role, Eva Roberson brings a pure, passionate urgency tempered by child-like innocence. And speaking of children, young McKenzie Mack’s solo work in “Rogue’s Song (Shine a Light on Me)” is startlingly powerful.

The evening has several memorably funny and lighthearted scenes, among them the jaunty “Mister Scrooge” early in Act One, performed with quasi- vaudevillian glee by The Collecting Men trio of Austin Gantz, John Scavelli, and Andrew Knode. In Act Two they join forces with Tom Bryant (who also played Jacob Marley’s Ghost), Trisha Fites, and Linda Teis as a gang of scruffy grave robbers during the raucous and irreverent romp, “We Build Ourselves Up.”

A veteran of many Players Guild productions, the inimitable Don Jones reprises his role of Scrooge this year with a notably renovated authority. In fact, whereas last year some of his energy seemed at times under-developed (though not detrimentally so), this time around he invests his character with a substantially more vigorous animation and savory, credible pathos. When he’s mean, we shudder at his vitriol; when he’s remorseful, he breaks our hearts; when he’s redeemed, we’re giddy with elation right along with him. And did I mention his seasoned confidence? On opening night, the set was agonizingly slow and jerky as it rotated into Scrooge’s bedchamber encounter with Marley’s ghost. In a brilliantly hilarious ad lib, Jones, teetering slightly, handled the unscripted moment with endearing aplomb as he muttered, “Well, here’s an adventure…we must be having an earthquake.”

Adventure indeed, Jones’ performance, along with that of the entire cast, is an invigorating respite from the mundane, ever-growing absurdities and distractions that can suck the meaning – the joy and the hope - out of Christmas. Far from providing merely escapist entertainment, though, the Players Guild’s continuing faithful commitment to this classic story is a necessary and brave tradition of holding up a much-needed light, and an otherwise generous offering of artful grace in troubled times.

“A Christmas Carol – the new musical” at Players Guild Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, in Canton. Shows through December 18 – Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 adults, $21 seniors 60+, $18 under 18, available through box office at (330) 453-7617, or at
Photo: illustration of Marley’s Ghost by John Leech from first edition of “A Christmas Carol” (1843)

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Mind's-eye View

A Mind’s-eye View
By Tom Wachunas

My normal practice in reviewing art shows is to publish before the exhibit is closed, which is certainly helpful in bringing interested viewers to the gallery. Artists often tend to appreciate that kind of support, too. So it is with hat in hand that I offer my sincerest apology for being so late with this one. But the show in question, which closed on November 26 – “Women In Aprons” at Zygote Press in Cleveland - was just too sublimely memorable to fade away without some well-earned raving on my part.

The exhibit featured the printmaking works of two women - Hui-Chu Ying and Patricia Zinsmeister Parker – and its title seems to have derived in some part from Ying’s wall installation of 30 red fabric kitchen aprons, collectively titled “She Says,” tacked to one of the gallery walls. Each apron was embroidered with white script in phrases of a distinctly feminist character, such as “Give a woman a job she grows balls,” and “One woman can change anything.” But it is the relief monoprints in her Prayer Series where a remarkable pictorial magic is at work. Replete with delicate floral configurations and symbols from various religions, these lush prints, with their intricate fields of calligraphy punctuated by organic and representational forms, suggest elaborate embroidered prayer scrolls or ‘Oriental’ carpets, as well as delightfully meditative, abstracted landscapes.

The eleventh-hour drive to Cleveland was originally prompted by an invitation from Patricia Zinsmeister Parker to see her latest series of works made from rug liners (!) – those rubbery grid-like mats placed under area rugs to keep them from from slipping across smooth floors. Ten of her pieces here were in fact not prints per se, but layered ‘paintings’ mounted on black grounds, made from multiple mats, each a different bright, saturated color, while four of the pieces were monoprint collages – abstracts comprised of color fields printed directly from the rug liners. While nothing can compare to actually seeing these intriguing works up close and personal, the next best option is to spend time visiting her elegant web site,

While Hui-Chu Ying’s prints certainly exude a clear, perhaps even conventional ‘sprituality,’ Parker’s are nonetheless invested with a contemplative if not more urbanized aura all their own. These slightly out-of-register grid configurations are grounds from which her forms and symbols (both familiar and irregular) rise, at once invading and evading our sense of equilibrium. It’s the visual co-existence of contrasting motifs that gives these works a sense of undulating drama, often with a sense of humor, as evidenced by such titles as “Cleveland Got Mojo,” “Central Park,” and “Swiss Bank Account.” Call it a street-savvy theatre on paper.

Parker’s ten painted assemblages pulse and undulate, too, with all the insistence of flashing neon lights against the black night. Yet interestingly enough, they’re not garish or off-putting, but exquisitely cerebral and subtle. These are quietly seething optical microcosms of compressed depth.

For a long while in viewing the show, “Women In Aprons” did suggest that ancient refrain, “…woman’s work is never done.” What continues to fascinate me about Parker’s evolving ouvre is its utter unpredictability, and her apparent unwillingness to settle too comfortably too long into a particular aesthetic. Never done indeed, she is in fact one woman who can change anything about her work. And she continues to do so with unflinching confidence, freshness, and daring.

Photo: “Clockwork Orange” monoprint collage by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Instruments of Revelation

Instruments of Revelation
By Tom Wachunas

“Some photographers take reality…and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.”
- Ansel Adams –

I recently eavesdropped on part of a conversation between several people discussing the efficacy of photography as fine art. They all seemed to agree that photography was a less “challenging” and “exciting” (those were their actual words) method for making “realistic” art than was painting or drawing. Examples of both Renaissance and modern painting masters were cited, including photorealistic (a.k.a. ‘Superrealism’) paintings by Chuck Close and Richard Estes. And there were several other comments about the admirable discipline it takes to skillfully render, in paint, something that’s so amazing in its fidelity to visible reality that it looks, interestingly enough…like a photograph. And well, duhh, ANYONE can take a picture of a sunset with a camera, they agreed, but it takes a “true artist” to make it convincingly like the real thing with a paintbrush.

Something told me I would be hard pressed to find any Jackson Pollock fans in this gathering. More to the point, I wondered if they had ever spent much time looking at the work of photographers such as Edward Steichen, Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, to name just a few historic champions of the medium. Turns out they hadn’t. As it was, I entered the discussion only long enough to mutter my disagreement, gently suggest that they were misinformed, and thank them for prompting what you are now reading.

Over the years I have encountered, to varying degrees, similar reluctance to regard photography as a “high art” form, as if it were an under-appreciated, perhaps even boring stepchild of true art. There are many reasons for this. Whether despite or because of postmodernist pluralism in matters of aesthetics, some still hold the reactionary view that the prime directive of two-dimensional art should be the faithful, albeit inspiring representation of the familiar, physical world. Entrenched conservatism, to be sure. Yet ironically, there is often folded into that viewpoint an accompanying, simplistic notion of photography being somehow too easy, unoriginal, ordinary. Point, click, and presto! - a picture.

Our world is inundated, indeed overwhelmed by instantly accessible visual information delivered via photographs. Rest assured I am aware that most people operating a camera are not artists as such (or shouldn’t claim to be) and are not setting out to make fine art, even as they may wow us with gee-whiz photo shop trickery. Still, one result of this ubiquitous plethora of pictorial data is that we can easily become desensitized and otherwise asleep in our ability to recognize (or even care?) what makes a great photograph and yes, great visual art. Like it or not, we have succeeded in designing and implementing a marvelous system for looking at too many pictures too fast… for throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. It’s increasingly difficult to separate the real gems from the costume jewelry.

Need a wake-up call? First, slow down. Then consider your time as well-spent in seeing the current exhibition of photographs, called “As I See It,” by Steve Ohman at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. It’s a remarkably eclectic collection of 31 images, the majority of which are black-and-white. That alone places these pictures firmly in what can only be called a noble tradition that I hope never becomes obsolete. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, physical realities formalized in gradations of black to white - presented with the disciplined, masterful eye for the intricacies of light and texture that we see here - can be incomparably pure and powerful documents of life. Ohman’s landscapes in particular are delightfully memorable for their thoughtful formal composition as well as their distinctly poetic sensibility.

In Ohman’s hands, the camera, not unlike the painter’s brush, becomes a vehicle for translating the often seen and commonplace into the newly framed and revealed. Likewise, his photographs are sublime windows on the sheer intrigue and mesmerizing pleasure to be found in the very act of careful looking. In “taking pictures,” he gives back enthralling records of compelling earthly dramas.

Photo, courtesy Steve Ohman and curator Elizabeth Blakemore: “In the Distance” by Steve Ohman. On view THROUGH DECEMBER 11, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. Viewing hours 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Monday – Thursday / 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Friday / 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday / 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Martial Meditations

Martial Meditations
By Tom Wachunas

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” - Carl Sandburg –

“War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.” - Thomas Mann –

“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.” - Percy Byshe Shelley –

From the title of his solo show at Main Hall Gallery at Kent Stark – “Wounds of War” - to the titles of the individual drawings, paintings, and collage/assemblages, it’s clear that Fredlee Votaw means for his work to pluck at our heartstrings and speak to our spirits. Given the show’s hot-button subject of war, one intriguing quality here is its overall sense of contemplative calm and, in some cases, an almost stoic serenity.

These aren’t pictures of war’s bloody atrocities. No visual histrionics or gratuitous political diatribes. Collectively, most of the pieces here address the less obvious or sensationalistic - but all too real - pain of longing, isolation, and loss that war heaps upon its victims and participants. Much of the imagery seems to emerge from and float in white voids, as in the series of four drawings called “Thinking About Iraq.” Three of those feature an impeccably rendered pencil or pen portrait of a child juxtaposed with the American flag pictured as the all-too-familiar funereal blue triangle.

Other works are distinctly more visceral, with brooding, earthen colors and textured surfaces embedded with human figurative elements. Visceral too is the simple (though certainly not simplistic) and jarring “Flag of Honor,” a found American flag that’s clearly been through a fire.

Even without the title references to war, these works unabashedly exude real emotion – some more intensely than others. “Missing Her Soldier Daddy” is a wispy oil painting of a little girl, standing against the ghostly side of a house that fades away into empty white space, clutching a stuffed animal, peering at us from under an oversized cap with a look of sadness too heavy for her years.

Sentimental? Surely, depending upon your definition. These days, and for that matter, for decades now, the notion of sentimentality in contemporary art has often been met with disdain and even vitriol by art world intelligentsia. Votaw’s gentle brand of authentic reflection and nostalgic reminiscence is made all the more present, and indeed urgent, by his drawing and painting technique, which is nothing short of jaw-dropping in its clean precision of detail (though there are here a few genuinely interesting forays into looser abstraction). But I would submit to you that ‘sentimentality’ is a matter of relative degrees, and not intrinsically exclusive of appealingly provocative, relevant emotionality – which abounds in Votaw’s work. And so it is that I think there’s nothing vapid, clich├ęd, or mawkish about his aesthetic sensibilities.

Artsy aficionados who feel differently are just itchin’ for a fight.

Photo: “Missing Her Soldier Daddy,” oil on canvas, by Fredlee Votaw, on view through November 30 in the Main Hall Gallery (lower level of Main Hall) on the Kent Stark campus. Viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. - Noon

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Writes of Passage

Writes of Passage
By Tom Wachunas

“Dear Bill, I came back to this wall again to see and touch your name. William R. Stocks. And as I do, I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart…” - from a letter written by Mrs. Eleanor Wimbish, mother of SP/5 William R. Stocks, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, American Division, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, February 13, 1969 –

It is important to me to tell you that even as I begin this commentary, I’m struggling to avoid sentimentalizing, sermonizing, or otherwise wearing my heart on my sleeve too much (which I fear I’ve already done with this sentence). But if I break my self-imposed rule here to never let you, the reader, sense my sweat and tears over composing a critique, I don’t mind telling you that today I just don’t give a rat’s derriere about journalistic form or etiquette.

My drive home last night (Veterans Day) from the opening performance of “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam” at the Kathleen Howland Theatre was eerily like my blackouts from darker days in another life, sans mind-altering substances. Yet I was indeed altered.

Not sure how I arrived home safely. Can’t remember traffic lights or the route. Only a flood of memories from 1968 to about 1971, some of which I’m not proud about. The infamous draft lottery of 1970. Panic. Plans to flee to Canada. Fear and loathing. The ‘Sturm und Drang’ of collegiate protests. The riots at my alma mater, Ohio State University. The May 4 mayhem and tragedy at Kent State. Heartbreaking conversations with bereaved parents and siblings of college chums who never returned from the bloodied, smoldering jungles of Asia. Words and faces that hadn’t crossed my mind with such jarring clarity for many years. Altered. Artful theatre will do that sometimes.

Phillip L. Robb directed this production that he adapted for the stage from the book of the same title. First published in 1987, the book was edited by Bernard Edelman, and was comprised of more than 200 letters written to families and loved ones by men and women who served in Vietnam. HBO produced an Emmy-winning documentary based on the book in 1988. Here, approximately 70 of the letters were read in alternating fashion, with genuine, often impassioned and startling sensitivity, by a solid six-member cast: Greg Emanuelson, Robert C. Fockler, Jim Long, Denise Robb, Rod Lang, and Jacki Dietz.

No fictions here. No ‘based-on-a-true-story’ speculations or saccharine dramatizations. No need for costumes or sound effects. The projected images on a sheet at the back of the stage, largely synchronized to echo content of the letters, are real photographs of real people fighting, flying, running, resting, hiding, hurting, dying, crying and yes, sometimes smiling. This is not so much war illustrated as war illuminated. War told by writeous warriors, as it were, who wrote with surprising eloquence of fear, loyalty, courage, love, confusion, anger, longing, and pride with searing intensity. War not as a vague memory, but made newly present through the dying art of letter-writing. And here, war read out loud by real people with heartbreaking reverence for the living and the dead.

There are too many truly moving passages in this performance – shared equally among the cast - to enumerate here. But two of them refuse to stop rattling in my memory. In one, late in the second ‘act’, Rod Lang, with steely, chilling determination in his voice, reads a letter from soldier Gregory Lusco, published in 1970 by a newspaper in Massachusetts. It’s an articulate but supremely blistering rant against the immoral, insensitive divisiveness and misplaced political sensibilities in this country at the time of the Kent State shootings - a soldier crying out for compassionate attention and respect for those who sacrificed their lives in Vietnam. An equally unforgettable moment (quoted at the beginning of this review) is the epilogue, wherein Denise Robb, with glassy-eyed pathos, effectively becomes the mournful mother who leaves letters to her son at the memorial where his name is etched.

Another memory during my drive home was of a popular poster during the volatile, heady Hippie days of my youth that read, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Now, while I’m sincerely grateful to have witnessed last night’s powerful and relevant remembrance, more than ever I’m thinking a better idea would be for us to forget how to do war altogether. To disappear it from our lives. To alter our minds forever. Call it a benevolent blackout.

“Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam” performances November 12, 18, and 19 at 8 p.m at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue North, downtown Canton. Tickets $10.00 for adults, $5 for students, senior citizens, and anyone with a public library card. ALL VETERANS ADMITTED FREE. To order call (330) 451 – 0924, or

Photo: the Cast – seated, left-to-right: Robert C. Fockler, Jacki Dietz, Jim Long / standing, l-r, Greg Emanuelson, Denise Robb, Rod Lang

Friday, November 11, 2011


By Tom Wachunas

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.” - Blaise Pascal –

“We search for flares of existence and acknowledgement of being. Our mortality becomes glaringly obvious, as the world around us and those within it start to fade away. Peace is a visitor.” – Marti Jones Dixon, from her statement accompanying her painting, “Self at 50,” at Anderson Creative -

“…So it falls to us to illuminate, magnify, reveal.” - Craig Joseph, from “Dementia”, a written work in the exhibition “Into the Light” at Anderson Creative -

One way to embrace the function of art is to think of it as a metaphor for light. Or think of making and encountering art as a celebration of what light is and does. Here, I don’t mean art merely as well-crafted mimetic object – an imitation or illusion – but rather art in its ever-evolving, performative function to explore and reveal the essence of a person, place, thing, or thought. And if we consider light itself as that phenomenon which allows or inspires us to apprehend a physical or spiritual ‘reality’, art at its most powerful is an embodiment of that phenomenon, and a necessary one at that.

And so it is that Anderson Creative continues to mount courageous, innovative, and yes, enlightening thematic exhibitions that are compelling expansions of the purposes and practices of conventional galleries. The current show – called “Into the Light” - features seven local artists who have embraced the subject of light, literally and symbolically, and who collectively provide a deeply meditative and elaborate sensory experience for the viewer.

The gallery has been made over into three separate, intimately appointed rooms, each focused on a particular aspect of interpreting the idea of light – as a physical entity, a manifestation of spirituality and myth, and attaining enlightenment/awareness in matters of mortality and afterlife.

Marcy Axelband’s large painting, “Sometimes Light Is Dark,” is a stunning, very red abstract diptych. Its loose, sweeping strokes intertwine to form a kind of wrinkled texture – a symbol, perhaps, of the rarefied act of seeing. The markings seem to be simultaneously congealing and dispersing, all bristling with a painterly muscularity reminiscent of Willem De Kooning’s urgent expressionism. Lynn Digby’s portraits and landscapes here are easily among her most dramatic and well-painted in recent memory. Her “Lana’s World” is at once telling and eerily silent, with its distant fires burning in the murky night, yet oddly hopeful in its suggestion of a transcendent light source outside the picture plane. The light in Marti Jones Dixon’s powerful, four-section self-portrait, “Self at 50,” is uncompromising in its harsh exposure of progressive aging – a force that sculpts mortality. And Michele Waalkes’ elegant digital prints are masterfully subtle, gentle visions of forms and shadows in ghostly light.

Speaking of ghostly light, filmmaker Andrew Rudd’s “Shadows of Progress” is a haunting, wispy video projection of the headlights from cars reflected on his living room walls, passing by in a mesmerizing, somewhat lonely procession of luminous streaks. In a similarly contemplative, poetic spirit, Craig Joseph’s written works are poignant reflections on significant, even cathartic moments and circumstances, wherein ‘light’ is the realization of some personal truth.

A notably sublime addition to this exhibit is the recorded original music by Paul Digby. It’s a sumptuously orchestrated aural backdrop, classical and Romantic in emotional sensibility, and otherwise achingly beautiful in its often reverential, hymn-like lyricism and rich choral textures.

This show is yet one more remarkable example of Anderson Creative's unique nurturing of art as a fully cognitive journey into perception. I’m reminded that on one level, we see a thing only because of the light it reflects. Yet in its reflecting, the thing seen becomes a light in itself, inspiring and illuminating our imagination. Here, we viewers are encouraged to be more than passive observers of static objects. Rather, we enter the possibility of becoming collaborators in creation, to better know our own inner light.

Photo, courtesy Anderson Creative, “Lana’s World,” oil, by Lynn Digby. On view at Anderson Creative through November 26 at 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton. Hours are Noon – 5p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Poignant, Curious War Remembrance

A Poignant, Curious War Remembrance
By Tom Wachunas

It is certainly no surprise that great symphonic music, when delivered by orchestras as generally impressive as the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), can be edifying on a strictly cerebral and technical plane. But I was also reminded by the CSO concert on November 6 that there’s real magic in how an orchestra can woo our hearts and evoke powerful emotions, even when questionable program content and order might undermine their momentum.

The thematic backdrop for this occasion was a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. While the evening’s opening work – Verdi’s Overture to “La Forza Destino (The Force of Destiny)” – is not about any particular war as such, the opera does embrace a somber theme of fated human affairs. The orchestra negotiated the overture’s intertwined motifs of brooding foment and lighter-hearted meditation with notably vibrant energy, setting a stirring enough tone for what followed – Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Still, given the solemn, percussive booming that opens this iconic work, and the ensuing thrill of the electrifying brass, I wonder now if the concert would have been better commenced with this compelling call to attention, as the orchestra handled it with truly inspiring panache. The heroic nobility of the work was augmented by the artistry of James Westwater, who has forged a distinguished career in integrating live symphonic music and multiple, monumentally-scaled photo projections in a form he calls “photochoreography.”

Classical purists might object that such added theatricality is as unnecessary as it is distracting. While I found the synchronized pulsing of the projected images to be visually mesmerizing and emotionally stunning in “Fanfare,” and even more so during the performance here of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” the effect did seem more like an afterthought in both Pachelbel’s “Canon” and Philip Glass’s “Interlude No. 1 from the CIVIL warS.”

The Glass work was originally written as a connecting segment between scenes in Act V of an ambitious collaborative project with Robert Wilson, from 1984, that was never presented live in its entirety. Its inclusion in this setting could reasonably be regarded as a metaphor for the calm before, or after, a battle. Unlike some of Glass’s more strident pieces, this very short work is hypnotically serene in its simplicity. It was played here with a hushed sensibility that, once again, effectively set up our anticipation of Copland’s majestic “Lincoln Portrait.”

This was arguably the most deeply moving performance of the evening, further embellished by the arresting photographs from the Civil War that hovered above the orchestra like so many shifting storm clouds. Christopher Craft’s text narration, which the composer built largely from Lincoln’s letters and speeches, was both poignant and commanding, and made all the more compelling by the orchestra’s final explosive note – a victorious exclamation delivered with the deafening clarity of a cannon blast.

After such impactful drama, it seemed a curious choice at this point to insert Pachelbel’s “Canon.” Peace after the war? Possibly, though a somewhat toothless peace at that. While the familiarity of the work certainly didn’t breed anything contemptible, the understated performance here was simply too ordinary for an orchestra of this caliber.

Similarly, in the concert’s final work – Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”) – the orchestra was at times uninspired. For all of the first movement’s rhythmic and melodic verve, the normally invigorating resonance of the strings seemed uncharacteristically lackluster, and at other points through the work perhaps even a bit out of tune. Fortunately, such quirks were overcome by the vigorous, authoritative reading of the ebullient, propulsive finale.

Particularly captivating throughout the evening was the animated demeanor of CSO Associate Conductor Matthew Brown at the podium. His is a delightfully articulated and endearing physical commitment to the music, here emanating an uncanny sense that he literally held the orchestra – and the audience - in the palms of his hands.

Photo, by Jeremy Aronhalt, Canton Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor Matthew Brown

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Echoes of a Scream

Echoes of a Scream
By Tom Wachunas

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell –

Even the earliest moments of “Plumfield, Iraq”, the season-opening production at Kent State University at Stark Theatre, augur tragedy. A group of young men and women, running in formation to a lively military cadence call, morphs into a frolicsome gathering of high school buds playing touch football. Someone named Cam is missing from the fun. Cam’s best friend, Mike, gently pleads with the group to wait just a little while longer before going their separate ways and getting on with their day. Indeed, with their lives.

What unfolds, then, is a war tale, a “memory drama” written by Barbara Lebow - here with Brian Newberg directing a youthful, remarkably skilled eight-member cast - that takes place in the guilt/grief-riddled mind of Mike, suffering from a very protracted case of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He is our lens on simple, innocent life in the fictional small town of Plumfield, Washington, and on the harrowing battlefield of Iraq. It is a lens at once crystal clear and fogged over by the vapors of horrific memories.

Without ever succumbing to ideological axe-grinding, grandstanding, or gratuitous preaching, Lebow’s play is nonetheless an uncompromising look at the awful democracy of war. No respecter of age, gender, politics, or nationality, and with cruel equanimity, it leaves in its wake usurped dreams, wrecked psyches, and otherwise arrested lives. It’s the chaotic contrast between Mike’s nostalgic remembrances of Plumfield pleasantries and his searing wartime flashbacks that drives the story, starting with his reluctant decision to enlist in the Army along with Cam, both fresh out of high school. They’re sent to Iraq, still under a delusion that the worst of the war, initially celebrated for its brevity, was over. They envision returning to the lives and loves they left behind, with their Veteran benefits assuring a college education. Cam would pursue a business career, and Mike a life in music.

There is essentially no physical stage set, and minimal props. In this somber atmosphere, “scenery” is delivered via light effects along with still and moving images projected on the large back wall painted to look like stone. Real war footage is generously interspersed with poignant snapshots and videos of the characters’ laptop missives to each other.

Anthony Antoniades’ portrayal of Mike is for the most part successful in its volatile balance between his character’s gentle nature and his clear horror at what transpires in Iraq. He’s shell shocked, literally and figuratively. At times he’s twisted into a fetal, defensive silence, locked inside overwhelming shadows of loss, failure, and guilt. It’s all a compelling counterpoint to the more ostentatious, confident nature of Cam, played with eminently credible, affectionate gusto by Matt King.

Both Erin Stewart, as Cam’s newlywed wife, Lorraine, and Devonn Patterson, playing Mike’s girlfriend, Beth, bring genuine tenderness along with palpable, bittersweet urgency to their scenes of trying to draw Mike out of his torturous memories. To rejoin the living.

Given all of the story’s sharply and powerfully defined images of psychological and emotional trauma, the play’s final moment of Mike climbing the stairs out of his basement is somewhat ethereal (and maybe for some, unsatisfying) and enigmatic. Is it a flashback, a dream, a goodbye to his life, a promise, a prophecy?

Call it an ascension, then. From the (de)basement of war’s damnable malignancy, to the possibility of curative atonement. Amid echoes of lingering hope.

“Plumfield, Iraq” curtain times are November 10 (Thursday) and 12 at 8 p.m. / November 6 and 13 at 2:30 p.m. in the Kent State University at Stark Theatre, Fine Arts Building. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for senior citizens and students 16 and younger. To order, call (330) 244 – 3348 or visit

Photo: “Echoes of a Scream” enamel on wood by David Alfaro Siquieros, 1937

Thursday, November 3, 2011

First Let's Kill All the Critics?

First Let’s Kill All the Critics?
By Tom Wachunas

“We keep lowering the bar as to what makes acceptable, good, or great art. These days, many regard all art as somehow sacrosanct and above reproach, if only because it is the unique product of human hands and personal passions. This kind of thinking continues to generate an increasingly shallow democracy of ideas that is slowly obliterating art.” – June Godwit, from “The Third Entity” (1975) –

Prompted to some degree by recent comments posted to my review of the Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum, what follows is not an apology, defense, or even clarification, but rather questions relevant to - in varying degrees (and in no particular order) - making, appreciating, and interpreting art. Questions that are intrinsic to the discipline – yeah, I said discipline - of critique.

Are all opinions about art of equal value? Who is qualified to assess the quality or meaning of art? What constitutes an “informed” opinion? Is knowledge of art history useful in discussing and/or evaluating contemporary art? Why or why not? Are the writings of Plato and/or Aristotle on art and aesthetics still useful or applicable in discussing contemporary art? Why or why not? What is the role of the artist in the 21st century? Is it global or culture-specific? Has the artist’s role changed since the 20th or 19th or 18th centuries? How? What is the role of the art critic in the 21st century? Who is qualified to be an art critic? Do we need art critics? Why do we make art? Why do we look at it? Why should we care about art? By what standards do we assess the success or failure of a work of art? Who established/establishes those standards? Must a work of art, or an artist, be accountable to any standards? Should art advance or enhance our thinking about living, human nature, or morality? Who and what defines “bad taste”? Who or what defines “serious” or “high” art? What exactly is “low brow” or kitsch? Are these designations intrinsically “bad”? Does great art create its own tastes? Does bad art perpetuate bad taste? Is “originality” a fixed concept, or a matter of degrees? What constitutes “beauty”? Should beholders of art strive to improve their vision? Who or what contributes to that improvement? What do we expect of our art and artists? Should we expect anything at all? Can art alter societal mind–sets, or merely reflect them? Do you see art as escapist entertainment, or enlightenment? Can “serious” art be both?

I eagerly await your comments.

Photo: “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, 1917

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hard Corps

Hard Corps
By Tom Wachunas

The William G. Fry Theatre is a classic ‘black box’ venue that’s a great fit for the Canton Players Guild “Stripped Away” series. Without the elaborate sets and other trappings of full-out mainstage productions, the series is designed to bring an edgy immediacy to the theatrical proceedings. In such a tightly confined environment, if the stage literature is sufficiently compelling, if the directing is sensitive and purposeful, and if the performers are skilled enough to convincingly sustain their characters under very close audience scrutiny, the results are intensely riveting.

And so it is that these elements have certainly been blended to powerful effect in the current production of “A Few Good Men,” directed here by Jeremy P. Lewis. Aaron Sorkin wrote this story of two Marines – Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and PFC Louden Downey - accused of murdering a fellow soldier, PFC William Santiago, in a “Code Red” hazing gone wrong at Guantanamo Bay, and their JAG defense lawyers who uncover a conspiracy to cover up high-level complicity. The play was produced on Broadway in 1989 and then as a film directed by Rob Reiner in 1992, starring Tom Cruise and Demi Moore as attorneys Daniel Kaffee and Joanne Galloway, and Jack Nicholson as the Guantanomo base commander, Nathan Jessep.

The action flips back and forth across time in both Washington, D.C., and the Guantanamo base, with many scene changes (a matter of quick rearrangements of a few furniture pieces) dispatched by the cast members with appropriately military precision, even if the long first act does seem to, at times, crawl instead of march. For the most part, the cast appears as very well-directed and credible (right down to their buzz-cuts) in martial authenticity – no doubt aided by three of the performers who had considerable real life experience in U.S. military service.

Stand-out performances include: Ryan Skibicki playing the accused Harold Dawson - the idealistic, stalwart Marines’s Marine; Shane Daniels playing fellow prisoner Louden Downey – shaken, needy, and with the demeanor of a deer in the headlights; John Scavelli as the wry-witted Sam Weinberg, best friend and second chair to defense counsel Kaffee, sincerely struggling to buy into defending what he considers to be a cut-and-dry case of murder. And John Green is scarily artful in his portrayal of Lt. Jonathan Kendrick, marching to his own Bible-thumping beat as he and his underlings robotically bark the Marine Code, “Unit, Corps, God, Country!”

As is often the case with plays made into popular films, iconic screen performances can prejudice our expectations of the stage experience. But here you can forget about such measuring sticks as Tom Cruise’s suave bravado, Demi Moore’s unflappable dignity and fortitude, or Jack Nicholson’s fanatical, square-jawed, vein-popping courtroom crash-and-burn as he bellows, “You can’t handle the truth!”

This cast delivers all that plus some, with dramatic elan all their own. Ryan Nehlen turns in a deeply energetic and nuanced portrait of the callow defense lawyer Daniel Kaffee, hiding deep insecurities with cocky humor that ultimately matures into a convicted conscience. Equally intriguing is Maria Work as co-counsel Joanne Galloway – impassioned, quietly vulnerable, and endearingly stubborn. And Fred Weibel captures the pathological malevolence and megalomania of Nathan Jessep – a frightening embodiment of the chasm between autonomous military bureaucracy and societal morality - with gripping panache.

Take no prisoners indeed. Handle the truth? This is theatre that demands - and gets – our undivided attention.

Canton Players Guild production of “A Few Good Men” runs through November 13. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the William G. Fry Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue N., in Canton . Box office (330) 453 – 7617,

PHOTO by James Dreussi: Left to Right – Bill Finley (background) as Judge Julius Alexander Rudolf, Fred Weibel as Nathan Jessep, Ryan Nehlen as Daniel Kaffee, John Scavelli as Sam Weinberg

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When Art Gets In Your Eyes

When Art Gets In Your Eyes
By Tom Wachunas

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. - Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10 –

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” - Voltaire –

“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso -

Regarding the latest installment of the annual Stark County Artists Exhibition at the Massillon Museum, I’m almost convinced that the jurors of competitive shows (in this region anyway) are required to always select a few works that intentionally strain credibility – theirs and ours. This year’s What Were They Thinking Award goes to Laurie Baker for her two paper mache sculptures: “Scary Winter Snowman” and “Full- Size Sitting Tiger”. These are simplistic, somewhat garish tchotchkes, though certainly very impressive in scale and craftsmanship. Part of the problem might be with the Museum’s practice in the last few years of jurying digital-only entries. Maybe the pieces are somehow more appealing encoded on a shiny disc and illuminated on a computer screen. Like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get until you free it from its wrapper. As seen here, they’re cute and “entertaining”, but only to the extent that circus kitsch is best presented on parade floats.

A few other pieces bring up interesting questions about “originality” and appropriation of imagery not one’s own. Billy Ludwig’s “Bird Shark” is a digital image that won Second Place honors here. Imagine my surprise when fellow blogger Judi Krew informed me that her internet-savvy son noticed how Ludwig’s delightfully bizarre frankenform of a seagull and Great White was eerily similar to several images found under “bird shark” on Google Images. In fact, but for the photo-shopped background and webbed feet in Ludwig’s picture, the critters are virtually identical. IF it was someone or some entity other than Ludwig (or his personal Impale Design brand) that originally created the Google images, shouldn’t they be credited? Ludwig and many other digital artists make no secret of incorporating “found” imagery for works that bear their names. So are we OK with assuming that anything and everything on the internet, with little or no alteration, is fair game for inclusion in art, or legitimately in the public domain enough to be fodder for the contemporary art trough? How thin is the line between homage and forgery? Between an original and a counterfeit?

Related questions are posed by James Begert’s oil painting here called “War”. His piece is an instantly recognizable appropriation of an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup can from 1962, and truly needs no introduction or credit, being the emblematic icon of an entire art movement. Begert’s borrowing, though, is a much clearer recontextualizing of his “found” source than that of some digital artists. Eschewing Warhol’s cool industrial surfaces, Begert’s more impromptu, painterly treatment is an effectively crude awakening to 21st century marketing and consumerism of war.

But enough with the thorny stuff. As a whole, this year’s showcase of 62 works by 41 artists is notably more balanced than in years past - in variety of mediums (including more 3-D works), engaging thematic content, and depth of technical mastery. It’s gratifying, too, to see that the echoes of the Old Masters can still hold us in their thrall. Frank Dale’s stunning “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” garnered Best In Show honors. His unquestionable mastery of the Flemish method of oil painting is in full force with this shadowy portrait of his late wife and muse. A ghostly wisp of cigarette smoke rises up her cheek and lingers over her left eye like a haunting scar. One of Dale’s accomplished students of the technique, Kristin Lupsor, received an Honorable Mention for her sumptuous, riveting portrait, “Flora”.

There’s a captivating sensuality about the two excellent still lifes by Karen Hemsley. The picture planes are intricately engineered with contrasting patterns and diagonals, unusual perspectives, and a rich palette. Deliciously mesmerizing. So too the acrylic collage by Isabel Zaldivar called “Landscape in Black and White”. It’s a fascinating abstract exploration of lavish textures and organic forms laid out with an almost photographic clarity, suggesting a churning natural environment. A similar textural intrigue abounds in the exquisite color photograph of the gnarled base of a tree, “Sleepy Old Ent”, by Scott Alan Evans.

Here’s a short list of other entries that I found particularly remarkable: the vibrant pastel pieces by Diane Belfiglio, Judy Huber, Judi Krew, and Brian Robinson ( Juror’s Honorable Mention); the wondrously tactile fiber portrait by Marge May; the equally wondrous stoneware pieces by Laura Donnelly (Third Place for “Dish Rags”); and the elegant wood vessels by Marty Chapman.

And for the sheer power of art’s capacity to “speak” with electrifying authority, there are the two acrylic paintings by Sherri Hornbrook: “Lux” and “Visor”. My dilemma is that I’m at a loss to explain exactly what’s being said. Stumped. Flummoxed. Yet absolutely sure I’m seeing something really fresh. Yes, there are apparent derivations in these abstracts – a melding of Fauvist color with the loose expressivity and design sensibilities of such painters as Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, to name just some. But Hornbrook offers a compelling synthesis all her own – private, enigmatic, intensely intuitive. PRIMAL. They pose questions. I want to see them bigger. Maybe next time around. Meanwhile they linger, sweet and loud. Art will do that sometimes.

Photo: “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, oil by Frank Dale, on view at the Massillon Museum THROUGH DECEMBER 31. 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon. (330) 833 – 4061

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Probing Personhood

Probing Personhood
By Tom Wachunas

The current exhibit at Anderson Creative is an intriguing exercise in human connectivity that I think is one of the most deeply thought provoking projects to come our way since the gallery’s inception. Called “Blind / Sighted: The Perceptions Project,” the installation presents an unfolded process involving nine local residents - of varying ages, backgrounds, and walks in life – who answered probing questions in an hour-long interview, conducted by Anderson Creative curator Craig Joseph, about how they perceive themselves and how they think others perceive them. Then transcripts of the recorded interviews were turned over to two artists: painter Marti Jones Dixon and filmmaker Andrew Rudd. Based solely on those audio recordings, Dixon was assigned the task of painting a portrait of each individual, while Rudd set about storyboarding nine brief films (“microdocumentaries”) about their lives.

Rudd had the advantage of meeting each of his subjects face-to-face for a short time in the process of finishing his project, and we’re told in the accompanying background statements for the show that those meetings generated changes in his original storyboarded perceptions. I take it to mean that, based on his interpretation of the audio interviews, Rudd at first envisioned particular ways to present a comprehensive ‘picture’ of his subjects. Then he must have realized he needed to re-think his perceptions after getting to know them a little better. In his attempt to portray the essence of a person – to present who he thought these people are - he likely grappled with freeing his art enough to be a faithful descriptor of transient realities rather than just a pre-scripter of static ideas, or merely coloring in the lines, so to speak, provided by the initial interview questions (which are posted on one of the gallery walls), and the interviewees’ answers.

In any event, his finished films are lively and sensitive in their construction. Each is a uniquely engaging tableau of a life, giving us intimate views of these erstwhile strangers. We learn, among other things, something of their memories, families, values and passions as well as their physical appearance – something Dixon could not access in her decisions as to how to paint portraits of them.

The challenge forced her to relate to and render her subjects in a totally unfamiliar way. As an accomplished portraitist accustomed to working from visual cues in real time, Dixon’s paintings have always effectively captured her subjects’ subtlest nuances of countenance and postures with truly energetic, facile brushwork. But for these paintings, she needed to engage a new methodology by literally hearing her way into seeing – to intuit a sense of a whole person emerging from a “framed” narrative. While the paintings don’t reveal physical faces as such, they are nonetheless imbued with an almost mystical, beatific look that reads, when viewed in tandem with the subjects’ respective films, as somehow apropos. Most of her pictures suggest illuminated discoveries of present essences, or perhaps truths retrieved from deep contemplation, revealed in ethereal, sometimes haunting light. Many take the form of interior scenes that in turn frame an exterior scene. Savory, private moments in an outward-bound journey. In their expressive technique, and in their poetic content, these works may well be the most compellingly dramatic Dixon has ever made.

What I find most engaging about this show is the relationship between what is overtly declared about the nine “strangers” - Scott, Blu, Hugo, Kristin, Moe, Henry, Lindsey, Marian, and Aunt Bea (as I’m left with a warming desire to know them better still) - and what it tells me about the artists. As viewers, we necessarily become vicarious participants in their process, but only to the extent to which we invest our time to sincerely explore our own perceptions. More important, in as much as the show is a presentation of individual portraits and biographies, it is collectively a laudable, courageous, and affirming picture of humans authentically willing to do what is too often dreadfully absent from this world: connect with each other.

Photo, courtesy Marti Jones Dixon and Anderson Creative: “Hugo”, oil on canvas, on view THROUGH OCTOBER 29 at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Where Sparrows Breathe Fire

Where Sparrows Breathe Fire
By Tom Wachunas

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

-from “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” by Lewis Caroll -

Welcome to where honey grows on trees, ravens drive trucks, owls turn mice into living marionettes, cats have wings and webbed feet, and catfish parachute into fiery battle. Not to mention where beetles have bulldozer snouts and long-necked, three-horned elephants play croquet, among many other surreal permutations of the known universe. Welcome to Erin through the picture plane, aka “The Life of a Dream,” an exhibit of paintings by Erin Mulligan currently at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton.

Beyond what I’ve already offered here on several occasions in the last few years, there isn’t much in the way of new observations or insights I can offer about Mulligan’s work. This isn’t to say she’s been making the same painting over and over again – a practice not uncommon among some painters who settle for years on end into a comfortable stylistic niche. Yes, she continues to produce utterly intriguing and meticulous visions of an improbable – OK, impossible - world that is alternately bizarre and whimsical, yet without being too dark or repulsive. But Mulligan’s looking glass is a window on a world that’s apparently boundless in its enthralling variety of content. These are fantastic visions in every sense of the word – phantasms of places and creatures that at times seem to be allegories of “real world” situations.

Even aside from the symbolism that may or may not be present, they’re compelling for their unfettered surrender to an astonishingly fertile imagination, as well as their equally astonishing technique. Merging the detailed draftsmanship of the most accomplished nature illustrators with the classic glazing methods of the Old Masters, Mulligan is both a first-rate painter and a master illusionist in her own right. Combined with the playful taxonomic nomenclature of her titles – like “Flatus Swimmey Linearani,” “Insectus Scoopus Mammalus,” and “Flightus Amphibious Delicious” – these works are delightfully credible and entertaining documents of life lived...somewhere else.

So go ahead, have breakfast with the Queen. I bet you’ll believe a lot more than just six impossible things before you’re finished.

Photo, courtesy The Little Art Gallery: “Cosmos Umbilicus,” oil on board by Erin Mulligan, on view through November 6 at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library. Also on view, original vintage jewelry designs by Kathleen Houston.
(330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312