Saturday, April 30, 2011

Symphony On Canvas

Symphony On Canvas

By Tom Wachunas

Synesthesia is a sensory phenomenon wherein the stimulation of one sense can trigger the awakening of another. I can’t tell you, for example, how many times the odor of a roasting turkey has made me able to clearly see every tiny detail of the Thanksgiving table my mother set during my childhood, right down to the antique floral design of her finest china, the lacy embroidery of linen napkins and table cloth, the finely embossed golden rims of the crystal glasses. Similarly, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon more immediately and acutely than when I first walked through the current exhibit in the Massillon Museum’s main gallery.

Long before I read the wall placard addressing the theme of the show, called “Color in Freedom: Journey Along the Underground Railroad,” the 30 vibrant, luscious acrylic and mixed media paintings by Joseph Holston elicited an instantaneous, astonishing sensation of hearing monumentally symphonic music. So it was particularly gratifying to read that Holston composed this chronicle of slavery from bondage to freedom in the form of four distinct movements, as in a symphony: Unknown World, Living in Bondage – Life on the Plantation, Journey of Escape, and Color in Freedom. To appreciate Holston’s artistic logic and dramatic impact of the paintings’ ordered sequence, on entering the gallery, begin your journey in the nearby right corner.

As a painter, Holston’s strengths are many and formidable, starting with the streamlined fluidity in how he has rendered (as in drawn) his figures. Nothing seems wasted in his expressive brushwork. Whether working in wide, sweeping flourishes, or in smaller clusters of energized strokes, all of it projects an intense, purposeful urgency – progressively more so as the paintings enter the later phases of the third, and then throughout the fourth movement of the sequence. Eschewing any identifying features in his figures’ faces (or, for that matter, other superficial details of dress or anatomy), Holston has focused on their animated postures, their varied and subtle attitudes of movement, and their interlocking forms. Combined with the deliciously liberal, physical presence of the paint itself, and the sheer largeness of picture plane composition, these figures of slaves, even at their most anguished and tortured, inhabit the paintings like heroic spirits, as if they were sculptures carved from the ethereal stuff of pathos, dignity, and ultimately pure exuberance.

It’s Holston as colorist, though, who wields an uncanny ability to conjure palpable musicality. And he does so by employing the effects of the most rudimentary of color dynamics – breathtaking contrasts of cool and hot, and complementary hues in elegant balance. In “Dawn of Despair,” from the Living in Bondage movement, three huddled figures occupy well more than half of the picture, hunched over in a monochromatic mass of deep blues and grays, their black hands like so many dead weights, unable to lift themselves into the amorphous arc of fiery orange above them. In the first two sequences of this symphony of canvases, Holston’s dominant, dark monotones evoke the sounds of eerily foreboding, tumultuous strings and rumbling timpani. But always there’s a smaller, warm glowing, like the soundings of distant brass and winds, signaling a hope, a promise, a destination. In the third movement, those warm accents become more hot, expansive, and insistent, as in the poignant procession under and toward the blazing sun of “After Harriet.” Then, in the triumphant fourth, the once murky, weighted figures are softer and infused with airy, vibrant life. The long, treacherous night has ended. Their earthbound oppression has given way to the explosive ebullience of lighter, brighter colors - indeed songs - of unshackled joy.

This exhibition of works by a single artist surely ranks as the most electrifying to grace the walls of the Massillon Museum in recent memory. Holston’s vision is an unforgettably passionate and reverential one. And in chronicling the human drama of one of history’s most important and compelling passages, he has managed to awaken and inspire all our senses.

Photo, courtesy “Dawn of Despair,” by Joseph Holston. On view at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon. Viewing hours are Tuesday – Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Information at or call (330) 833 – 4061.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pitching Pitchy Siren Songs

Pitching Pitchy Siren Songs

By Tom Wachunas

I’ve always had a soft spot in this often curmudgeonly heart-o-mine for artists who know full well their ability to push people’s buttons. To stir up the pot of our predispositions about what’s beautiful, inspiring, or empowering. To intentionally walk along precarious esthetic edges while brandishing arguments and attitudes guaranteed to trigger lively if not heated discourse. Whether you call it courage or insouciant self-indulgence on their part, such artists will continue to make works we love to hate, hate to love, or long to like. Somewhere in this mix there’s painter Megan Mars.

Since first encountering her work around five years ago, I’ve watched her, with admittedly marginal interest, solidify her niche in our local arts community to the point of brand-name recognition. All along the way, I’ve wondered how or if she could successfully expand that niche, or maybe even transcend it altogether. And by that I don’t mean increasing the degree of her exposure or viewer base, but rather deepening the ideological and technical content of her paintings per se.

Based on the works currently exhibited in her salon-style show called “She’s a Monster” at Thirteenth Floor Gallery in Massillon, Mars appears to be still safely ensconced in her comfort zone, perhaps content that if it ain’t busted, don’t fix it – at least not overly much. Her signature iconography is for the most part intact (and of its kind, compelling enough) – buxom, often robustly beautiful women presented as alluring or scary embodiments of feminine power and self-assuredness, along with a healthy dose of woundedness and vulnerability. They’re theatrical in the sense that one puts on an elaborately decorated persona and lives it out in a strange fantasy world. Some of these women of Mars, so to speak, look like naughty vixens from planet Bizarro, others like Medusa’s extended family. Still others exude a raw sort of elegance. Most of the pictures don’t come off as portraits of real people who breathe or speak warmly into our lives, but rather as codified symbols of roles, situations, identities, or desires. But even at their most gothic or grotesque, there are some signs, in varying degrees, of genuinely palpable emotions lurking beneath the trappings of kinky eroticism and murky pallor of death common to many of the images.

I think there’s true Romanticism in Mars’ work. But it’s more latent than fully blossomed. This has as much to do with her choices as a painter as with her pictorial content. At this point, she seems to be replicating a tight formula for presenting an ‘everywoman’ sensuality and immediacy, but without the sensuality and immediacy of paint itself. To be fair, she has developed an increasingly refined fluidity in the touch of her brush. Yet I’m fairly certain her sensationalistic imagery could take on all the more visceral impact – and emotional resonance - if she were to loosen up and let paint be paint. Why not employ the tactile physicality of painted surface as metaphorical ‘soul’ of the work? Experimenting with a more daring, varied palette wouldn’t hurt, either.

In viewing Mars’ work these past several years, here’s a cautionary note, offered out of my abiding respect for her clear ability in drawing and her authentic passion for making art. The process of artistic maturing has everything to do with listening intently to what an idea is saying - of letting the idea tell how it wants to be manifest, instead of habitually forcing it into a predetermined schematization. It’s highly plausible, given the sense of implied personal narrative in these works, that the ideas driving them are better suited to be, for example, illustrations in what could be an electrifying graphic novel. In any event, and for any artist, it’s also worth remembering that some ideas simply don’t wear paint all that easily, or well.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens, daughters of a sea god, were beautiful women who, with their seductive singing, lured sailors to fatally veer off course. Here’s hoping that as her artistic journey progresses, Megan Mars doesn’t let the song she’s been hearing thus far lead her, as a painter, any closer to dangerously shallow waters.

Photo, courtesy “Octavia” by Megan Mars, on view through May 19 in “She’s a Monster,” at Thirteenth Floor Gallery, 28 Charles Ave. SE, downtown Massillon. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday, 12 noon to 6 p.m.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011



By Tom Wachunas

The current exhibit at the Kent State University at Stark Main Hall Gallery is not one that will stop you in your tracks as you shuffle by and look through the big glass wall. Eye-popping colors and other visual grandiosities do not beckon from afar. This is not a show that will stand up well to a quick, over-the-shoulder glance, which is too often the typical viewing mode of too many people.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of inviting visual intrigue in this group show, called “New World: Places + Form,” provided you allow sufficient time to see its unique balance of concept with physical substance. The works by the four guest artists in this show – Kate Budd, Beth Lindenberger, Matthew Kolodzie, and Donna Webb – make for a visually pristine, quietly cerebral atmosphere.

Both Budd and Lindenberger are clearly fascinated with the organic forms suggested by certain animals, vegetables, flower buds, seedpods, or shells. Their pieces – small enough to fit in your hand – are spread out on two long tables covered with white cloth. Like laboratory specimens. Lindenberger’s glazed ceramic works are in large part more naturalistic and tactile – though sometimes playful - homages to the forms that inspired them. Budd, on the other hand, brings a heightened sense of psychological wonder to her forms molded in wax. Several of them are translucent, and embellished with tiny glass beads, protruding pins, or perforated with evenly-spaced holes. Some suggest small vegetables or pods that have been cleanly sliced on one end. They exude a distinctly charming sense of mystery, hinting at human interactions or interventions - like enchanted, sensual forest ingredients carefully prepared for a secret ritual.

Kolodzie’s 22” x 30” gouache wash drawings on paper, titled “Out of Sync” (numbered 1 through 5), are each alternately dense and airy configurations of overlapped, graffiti-like markings in flux. Within these clusters of scribbly dashes, lines, and curves are rhythms in one color that shadow and echo rhythms in another, vibrating in a tentative dance between zones of apparent chaos and fields of more controlled spontaneity. Call them topographies of structured intuition. They’re nervous and even astringent at times, yet strangely confident and seductive. Mesmerizing maps of a sort, they vaguely describe landscapes both urban and rural, simultaneously dispersing and congealing.

And speaking of dispersed landscapes, there’s “The Boogie Man of Howard Street: a place to be blue” by Donna Webb. The central panel in this installation that spans the main wall of the gallery is a mosaic of ceramic tiles, and a study for a public work commemorating Akron’s Howard Street entertainment district. From the right side of the image, a loosely rendered figure in brown, arms stretched as in flight (or reaching to touch land?), floats above intersecting streets. In her accompanying statement, Webb tells us that during the 1940’s and 50s, the district was the night-life hub of the African American community, with clubs offering the music of jazz and blues greats of the day. Declaring the area “blighted” in the 1960s, the city razed it in the name of urban renewal.

To the left of the panel is a round, ridged ceramic ‘platter’ – a shiny blue sun, as it were – surrounded by a variety of smaller ‘orbiting’ discs that also extend to the right of the panel. The work doesn’t so much read as an angry indictment of relentless urban development as it is a sensitive remembrance of a bygone era. On another level, this symbolic microcosm does bring to mind that, for better or worse, modern cultural identity is no longer a fixed, immutable entity. If there is a “new world” identified here, it’s perhaps one of cultural diaspora. And like the rest of this show, the work invites and deserves our gentle contemplation.

Photo: “Out of Sync #3,” gouache, by Matthew Kolodzie, on view through May 6, Main Hall Gallery, on the campus of Kent State University at Stark. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to noon.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Risen Indeed: An Easter Meditation

Risen Indeed: An Easter Meditation

By Tom Wachunas

“And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” -Revelation 21:5 –

“He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.” - C.S. Lewis, from “The Joyful Christian” –

On this Good Friday I spent an hour or so browsing dozens of pictures of paintings and sculptures depicting the Resurrection of Christ. What follows is simply an invitation to think on what Easter might mean to you.

Archived within these blog posts are several appreciations of art as a spontaneous response to being alive. The act of making art – what we commonly call ‘creating,’ and the process of it ‘creativity’- is itself but a tarnished reflection of our Divine origins, a remnant spark, a flickering remembrance. I have believed this with all my heart for many years. There is a certain sense of desperation that I sense when considering the whole of human creativity through the arts - a sense of the sacred progressively becoming elusive and worse - irrelevant. As I get older, I notice in our world an increasingly fading and corrupted memory of the primordial creative act described in Genesis. God thought it, and so it became. And it was good. Then, it got wrecked, by our own hand.

On this Easter weekend I’m immersed in gratitude for my own capacity to make art, to consider it, to savor it. To savor art that, at the very least, even if indirectly, affirms what is noble or pure or good about being alive. To participate in the memory of “And God said…” How, then, can we use this capacity, this memory, this participation?

What if, as artists and lovers of the arts, we saw our creativity as a way back to thanking, praising, and worshipping the author of our talents, the source of our capacities, the God who made us in His image? What if we saw ourselves as participating in, instead of resisting, His original plan for us? What then would motivate our creativity? What would our art – indeed our life - look like? What would it inspire? Hope? Joy? All things made new?

Unlike Prometheus, we don’t need to steal light from jealous, stingy, unapproachable gods, and suffer the eternally painful consequences. It’s always been ours for the asking. The image that accompanies this missive is the 1510 Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. It’s a beautiful, stunning reminder of the hope and victory first promised us in Genesis. And more, consider it a remembrance, on this Easter and beyond, of not just the greatest story ever told, but the greatest promise ever kept.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Do We Say We Think He Is?

Who Do We Say We Think He Is?

By Tom Wachunas

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” - Matthew 26: 38-39 –

Michael Dempsey, who directed the current production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Players Guild Theatre in Canton, reminds us in his astute program notes that when this Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) rock opera collaboration premiered 40 years ago, the notion of a very human, conflicted, secularized Jesus “…chilled the marrow of many believers.” Indeed, on its surface, the show does seem to offer up Jesus Christ as a hapless, misunderstood victim of fate over which he had no say, embroiled in the volatile politics and social perceptions of his backward times. And some might still be flummoxed to know that the story line ends not with the bang of Jesus’ Gospel- acclaimed victory in Resurrection, but with an implied whimper as he steps down from the cross where he died, and walks slowly off into the darkened wings.

Dempsey also correctly points out that the initial outrage and arguments from those early days have progressively waned to the point where many churches find the show’s basic theology suitable for Easter season celebrations, even as productions in the secular world have acquired an increasingly big-budget flamboyance. “It’s a piece of art that lives in two worlds…,” Dempsey notes of this melding of rock with theatre. His goal here was to get back to the basics of the original rock album form while still honoring the show’s theatrical intensity. And in all of that – sound, set, lights, choreography (by Michael Lawrence Akers), and the commanding cast – the evening is supremely successful.

I had forgotten just how brilliantly textured and nuanced the music is for this show, and here it’s presented in rock concert modality, with crystalline intensity, by an 11-piece orchestra on center stage, conducted by pianist Steve Parsons. The multi-level set, designed by Craig Betz, surrounds and rises up behind the orchestra like a crumbling temple conjoined with rocky landscape.

In his superb portrayal of Jesus, Vaughn Schmidt is a marvelous presence, even in the moments when he’s visibly exhausted and overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of the crowds that assail him – both needy and adversarial. It’s a vulnerable Jesus we see in the song “Gethsemane” – desperate for answers in a wrenching, prayerful moment when exasperation and reluctant resolve collide. Schmidt sings with all the urgency and power of a seasoned rocker. His plaintive, high-end sustained notes – piercing howls, really - explode like searing lightning bolts from a storm of deep, churning emotions. It’s that same kind of seasoned emotional electricity that Khaled Tabbara skillfully wields in his role of the brooding Judas. His soaring, throaty vocals bring a visceral pathos to his tortured search to understand and connect with Jesus. In many ways I could almost hear Judas singing the show’s most iconic song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

But of course that moment is assigned to Mary Magdalene, searching her own soul while gazing at a sleeping Jesus. As Magdalene, Bethany Taylor truly shines, providing a steady, tender light on human longings and conflicted feelings. In another particularly heartrending scene, after Jesus is arrested, she sings the sweetly anguished “Could We Start Again Please?” with Peter, played by Kris North.

Elsewhere in the proceedings, Chuck Simon is riveting as he delivers a startlingly muscular and credible reading of Pilate. Chris Gales is equally startling – both hilarious and scary - as a dandyish Herod, taunting Jesus with his glitzy chorus line harem of hoofers doing the Charleston. John Scavelli and Tom Bryant bring a convincingly chilling and sinister air to their roles of the conniving Annas and Caiaphas, respectively.

In appreciating the artistic impact of this show, it would be like ignoring the proverbial elephant in our living room to dismiss the “religious” questions it raises. I do think the work reflects a long-standing human tendency to pick and choose what we can live with when it comes to accepting history’s most controversial person. We can identify with Judas and Mary Magdelene as presented here because they embody our own struggle to reconcile the earthly with the ethereal. And like them, we might find momentary if not uneasy comfort by re-configuring Jesus into a similarly tormented soul.

Such considerations aside, say what you will about historic Jesus. His last words recorded in the Gospel of Matthew are, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” So whether you call it superstition, speculation, or faith, I’m nonetheless certain that this thrilling theatrical event – like a lot of art made through the ages – is one of many ways he chooses to remain in our midst. Have a Blessed Easter.

Photo by James Dreussi, courtesy Khaled Tabbara as Judas (left) and Vaughn Schmidt as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the Players Guild mainstage, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton. Shows are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30p.m. Sundays (except Easter) THROUGH MAY 8. Tickets $22 for adults, $20 for seniors, $17 for students. Order by calling (330) 453 – 7617.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Giving the Past a Future in the Present

Giving the Past a Future in the Present

By Tom Wachunas

“We need look no further than Genesis 3 to find the greatest tragedy ever recorded. In a decision that would thenceforth confound and wound all of humanity, Adam thought he could improve upon the Divine Countenance of Eden. He ended up with thorn bushes. Ever since, longing to dwell once again inside the garden’s miraculous, verdant spectacle, his children have desperately sought to breach its guarded gate.”

- From “Summaries” by June Godwit –

Sometimes I think the history of painting (Western painting particularly, from about A.D. 1300) is like that – a continuum of attempts, both valiant and tortured, to remember or re-enter Paradise. To remember and celebrate the First Beauty, and our capacity to perceive it. A considerably long passage in that history shows us art that was a skillful recapitulation of physical reality – so skillful that it could lift us to sublime heights of existential awareness. It was by disciplined observation of the natural world, with eyes wide open and gifted hands to re-present it, that we honored and savored the created universe around us. We made art that delighted the soul by enticing the eye to immerse us in what we saw. Baptism by vision.

Such were the paintings by many artists throughout the Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic eras. Echoes of those times have certainly continued to resonate, though with diminished returns. By the end of the 19th century, the roots of modernism were solidly in place, and the subject of painting was increasingly becoming…paint. Or the very act of manipulating paint for its own sake. With the arrival of pure abstraction, painting was finally liberated from bondage to outward, natural appearances, and thought by many to be an intrinsically heroic expression and symbol of unfettered human spirit.

Heroic? Not always. Unfettered? I’ll grant that. But in light of what preceded it, I continue to wonder if much of modern painting, despite or maybe because of all its myriad forms, was an abandonment of the dignity and inspiring nobility of faithful facsimile. I have often admitted a deep appreciation of modernism’s powerfully entertaining attempts to embrace the stuff of being alive. Still, though, no abstract painting has ever elicited the undiluted awe I felt when I stood for the first time before a monumental landscape by Albert Bierstatd, or an oil painting by Caravaggio or Rembrandt. At their most compelling, many modernist experiments in soul-stirring are too often crude and painful (like thorn bushes?) when compared with, to name another example, the Renaissance masters’ authentically heroic visions that still touch me to the core.

And so it’s precisely that tradition which is the subject of the current exhibition at Gallery 6000, titled “Legacy of the Masters: Frank Dale and His Students.” For the first time, the walls of Gallery 6000 exude a consistently distinct aura of traditional, classic elegance. In as much as the show is a stunning homage to pictorial styles that some (maybe many?) consider dead or irrelevant, it is also a tribute to Massillon artist and teacher Frank Dale, and his passionate preservation of the oil painting method called the Flemish Technique. The method, based upon thinly-applied oil paint glazes of varying transparencies to achieve lustrous colors and startling naturalism, was originally perfected by several Renaissance wizards such as Jan Van Eyck. By 1991, after painstakingly researching, formulating, and mastering a workable system of reproducing the technique, Mr. Dale began teaching it to his private students with - as evidenced by this show – marvelous results.

The list of raw materials that Dale researched and reformulated for his mediums conjures ghosts from an alchemist’s laboratory with its exotic inventory of secret resins and obscure materials including Amber, Balsam, Copal, Mastic, and Venetian Turpentine. Passing on the formula of these elements, combined with his clearly successful guidance in understanding efficacious composition and color dynamics, Dale set a high bar for his students, and elicited from them an astonishingly beautiful collection of works, masterful in their own right.

Along with several arresting and spectacular works by Dale, the show includes paintings by 22 students (a substantial number of them already accomplished professionals familiar to local art viewers) ranging from adolescents to senior citizens. They are: Cynthia Capestrain, Megan Farabee, Kathy Israel, Nick Jessup, Jack Keeliher, Deborah Kohler, Mary Lange, Pam LaRocco, Kit Lupsor, Jen Madaffer, Nicole Miller, Myrna Myllius, Michelle Mulligan, Erin Mulligan, Tricia Oyster, Jake Rinkes, Debra Thompson, Dan Wilkey, Christine Williams, Lisa Woods, Kris Wyler, and Kirsten Zirngibl. Rest assured that every one of these laudable painters offers something considerably more than merely fledgling efforts at a very challenging procedure. Dale has said that by closely observing and copying the past, he wants his students to feel like they’ve walked in the Old Masters’ shoes. And indeed his students wear them well. There’s deeply alluring magic afoot here – from charming and whimsical, to mystical and dramatic.

This is one gloriously sumptuous exhibit, and a resounding declaration that the future of painting – at least for these artists - could still be a symbolic, relevant, and reverential journey to Eden’s gate. Call it the fervent pursuit of incorruptible beauty.

Photo: “Leitzel,” oil, by Frank Dale. On view through June 24 at Gallery 6000, located in the dining room of The University Center, Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. OPENING RECEPTION on TUESDAY, APRIL 19, 5:30p.m. – 7:30p.m. Please RSVP to Becky DeHart at 330-244-3518 or

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Phantastic Fauna

Phantastic Fauna

By Tom Wachunas

On more than a few occasions I have seen “Surreal Pop” or “Pop Surrealism” in reference to Erin Mulligan’s paintings. Those descriptors are understandable enough (even though her work has nothing to do with Pop Art per se), but somehow still inadequate in getting at the esthetic essence of her work. The original Surrealists, cousins of a sort to the Dadaists, were in some ways anarchists and iconoclasts at heart, Surrealism being as much an attitude and lifestyle as it was a brand of visual content or process. And some of the true pioneers of the movement, given to producing meandering reactionary manifestos on the condition of human existence, were just plain nuts.

As far as I can tell, Erin Mulligan – among our region’s most accomplished artists - is as level-headed an individual as I’ve ever met, is no anarchist, and has written no meandering manifestos, inflammatory or otherwise. She does, however, exhibit much of the same astonishing technique and fertile imagination as some of my favorite Surrealist painters – Dali and Magritte coming immediately to mind. Additionally, as I was reminded when I saw the framed oils and mixed media works in her current show at Market Street Art Spot in Minerva, her uncanny mastery of drawing and painting technique raises unmistakable connections to the Old European Masters. Strip away the specific pictorial eccentricities of subject matter in Mulligan’s delightful paintings, and you really do end up with a traditionalist of the first order, even if her brand of content is somewhat weighted with Surrealist sensibilities. And in this postmodern art milieu of often baffling celebrations of ugliness, hers is a beautifully refreshing – and I think accessible - body of work.

So is there a way to handily categorize her esthetic when encountering, say, her oil painting called “Air Raid,” with parachuted catfish afloat in a churning, dark sky on fire, or “In a World of Harts, Broccoli is King”? Here, two antlered bucks with fish tails (‘harts’ being the Old English word for male deer, as Mulligan so graciously informed me) hover in an airy, heraldic setting. Even the frame, as in many of her oil paintings, has a distinctly classical elegance that somehow makes the strange creatures living inside perfectly logical. It’s art true to itself.

An unexpected surprise in this show are the 17 small (roughly 8”x10”) pencil drawings with acrylic color washes, all populated by Mulligan’s unique, morphed (or anthropomorphized) animals, reading like illustrations for a parallel universe fairy tale. Absolutely charming, even as they are occasionally, gently mischievous. I like to think of her work - with its wild embellishments and strange dramas more quirky than really threatening - as Baroque Zoological Phantasms.

Any way you unpack this mesmerizing menagerie, the paintings are supremely memorable, eminently intriguing visions.

Photo: “Gardener, Don’t Track Down the Gardener, You Might Not Like Him After All,” pencil and acrylic wash, by Erin Mulligan. On view through April at Market Street Art Spot, 219 N. Market Street, downtown Minerva. Gallery hours are Noon to 8 p.m Friday and Saturday.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Troubled Life of Blue Roses

The Troubled Life of Blue Roses

By Tom Wachunas

For those either unfamiliar with, or too-long out of touch with Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” be forewarned. This memory play is a drama more chilly than heartwarming, even as it embraces complicated matters of the heart both romantic and otherwise, with the emotional brunt of it occupying the ‘otherwise’ territory. Still, while it certainly doesn’t provide very many niceties of feel-good escapism, it is - as I was strongly reminded by the current production on the Fine Arts Theatre stage at Kent State University at Stark- an intriguing (at times riveting) and substantially engaging story about three members of a broken family living worlds apart under the same roof.

The story unfolds in late 1930s St. Louis, in the modest apartment occupied by Amanda Wingfield and her two grown children, Tom and Laura. The father abandoned the family years ago, leaving Amanda – a faded flower of Southern gentility - largely dependent on Tom’s job in a shoe warehouse for income. She’s obsessed with high hopes that a “gentleman caller” – like the moneyed dozens she constantly recalls from before her marriage – will woo and win her daughter’s hand. Meanwhile Laura, unemployed and handicapped with a limp due to childhood pleurosis, is a hopelessly shy, frail young woman given to shining and staring at her collection of tiny glass animal figurines. Tom, an aspiring poet, narrates the story, addressing the audience from the alley and fire escape landing outside the apartment. He’s a dreamer too, frustrated with a confining job and home life, and prone to long nights out drinking or at the movie house, all the while desperate for any adventure that would release him from the grips of poverty and his controlling mother. Late in the play he facilitates a dinner visit to the apartment from his effervescent and ambitious co-worker, Jim O’Connor (who in high school had mis-heard Laura’s ailment and nicknamed her ‘Blue Roses’), raising his mother’s expectations of a successful match for Laura. But it was not to be, much to Amanda and Laura’s chagrin.

This production is directed by Brian Newberg, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Theatre Director at Kent Stark, and his sharp ensemble cast brings this sobering story to life with notable depth and sensitivity. In the role of Tom, Bryant Campbell sometimes speaks too quickly, or perhaps non-distinctly, and some lines fade away, unclear. But he’s nonetheless fascinating to watch as he negotiates the tensions within his character – protective of his sister, adversarial toward his mother, and dreaming of lofty, artful things, yet apparently unable or unwilling to soothe the raw reality of sadness in the household around him. As Jim, Jeremy Jenkins is very effective as something of an opposite – suave, self-assured, infectiously optimistic, and genuinely tender and encouraging toward Laura. In that role, even though Danielle Price has the smallest speaking role, her elegant and subtle performance successfully communicates the nuances of her private heart opening up, if only for a brief while, to the possibilities of being confident in herself and finding real, meaningful contact with another. Like her menagerie, she’s gentle and transparent. Hurting no one, she’s the most vulnerable and in many ways the most misunderstood member of this hapless family.

In her compelling portrayal of Amanda, Marci Paolucci is on one level the character we love to hate. She’s utterly credible in her appearance of genteel etiquette while being shamelessly manipulative and maddeningly self-involved with memories of her idyllic youth. Yet hiding behind this flawed mask of manners, and her denial of the circumstances before her, is an authentically wounded soul willing to go to any length for the happiness of her children.

In as much as the play certainly contains darker autobiographical shadings of the playwright’s past (the subject of much scholarly commentary and analysis), it continues to resonate as an intense if not ambivalent glimpse at societal dysfunctions still very much in our midst. No heroic white knights to the rescue, no blissfully tidy answers. And so it is that this production is a vigorously well-crafted rendering of art imitating some of life’s more vexing ghosts.

Photo: Danielle Price as Laura (left) and Marci Paolucci as Amanda in the Kent State University at Stark production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Shows are on April 15 and 16 at 8 p.m., April 17 at 2:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts Theatre, located in the Fine Arts building, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Tickets $10 adults, $5 students under 17 and senior citizens. Call the Theatre Box Office at (330) 244 – 3348, Monday – Friday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Delicacies both Moving and Movable

Delicacies both Moving and Movable

By Tom Wachunas

For this season’s Cameo Concerts series, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) offers a new format for the first time. The traditionally smaller chamber orchestra has been expanded to 31 pieces, and three consecutive concerts transpire at three separate venues – the Players Guild Theatre mainstage in Canton on April 8, Louisville Middle School on April 9, and Lions Lincoln Theatre in Massillon on April 10. This is certainly a refreshing stepping out into Stark County, and one that will hopefully win the hearts of those previously unfamiliar with the depth and virtuosity of this marvelous orchestra.

Refreshing, too, is the program, under the distinctly frisky baton of CSO Associate Conductor Matthew Brown. It’s a program that seems to have built into it a subtly heralding spirit of spring after a particularly brutal winter in these parts. Beginning with the Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn, at the April 8 performance the strings, with characteristically seamless and voluptuous blending, flawlessly conjured the work’s mystical evocations of wind-swept cliffs and ocean mists hovering above rolling waves.

The second work on the program – Valse Triste (Sad Waltz) by Jean Sibelius – is a brief, haunting meditation with just a hint of dark, foreboding undercurrents. Once again the strings exhibited breathtaking dynamics in capturing the work’s shifts from eerie, silken whispers into moments of strange, shadowy ebullience.

A consistently more overt joyousness is dominant throughout the third work, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1. It was the composer’s youthful nod to Haydn (hence the symphony’s “Classical” appellation). And here the orchestra rose to the occasion with infectious verve and clarity. From the lilting, dance-like first movement, through the pastoral second, and into the whimsical charm of the third, the orchestra was the personification of unfettered optimism as it launched into the idyllic, galloping fourth movement. Particularly memorable are the playfully shimmering and intricate passages with accents from bassoons, flutes and oboe. Indeed, the whole work is a rich tapestry of lavish, tightly interwoven textures that that the orchestra delivered with bedazzling precision.

If there was one shortcoming (though by no means disastrous) in all of this, it was the occasional lack of low-range in the aural resonance of the music. This may be partly due to the acoustics of the Players Guild space, but more likely attributable to the presence of only one bass in the orchestra. Still, it was for the most part a fleeting flaw and, interestingly enough, not too noticeable in the final work, Mozart’s monumental Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”). Remarkably, there were many moments throughout the performance of this phenomenon of symphonic genius wherein the orchestra soared so fully that one might have thought nearly twice the number of pieces were on stage. All told it was a stunning, crisp performance of an iconic masterpiece, effectively embracing all its dignity, grace, and mellifluent melodic power.

This was one eminently satisfying evening that could rightfully be called a movable feast of orchestral delights.

Performances are tonight, April 9, 7:00 p.m. at Louisville Middle School, 1300 S. Chapel Street, Louisville, Tickets $10 and $15 / Also Sunday, April 10 at 3:00 p.m. at Lions Lincoln Theatre, 156 Lincoln Way E., downtown Massillon, Tickets $10, or $15 for concert plus post-concert reception at the Massillon Club.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bridging the Gap?

Bridging the Gap

By Tom Wachunas

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
- Rudyard Kipling –

Except, of course, in the NFL. Kelli Young’s April 4 front-page article in The Repository cites downtown Canton’s dearth of visual football-ness amid the “…buoyant sculptures, coupled with some 40 other pieces of art, four art galleries, 22 artist studios and Friday night parties…” While it’s true that the revitalization of downtown Canton over the past several years owes much to its greatly-heralded arts ‘Renaissance,’ the article reminds us that “…some residents wonder, shouldn’t Canton finally capitalize on its national identity as the cradle of professional football?”

The upshot of Young’s reportage is that considerations of new visual projects that would communicate and celebrate Canton’s “football lineage” have been in the air for years. After reading the article, my sense is that there have been lots of fumbled balls and dropped passes in that regard, and certainly no remarkably significant scoring in the red-zone of downtown Canton.Yet. Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, is aware that it’s a hot-button issue, observing in the article that, “There is a kind of roaring debate going on in the arts community about should we do public art around a football theme, or is Canton already football-saturated?” You might recall (as does the article) Hankins’ 2009 idea for installing 15 “jaw-dropping” football-themed public artworks, an idea which is currently being “tweaked.” This is hopefully good news, if for no other reason than that the thought walking out of a downtown business into an oversized pair of bronze athlete’s hands, rising from a sidewalk and reaching for an imaginary pass, is more silly (and nightmarish?) than tastefully commemorative.

It seems to me that the divisive nature of this “issue” is not really so much about arts community versus everybody else (which includes those “some residents” who would like to see more evidence of Canton’s football legacy). It’s about a town hungry for, indeed desperate for, an identity of the sort that would make it a desirable, reasonably entertaining, and sustainable destination for both residents and visitors. There is certainly every reason to believe that public art can – and does - contribute to nurturing and advertising that identity. And to be fair and frank - as a citizen, artist, and commentator - I think downtown Canton has more than enough contemporary “buoyant sculptures” and painted trash cans posing as attractive public art. Canton is many things to many people, certainly. In our local culture seeking to proclaim an integrated, dynamic identity, it’s both arrogant and needlessly adversarial to reject out-of-hand the idea of public art honoring our contribution to the world of sports.

I’m reminded that the ancient Greeks, among others, got it right when it came to fostering astonishingly beautiful public art and architecture that was a collectively harmonious declaration of an entire culture, embracing ALL its beloved pursuits – intellectual, spiritual, scientific, and yes, athletic. Not that we’ll ever approach anything even close to the nobility and glory of classical Athens, but the last thing Canton needs, downtown or elsewhere, is another architectural fiasco like that red-orange monstrosity of a bridge that spans I-77 at Belden Village (pictured here). Regardless of our passion for sports one way or the other, it’s more a garish embarrassment than any memorable declaration of pride in the National Football Hall of Fame. I continually wonder about the depth of experience, and qualifications in aesthetic matters, of those who oversee the content, placement, frequency, and distribution of the public art works we encounter around here. Do we have the visionary decision-makers in place who can consistently foster public art of unquestionable quality and repute, art that is important and relevant not just to Canton’s history and interests, but inspiring to all who see it? A tall, maybe even impossible order, to be sure.

Still, whoever they are, or are yet to be, we can nevertheless hope they will aspire to exercising reasonable balance and moderation in this challenging endeavor. In presenting (for both local and national attention) a vision of what we in Canton hold as most fair and indicative of our overall cultural accomplishments and pursuits, a heroic statue of Jim Thorpe in Central Plaza, for example, is still somewhat more preferable than another rusting animal.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Most Curious Morgue

A Most Curious Morgue

By Tom Wachunas

As explained in Craig Joseph’s curator’s statement, the premise for the current exhibit at Anderson Creative – “The Exquisite Corpse” – springs from the gamesome Surrealist processes of old. Specifically, one practice was to have three artists produce, on a single piece of paper, an image of a human body. The first would render a head, then fold the paper so as to reveal just enough visual starting point for the second artist to make a torso and fold the paper down again, leaving the third artist to provide the legs. As bizarre as the resultant pieces usually were (as they certainly are in this show, and delightfully so), these studio games were nonetheless invigorating evidence of Surrealism’s embrace of blind chance and pure intuition in making a ‘finished’ work.

In this contemporary application of the premise, there are 16 pieces, by 48 randomly grouped artists from around the country, working in a wide array of media. One brilliant twist to the exhibit was an almost eleventh-hour curatorial decision to eschew conventional display of the pieces. Rather than being hung on the walls of the gallery, the works are laid out horizontally on thin particle board slabs that jut out from the walls. Consequently, I felt not so much like a typical gallery viewer in a traditional sense as, somewhat eerily, a visitor, or maybe even a forensic doctor, in a hospital or mortuary ward, circling and peering across, then down at the ‘bodies,’ then up at the accompanying wall-mounted clipboards - each body’s ‘chart.’ Ironically enough, though, the overall sensibility that these particular corpses exude is more subtly mirthful than overtly morbid - a giddy anarchy of arch anatomies.

In assessing these works individually as unique, integrated objects, keep in mind that, in formal qualities of execution or technique, they are unified more by the motive and process behind their making than by consistently applied rules of pictorial composition. In fact there are many wildly disparate hybrids – part animal, part mechanical, part human- ranging from the whimsical and childlike to the wryly fantastic. What we see is the result of serendipity, really.

It is only uncanny luck of the draw, for example, that the all- pastel work on blue-gray paper comprised of Ted Lawson’s compelling skull atop Beth Nash’s haunting torso (like a mummy unraveling), in turn atop Bobby Rosenstock’s rope-bound legs, appears almost to be the work of a single artist. Most of the other pieces are relatively, and not surprisingly, disjointed. For all of that, though, many pieces here are nonetheless engaging for the sheer technical skill, and the often comical theatricality, of their individual parts. In one, the hilarious legs painted by Erin Mulligan are those of meowing cats, whose front paws are attached to spindly, bird-feet stilts. In another, the torso by Jamie Stegner is an exquisite, clever pencil rendering of clocks as arms and a rib cage made of watchbands. Equally exquisite is Katherine Cox’s drawing of a head - made of small, faceted gray stones - that seems to be exploding, or invaded by streams of escaping green leaves.

What resonates most in this show is a collective spirit of random, experimental frolic – its pure and unfettered fun. Some of these works, these “corpses,” look clearly raw and spontaneous, others more studied and refined. But none of them is too macabre. And none speaks from any seriously horrific grave. I’m pleasantly reminded that gravity’s opposite is, after all, comedy.

Photo: a collaborative pastel “corpse” by Ted Lawson (head), Beth Nash (torso), and Bobby Rosenstock (legs), on view in “The Elegant Corpse” at Anderson Creative, through April 30, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m. (closed Good Friday and Holy Saturday).
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