Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Relishing A Regional Legacy, Part 1 of...

Relishing A Regional Legacy, Part 1 of…?

By Tom Wachunas 

    “With watercolour, you can’t cover up the marks. There’s the story of the construction of the picture, and then the picture might tell another story as well.” – David Hockney –

    “Where oils lumber…watercolours prance.”  - Doug Mays –

    “Watercolor is the first and the last thing an artist does.”  - Willem de Kooning-

EXHIBITION: The Cleveland School: Watercolor and Clay, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 10, 2013, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666

    This breathtaking exhibition surely rates more than one post. Consider this one, then, as a general introduction, with installments to follow over the next few weeks.

    Sometime during my adolescence I acquired the mistaken notion that painting in watercolor was strictly a training exercise, or a medium one graduated from in the pursuit of loftier, more “relevant” painting media. Watercolors were for amateur dabblers, I thought.

   My youthful arrogance was promptly extinguished after the crash-and-burn disaster of my first serious collegiate attempt at a watercolor landscape. I fared no better with several following efforts, though I eventually managed to produce a few remarkably mediocre pictures. That experience - coupled with a deeper study of watercolors by such artists as Albrecht Durer, J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, Charles Burchfield and John Marin (among many others) – was humbling. Thus were planted the seeds of real respect for accomplished watercolorists.

    When I returned to live in Stark County in early 1992, it seemed to me that an unusually large number of painters on the local gallery scene (pitifully sparse as it was at that time) were watercolorists. Only after several months did I learn that the mysterious ‘OWS’ that accompanied many of the signatures on their works stood for Ohio Watercolor Society, founded in 1978.  During the ensuing years, the apparent passion for and practice of watercolor painting in these parts has not significantly waned, even to the extent that at one point I viewed Stark County – indeed Canton -  as some sort of watercolor Mecca. Further supporting my perception was the realization that along with contemporary ceramics, the primary focus of the Canton Museum of Art’s (CMA) impressive permanent collection is American watercolors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    As this new CMA exhibit makes clear, watercolor painting is an intrinsic part of our region’s aesthetic DNA.  Fully embracing this fact necessarily begins with examining the emergence of the Cleveland School. The term is not a reference to a single academic structure or campus per se. It is rather a general description of a very diverse, expanding sphere of artists – many of them historically significant - who both gravitated toward and emanated from Cleveland’s influential art institutions, working from the late 19th century and forward into the 1960s, throughout a region that ultimately spanned hundreds of miles.

    This commanding show, comprised of exquisite works from the CMA permanent collection as well as from regional museums and significant private collections, merits close attention. To better inform your viewing experience, I highly recommend reading the excellent catalogue essay by William H. Robinson of the Cleveland Museum of Art, which can be found on the CMA website (posted above) or in CMA’s Vignette, a free publication available at the museum. Consider the essay, like the exhibit, as a journey into an important legacy.

    PHOTO: Cleveland, watercolor by Moses Pearl, courtesy of Rachel Davis



Monday, December 17, 2012

Dreaming of a Sense-full Christmas

Dreaming of a Sense-full Christmas

By Tom Wachunas 

    Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

   “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  -Genesis 4:9 –

    Until at least after Christmas Day I will be fasting. Fasting from writing about new local art doings; from mining the meaning or impact of this or that exhibit; from my often too-obsessive pursuit of the role of art critic. Such use of my time just now, in light of the recent mind-numbing horror that unfolded in Connecticut, feels simply too unimportant and selfish. Instead I have been praying.

    I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that I feel prompted to share with you what you’re about to read, coming as it does on the heels of my preceding post. But it’s an irony hopefully more timely, nourishing, and palatable than it is bitter.

    Speaking of irony, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard the word ‘senseless’ paired with the killings that transpired on December 14. I do understand how an act of this awful magnitude – criminal, insane, or both - can confound our ability to effectively translate our hurt, grief and anger into “mere words.”

     But here’s where I think the terrible irony of our descriptive vocabulary comes into play. To the extent that this fallen world chooses to continually remain outside God’s plan to gather it eternally to Himself through the Lordship of Jesus Christ, to that extent such acts as the one that took place in Connecticut aren’t really ‘senseless’ at all. For as simplistic if not cold as this may sound to some of you, I think such events are the understandable and yes, tragically sensible, cumulative outcomes (or perhaps monstrous ripple effects, if you will, like a tsunami after an earthquake) of separation from Christ.

   I am certainly NOT saying that the victims of this or any other human atrocity are being necessarily judged as ungodly and forever damned, or that they are merely the hapless recipients of sufferings arbitrarily inflicted by a cruel and menacing God. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:19-22), Paul perceived all of creation to be in a state of urgent expectation “for the sons of God to be revealed.” He went on to describe the created universe “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” I believe that Paul’s “present time” was a foreshadowing of our present time as well.

    It is indeed a time of desperate seeking to understand the why of human cruelty and suffering, the why of unleashed moral depravity and sheer evil. It is a time when our best thinking, in and of itself and unaided by God, can produce no true hope. It is a time when I, along with many others, pray constantly for our world to be born anew, with and into Christ. It is a time to stop shaking clenched fists at a God mistakenly perceived to be absent from us.

    May we all then, in the name of Jesus, with open hands and hearts, humbly receive His love and peace that surpasses our knowledge and understanding.

    Photo: This year’s edition of my Christmas card. 





Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Enthralling Substance of Divine Purpose

The Enthralling Substance of Divine Purpose

By Tom Wachunas

    “When we understand God’s purpose, we will not become small-minded and cynical. Jesus prayed nothing less for us than absolute oneness with Himself, just as He was one with the Father. Some of us are far from this oneness; yet God will not leave us alone until we are one with Him – because Jesus prayed, ‘…that they all may be one…’ ”  - Oswald Chambers -  

    EXHIBITION: Pursuit: God’s Chase After Humankind, paintings by Sharon Charmley, with complementary work by Tim Carmany, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH DECEMBER 29 / 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / Gallery hours are Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

    This time it’s personal. Rarely have I encountered a painting exhibition so splendidly harmonious with my world view (and certainly not one of my invention) as this one is. For here is an artist who has, in this treacherous era of moral relativism, the inspired temerity to speak a profound truth too often forgotten or tragically denied: God’s unwavering desire, in and through the person of Jesus Christ, to gather humanity to himself.

    Charmley doesn’t render God’s “chase” in the literal or historic sense that we routinely encounter in traditional Western culture iconography. Her paintings are instead wholly (holy?) engaging, often gripping narratives set in modern contexts, populated by ordinary-looking citizens of the contemporary world.

    These are not your garden-variety Bible illustrations, so to speak. Adam and Eve – white male, black female – are the epitome of self-possessed youthfulness. The Holy Spirit is presented at the baptism of Jesus not as the proverbial dove, but as a cloud from which emerges a wise-looking old woman who becomes progressively younger as she comes closer to her son. Bald-headed Jesus (a working-class hero, to be sure) - fasting and sorely tempted in the desert -  struggles, weeps, then surrenders to his mission. An adulteress is portrayed as a male abortion clinic doctor facing one of the Pharisee accusers - a woman arrogantly waving a Bible – while off to the side Jesus stoops to write with chalk on the concrete, “A SIN IS A SIN.”

   Charmley’s brush is a highly facile and expressive one, imbuing her style of  realism with visceral immediacy. Given the elevated character of her subject matter, call it a refined urgency.  

    The reverse spray paintings on glass by Tim Carmany are a fitting accompaniment to this compelling suite of paintings. Each of Carmany’s window panes bears Biblical verses relevant to Charmley’s painted episode, along with the image of a Celtic knot. Text and knot appear to float, casting a shadow on the wall behind – surely a metaphor for both the spirit and palpable substance of Scripture. The inclusion of the mystical knots is a brilliant allusion to the eternal God who has no beginning and no end – the Alpha and Omega from Revelation 1:8.

    The powerful appeal of Charmley’s work is further enhanced by her insightful writings contained in the printed brochure provided to viewers – a spiritual guided tour of the exhibit. Therein the artist generously shares her thoughts on the Biblical events she has depicted. For example, in addressing her painting of Adam and Eve clothed in the animal skins supplied by God, she muses, “…It is easy for me to forget that the Lord had to kill something that was created, in holy goodness, in order to make clothing for the humans. This is a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice.”

    Charmley’s questions and interpretations are neither radical rewritings of Scripture nor arbitrary redefinitions – as if the Bible needs any “updating.” While her commentaries are intensely and refreshingly personal, they certainly don’t signal doubt, but rather an accessible, passionate arguing from certainty.

    In as much as this show is a declaration of her faith, I see it also as an eloquent invitation for all of us to embrace the immutable Truth it imparts. More than just skillfully executed scenes, this work constitutes a marvelous visual epistle.

     Now more than ever it is a message for our time, meant for those - by the grace of our triune God -  with the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Merry Christmas.

    Photos (from top): Trinity / 40 Days: Wrestling, Grieving, Letting Go / Whoever Is Without Sin

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Finesse and Fury from the Canton Symphony

Finesse and Fury from the Canton Symphony

By Tom Wachunas

    It is always something of a letdown when Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann doesn’t preface a program selection at a Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert with his special brand of wit, sardonic or otherwise. Ever the engaging raconteur, he didn’t disappoint on the occasion of the December 2 performance at Umstattd Hall.

    One of the unique elements in this concert, billed as Audience Choice, was that the three program selections were chosen from a list voted upon by loyal CSO subscribers. The list consisted of three overtures, three piano concertos, and three symphonies which Zimmermann offered for consideration at the end of last season. The winning  selection for the first work on the program was Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie).

    In his introduction, Zimmermann told a story as riotously spirited as the overture itself. He recounted how a certain Texas orchestra routinely started all of its concerts with the U.S. National Anthem. Like the Rossini overture, it begins with a military snare drum roll. But on the single occasion when the anthem was dropped from the program, the orchestra instead launched immediately into the Rossini overture. At the sound of the familiar drum roll, the audience dutifully and promptly stood at attention, ready to sing. At the sound of the second drum roll (the Rossini overture begins with three of them), the audience just as promptly sat down, clearly perplexed.

     The raucous laughter elicited by Zimmermann’s storytelling was the perfect overture, as it were, to the overture. Zimmermann’s reading of Rossini’s rambunctious, spritely energy was in turn thoroughly enlivening, and the orchestra responded in kind with captivating vivacity.

    The atmosphere for the remainder of the evening shifted progressively into a  more searing emotional climate, beginning with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. Right from the opening moments of the turbulent first movement, guest soloist Sara Davis Buechner was clearly caught up in the work’s dramatic thrall. As if animated by the spirit of Mozart himself, she seemed to speak the music, breathing fresh new life into its many contrasts of mood - alternately child-like, majestic and stormy, yet always genuinely piquant.

     Mozart’s tight control of form and melody in this work is such that the soloist has nowhere to hide. There are no overstated decorations, no allowances for gratuitous pyrotechnics except, perhaps, in the first movement cadenza. Mozart left none for this concerto. So here, Buechner’s own cadenza was a brilliant convergence of astonishing technical prowess with riveting emotional thrust, reminiscent of Beethoven at his most impassioned. And throughout the entire work, the interplay between orchestra and pianist was superbly attuned to the work’s utterly sublime clarity of texture.

    Once again, Zimmermann addressed the audience, expressing his surprise at the subscribers’ majority vote to hear the evening’s final selection, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor. While he considered the evening’s first two choices “…rather predictable,” he was flummoxed by this choice, adding, “I had thought you would have selected Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.”

    Flummoxed or not, Zimmermann poured himself into this performance as surely as Rachmaninoff poured a plethora of musical ideas into this quintessentially Russian symphony. Dazzlingly dramatic, the work is both a collision and a melding of delicacy and sweetness with relentless bombast. The orchestra rose to the event with a stunning display of razor-sharp clarity, tender lyricism, and startlingly explosive power.

    While this was certainly not a go-gently-into-the-night finale, it was nonetheless an eminently memorable and gratifying one.

    Photo: Concert Pianist Sara Davis Buechner


Friday, November 30, 2012

A Sojourn Most Sublime

A Sojourn Most Sublime

By Tom Wachunas

    “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange –

    “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” – Ansel Adams –

    Exhibit: Panasia – Photographs by Stephen McNulty / Cyrus Gallery, 2645 Cleveland Ave. NW, Canton, Ohio (330)452-9787 /    

    Two of the above links are to past commentaries about the work of photographer Stephen McNulty. I’ve provided them for those as yet unfamiliar with his art, as well as to remind the already initiated that I was passionately supportive of his vision and skills. And now, after seeing his current show at Cyrus (which will likely remain on view for a few more weeks), I’m happy to report that my passion remains not only undiminished, but greatly augmented.

    I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I think it bears repeating here. I’m still profoundly astonished by those who consider photography as somehow a lesser or “easy” form of artistic expression (and there are those unfortunates still among us) when compared to, say, masterful painting of the Representational sort. It seems to me that such an assessment may in large part be fueled by the ubiquitous presence of photography in our culture – the staggering volume of photographic imagery that assaults us daily. From that perspective, we can understandably become jaded and complacent, filtering out everything from our attention but  what we actually choose to really see and discern as aesthetically interesting, of a relevant documentary nature, or both.  And even then, as Sturgeon’s Amended Law once stipulated, 90% of everything is crap.

    More to the point, I have no doubt that the aesthetic character of McNulty’s imagery is quite simply unassailable. The sheer scope and caliber of his art can in large part be fairly placed alongside that of the most distinguished practitioners of the form both past and present.

    Like any master painter of visible realities, McNulty possesses an unerring and disciplined eye for elegant formal composition, an uncanny color sensibility, and an inspired appreciation of varying textures and atmosphere. He doesn’t merely “take pictures” but instead seems to discover and embrace them, intuitively recognizing how and when to best frame the elements of a thoroughly compelling pictorial experience for the viewer. And he does so without ever making his photographs come off as contrived or artificial.

    This collection is a wondrous record of McNulty’s four-month journey in 2011 to far-flung locales that include Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, Thailand and Cambodia, and Polynesia. Subject matters are richly varied – portraits, landscapes, interiors, architectural settings. All are imbued with a deep and ineffable sense of history and soul. Even his smaller, black and white portraits manage to exude a kind of lyrical warmth and serene timelessness.

    Each photograph is accompanied by a narrative – brief but eloquent, and just revelatory enough as to what makes McNulty so responsive to his subjects. He’s surely a Romantic and an impassioned preservationist at heart. While his photographs are potent translations of his awe and reverence for what he encountered, I dare say they inspire the same in us. Breathtaking and breath giving.

    PHOTOS: (from top) Girl at Chinese Festival / Boy and Ruins / Bamboo Ascending


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bricolage and Brio

Bricolage and Brio

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBITION: About Face, featuring artists Sharon Dulabaum and Laurie Fife Harbert, at The Little Art Gallery, THROUGH DECEMBER 2. Located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton.  (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312

    In the lexicon of art categorization, the work of Laurie Fife Harbert is a good example of the “outsider”  aesthetic. Formally untrained in the traditional sense, she has nonetheless unquestioningly surrendered to the proverbial Muse, as she points out in her statement for this show. She also lets us know that many of her works embody “inside jokes” or narratives. “The inspiration for a piece,” she writes, “often known to me and only a few others, is often subtly alluded to in the titles of my work, like a spy speaking in a code known only to a select few, secretly offered up in plain sight.” Hmmm. Sounds suspiciously like the modus operandi of numerous postmodern artists.

   Actually, I’m not sure the allusions in her titles are all that subtle, as their connections to what we in fact see are often fairly obvious. Cocoa the Kid, for example, like many of her pieces, is an anthropomorphic rendering of found objects, this one using a Hershey’s Cocoa can for the abdomen. And Angel Amphora is just that – a small, graceful jar that looks like an angel ornament you might see in a curio cabinet. From that perspective, these pieces are all a perfectly appropriate fit for the Little Art Gallery’s built-in glass display cases.

    Harbert’s brand of bricolage (assemblage of found or collected materials on hand) is elegantly ornamental and well crafted, even if infused with a sometimes overly-precious domesticity. This is certainly not to say that her decorations are totally without depth.

     Among the more engaging objects, both in title and content, is Xander has No Father. It’s also one of Harbert’s smallest pieces and, unfortunately, woefully ill-placed at the bottom of the case. Still, for those limber enough to hunker down for a better view, the work exudes a whimsical if not surreal intrigue (not unlike a few others in this collection) reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages from the mid-twentieth century. Even though Harbert doesn’t regularly employ Cornell’s shadow box format, his own thoughts on the matter seem nonetheless relevant to the overall character of Harbert’s work: “Shadow boxes become poetic theaters or settings wherein are metamorphosed the element of a childhood pastime.”

    The title of this show - Face to Face -  is no doubt largely derived from the paintings by Sharon Dulabaum. Her collection here of 24 works is a somewhat uneven gathering of portraits (animal and human) that would have been well-served by some judicious editing. Dulabaum is a multi-faceted painter – a polystylist – who has truly mastered some pictorial formats and languages while seeming to greatly struggle with others.

     In some ways it’s hard to believe that the same artist who gives us the wondrously gorgeous oils, Beth and Angel (a cat lounging in mesmerizing rays of light), can also offer such unresolved experiments as her colored pencil and watercolor portraits, Youth, and Young Girl. In works like these two, her passion for visual textures, saturated, rich color, and layered mark-making is clear. But these elements don’t so much meld seamlessly as they collide and clutter, making the picture plane a bit too soupy and unfocused. Such spontaneous, visual affectations are relatively more successful in her watercolor and pencil portrait, Margarita Girl.

    There’s also a delightful spirit of spontaneity at work in her uncomplicated oil painting, Snow Buddies – a bird’s-eye-view of two dogs on long leashes, walking in the snow. Quiet yet lively, like her best works in this collection, and for that matter like many of Harbert’s assemblages, it’s a charming and earnest homage to simple pleasures and moments.

    PHOTOS: (Top) Margarita Girl by Sharon Dulabaum / Presto the Sad Clown by Laurie Fife Harbert


Monday, November 12, 2012



By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBITION: Mechanic/Organic: The Meeting of Danny Saathoff and Annette Yoho Feltes, at Translations Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH DECEMBER 1. Viewing hours are Noon to 9 pm Wednesdays, Noon to 5 pm Thursdays- Saturdays. 

    “…There is something very special in being able to sublimate your unconscious, and something very painful in the access to it. But there is no escape from it, and no escape from access once it is given to you, once you are favored with it, whether you want it or not…”  - artist Louise Bourgeois -

    Both of the artists here, working in mixed media assemblage and/or sculpture, use their raw materials to achieve similarly intriguing cognitive as well as emotional resonances. The formal appearances of their works, however, are quite divergent.

    Meticulously combining found metal hardware and aged wood, the elegant pieces by Danny Saathoff are physically precise constructions embedded with clock-like mechanics.  Several of his kinetic assemblages are interactive, instructing viewers to activate their moving parts by winding a wheel or pulling on a cable. There’s a delightfully whimsical energy and the patina of a bygone era about them, suggestive of antique games or toys.

     Weights shift, gears rotate, chains crawl, forms flutter or roll – sometimes against drawn/painted landscape imagery.  Extrapolating “meaning” from these works is a matter of how much real time you’re willing to spend looking at the interconnected parts and letting them draw you inward to their temporal spirit. Indeed, the overarching sensibility is an allegorical one - a reflection on the subtleties of slow change in the passage of time. You could perhaps call them symbolic 3D diagrams of balanced dichotomies – nature and industry, chaos and order, predictability and randomness, movement and stillness.

    Though clearly not as overtly kinetic as Saathoff’s, the new works here by Annette Yoho Feltes nonetheless seem to address ‘movement’ of a kind – in this case, flux within the human psyche and its concomitant emotional conditions.  In varying combinations of stone, clay, wood, metal and found materials, her forms are at once familiar and ambiguous, accessible and obtuse, friendly and threatening, and often imbued with surreal  humor. These are visceral and, I would guess, intensely self-reflective symbols of psychological and/or spiritual states – highly tactile celebrations of certainty as well as declarations of doubt.  

    It’s the complementary nature of these two bodies of work that makes this aptly titled show so deeply satisfying -  Saathoff’s refined, intricate pictorial machines situated  with Feltes’ free-form sensuality. Yet both artists’ intuitive methodologies transcend the solid physicality of their materials to impart uniquely ephemeral and poetic visions.

    PHOTOS: Top, Mechanical Migration – Butterflies, By Danny Saathoff; Emerging by Annette Yoho Feltes     

Thursday, November 8, 2012

An Inspired Mahler 2nd from Canton Symphony

An Inspired Mahler 2nd from the Canton Symphony

By Tom Wachunas

    Gustav Mahler, Symphony No.2 (Resurrection): Christine Brandes (soprano), Lucille Beer (contralto), combined choruses, Canton Symphony Orchestra, Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 11/4/2012

    “…It struck me like a thunder bolt and everything stood clear and vivid before my soul. The creator waits for this lightning flash; this is his ‘holy annunciation’.” –Gustav Mahler-

    Looking back on the several years I’ve been reviewing performances by the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO), I don’t recall a concert (other than an opera) with just a single  work on the program. The November 4 concert featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (Resurrection), a stand-alone work if ever there was one. In his introductory comments, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann reverently reminded a very packed Umstattd Hall that the evening was dedicated to the memory of Rachel Renkert (1938-2007) - a beloved, seminal visionary in forming the CSO into the vibrant organization it is today. The Mahler was her favorite symphonic work.

    Zimmermann also asked that we hear the work as a total unit and to withhold our applause after the long first movement, which was followed by an intermission. Obliging Zimmermann’s request was difficult.  For the orchestra had just successfully delivered the electrifying and otherwise soul-rattling drama of Mahler’s outrage at the inevitability of death. The performance was one of those classically cathartic encounters that could cause one to approach total strangers, shake them unapologetically by the shoulders, and gush, “Do you believe what we just heard!?” And that was only the beginning.

    What followed the intermission continued to be a wondrously compelling rendition of Mahler’s intense probing of humanity’s most perplexing existential questions. The flawless, gently muted plucking of strings was utterly mesmerizing in the achingly graceful remembrance of life’s fleeting joys symbolized in the Andante movement. Then, in the Scherzo, the mood became subtly wicked as the orchestra played a bizarre waltz, effectively conveying frustration with the meaningless drudgeries of everyday life. With deeply lustrous, haunting tones, guest soloist Lucille Beer delivered a return to godly faith in the fourth movement contralto song, Urlicht (Primal Light).

    Soaring, crystalline soprano voicings by fellow guest soloist Christine Brandes made the choral finale of the fifth movement – Mahler’s ultimate embrace of hope and resurrection – all the more radiant. The movement’s hushed beginning swelled into a magnificently  sonorous declaration powered by the combined forces of five local choruses, numbering around 200 voices: Canton Symphony Chorus, Malone University Chorale, University of Mount Union Concert Choir, Walsh University Chamber Choir, and Wooster Chorus. Ye angels in the heavens, be jealous.

    Particularly remarkable throughout the evening was that ineffable unity of orchestral focus and purpose. You simply know it when you hear and indeed see it. This is a monumental work, sprawling in emotional and ideological scope, replete with sumptuous crescendos and deafening orchestral blasts. They seemingly erupt from nothing and recede just as quickly into solemn, mystical whispers. All of the players appeared to be rapturously caught up in this sublimely embroidered aural tapestry.    

    In the end, I was left marveling at what could rightfully be called Mahler’s Promethean accomplishment. How could a mere mortal create a fiery symphonic phenomenon such as this? Likewise, CSO seems to have transcended itself, rising to spectacular new heights by triumphantly rekindling Mahler’s impassioned vision of eternal life.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reaping a Grizzly Harvest

Reaping a Grizzly Harvest

By Tom Wachunas

    Unless you’ve been holed-up in a cave somewhere for the last 30 years or so, the systematic disintegration of the nuclear American Family (and to a large extent the deconstruction of The American Dream) should come as no surprise. Like the weather these days, everyone talks about it, but no one seems to be really doing anything about it beyond symptom relief.

     Is there a FEMA equivalent that can provide a permanent, viable remedy? Are the disasters of “climate change” merely meteorological in nature, or is the true perfect storm of our age our utter spiritual poverty?  Religion too often offers impotent platitudes, and even our most revered art and artists can do little more than reflect upon the tragic dilemmas of our time. Seeing this kind of content presented in the context of live theatre is often tantamount to helplessly watching a house – and its occupants -  on fire.

    One of the most revered (if not arguably problematic) artists in the world of postmodernist theatre is playwright Sam Shepard. His 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child is a classically macabre tale of a Midwestern farm family horribly fractured by the “secret”  implied in the play’s title.  Along with a remarkably impressive cast comprised of both students and accomplished stage veterans, director Brian Newberg has brought the story to compelling life in the current production by the Kent State University at Stark Theatre Department.

    Consistent with the overall complexion of this play, Jim Viront plays the grizzled, cantankerous patriarch, Dodge, with chillingly surreal urgency. Perpetually fidgeting with his blanket, he’s a cowering couch potato gone rotten, popping pills and sneaking  gulps from his hidden whiskey pint. A tired and failed farmer, between his awful fits of smokers’ hacking, he spews complaints and observations with a creepy, exaggerated drawl as if to shut out the incessant chatter from his delusional, motor-mouthed wife, Halie.

    To that role, Jacki Dietz brings an equally bizarre edginess. Locked in her world of idolizing Ansel, a son who died long ago under suspicious circumstances, she lives precariously between guilt and denial of the oedipal secret buried behind the house. Maybe as a superficial plea for redemption, she lined her bedroom walls with crucifixes, yet she makes no secret of her philandering ways (more fuel for her husband’s meandering rants) with the local minister, Father Dewis. Played by John-Michael Roberts, he appears only briefly, though effectively leaving the impression that true atonement is neither on his nor this family’s to-do list. So much for spiritual catharsis.

   The dark past has exacted an enormous toll from son Tilden. In that role, David Sponhour delivers an agonizingly poignant portrait of the mental and emotional damage that has seemingly dis-connected him from everyone but the carcass buried out back.  It’s a gruesome fertilizer, perhaps, that’s made the neglected land bear the produce he presents to his parents with robotic solemnity.

   Another son, Bradley, was the victim of a chainsaw accident that left him an amputee. He’s an inveterate bully who brutally shaves his father’s head at one point – a grand symbol of emasculation.  Chris McDaniel is generally scary in the role, though at times his facial contortions come off more like a pouting child trying too hard to look the part. Still, one of the play’s more darkly satisfying moments comes when he’s forced to crawl, eerily slug-like, out of the house to retrieve his prosthetic leg. The only thing missing in the scene is the slime trail.

    After a six-year absence from the family farm, grandson Vince returns with girlfriend Shelley in tow. But no one – not even his father, Tilden -  seems to recognize or remember him.  As Vince, Anthony Antoniades is something of a breath of fresh air even as he genuinely struggles to reconcile the murky past with the equally murky present. In her role of Shelley, vivacious Sarah Peters walks a fascinating line between rejection and acceptance, between mortification and optimism. It’s her youthful persistence that ultimately forces a terrible confession.

    If there’s something resembling healing light or hope here, it might be in the suggestion that Vince is a dutiful son come to take over the farm – the proverbial prodigal reclaiming his inheritance, however corrupted it may be. Yet in so doing, there’s no promise that his labors will yield anything but bitter fruits.

    Buried Child by Sam Shepard, Kent State University at Stark Theatre, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton. Shows November 9 and 10 at 8:00 p.m., November 11 at 2:30 p.m.  Tickets $10 adults, $7 students and senior citizens . To order, call (330) 244 – 3348 or visit

 PHOTOS, top to bottom: Jim Viront as Dodge; David Sponhour as Tilden; Jacki Dietz (center) as Halie


Monday, October 29, 2012

A Negotiated Unsettlement

A Negotiated Unsettlement

By Tom Wachunas

    “Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” – Heath Ledger as The Joker, from the film The Dark Knight -  

     God of Carnage, the 2009 Tony Award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza, is a dark comedy about how easily our elaborate facades of social civility and domestic harmony (the comedy) can be utterly wrecked by our apparently instinctual readiness for rage (the dark).  After seeing the production at the Players Guild Fry Theater on opening night, the beginning lyrics of Paul Simon’s Everything Put Together Falls Apart haunted my drive home, popping into my head in a constant loop: “Paraphernalia never hides your broken bones…” In retrospect, it seems a more apropos if less ironic choice of theme song than Sinatra’s Love and Marriage, which the audience hears just prior to the opening scene.

    Presented by Seat of the Pants Productions in cooperation with the recently formed Parallax Theatre Ensemble, the play was directed by Craig Joseph, who assembled a superbly gifted ensemble cast of four: Melissa Brobeck, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, and Brian Scharfenberg.

    The story begins amicably enough as one married couple, Alan and Annette, visit the Brooklyn, New York apartment of another couple, Michael and Veronica, to discuss what to do about a recent altercation in the park between their young sons. Veronica, whose son lost a few teeth at the stick-weilding hands of Annette’s boy, is looking for some form of graceful atonement as she purrs, “Fortunately, there is still such a thing as the art of co-existence, isn’t there?” That’s red flag number one of many to follow.

    And what follows is indeed a relentless progression from the smoldering, low sparks of well- heeled Brooklyn grownups into an explosive disintegration of exemplary adult behavior. It’s a good thing their boys weren’t present to witness their appalling devolution into feral attack mode -  far worse than any playground bickering. Rest assured there were no time-outs or group hugs here.

     The philosophical underpinnings of this play are so entrenched in cynicism that the story itself becomes practically secondary and largely predictable. I felt the same way about the 2011 film adaptation, Carnage (directed by Roman Polanski). But where the film seemed to never get beyond the level of a gloomy cartoon, Craig Joseph’s directing here lets the satirical narrative rise above mere caricature into a more visceral reality, equal parts raucous humor and unsettling honesty. In turn, all the cast members bring deliciously nuanced subtlety and credibility to their roles – often wickedly so.

    Their collective decline from genteel demeanor to vitriolic fractiousness is wholly riveting.   Melissa Brobeck’s  Veronica, with perpetually superficial smile , is a sanctimonious culture maven who becomes as unglued as her precious coffee table art books when “wealth manager” Annette, played by Moriah Ophardt -  cool, bemused and restrained early in the proceedings - pukes on them.  The gloves really come off when Michael (Brian Scharfenberg), at first endearingly nervous and conciliatory despite Veronica’s whiny badgering, breaks out the booze for everyone, at one point drunkenly declaring, “Chidren consume our lives and then destroy them.”  And all during this caustic foray into finger-pointing, exposed hypocrisies and abandoned dignity,  corporate lawyer Alan (Johnny Russell), patronizing and arrogant, is incessantly taking  business calls on his cell phone. Somewhere in between these self-absorbed distractions, he barks to Veronica, “…I believe in the god of carnage, who has ruled uninterrupted since the dawn of time.”

    In that case, it’s not unreasonable to think of this play as Yasmina Reza’s call to “worship” that god. Not with pleas for mercy, though. Neither with praise nor even tears for the world he rules. Laughter, either weary or frenzied, will suffice.

God of Carnage, in the Fry Theater, Players Guild of Canton, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio /  shows at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 2 and Saturday Nov. 3 / 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4 / Cast Post-Show Talkback on Saturday / TICKETS $15 /  

    PHOTOS: Cast of God of Carnage – Top, left-to-right: Brian Scharfenberg, Moriah Ophardt, Johnny Russell, Melissa Brobeck


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Visiting Our Back Pages

Visiting Our Back Pages

By Tom Wachunas

    “It takes a very long time to become young.”  -Pablo Picasso-

    “Ah, but I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now.”   -  lyrics from “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan-

    EXHIBITION: Then and Now, at Translations Gallery THROUGH OCTOBER 27, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. ONLY 4 DAYS REMAIN -  Gallery viewing hours are Wed. – Sat. Noon to 5 p.m.

   Translation staffer Heather Bullach curated this invitational group show with a refreshingly clever challenge to the participants – to take an artwork made during their youth (pre-school through high school) and recreate in the present. The new work could be a replication of content, idea, method or a combination thereof.

     The participating artists are: Kevin Anderson, Grainne Bird, William Bogdan, Gabriella Boros, Tim Carmany, Staci Leech-Corwell, Michelle DeBellis, Libby Bracy Doss, Steve Ehret, Judi Longacre, Megan Mars, Emily Mills, Brittany Steigert, Carly Swenson, Fredlee Votaw, and yours truly. [Thank you  very muchly, Heather, for the opportunity.]

     As group shows go in these parts, it’s an expectedly mixed bag of styles, content and quality – not wholly spectacular, but certainly far from forgettable. Not surprisingly, the ‘Then’ aspect of the exhibit is unencumbered by any truly astonishing techniques or mind-boggling concepts. As for the ‘Now’ element, there seems to be an overall spirit among the artists of genuinely and skillfully savoring a memory from years ago.

     Even as their new works here generally retain an aura of child-like directness -  the hand-colored woodcut (like crayon in a coloring book) by William Bogdan,  or the collaged, Disneyesque  water world  by Judi Longacre, for example -  some are relatively more developed  in their interpretation of the ‘Then’ original, such as Fredlee Votaw’s painterly, muscular homage to his older brother. And for the sheer joy of fantasy mechanics, there’s Kevin Anderson’s delightfully kinetic close encounter with Old McDonald’s farm – a combination lamp/flying saucer that perpetually beams up and drops down a miniature cow.

    But in the end, the show makes me feel prompted to take off my critic hat altogether and simply reflect on a larger, more personal idea it brings to mind. Revisiting my youthful creative effort included in this show, and re-presenting it in my current methodology, has been an invigorating reminder. I suspect I’m not alone in observing that making art can be as much very serious fun as it is a seriously joyous, real labor. I would never have it otherwise. Still deeply rooted in childhood’s curiosity and wonderment at being alive, grasping with equal fervor at life’s perplexities and revelations, making art continues to be a necessary, beautiful compulsion. 

   PHOTOS, top to bottom : William Bogdan ‘Then’/ William Bogdan ‘Now’ / Fredlee Votaw ‘Then’ / Fredlee Votaw ‘Now’


Friday, October 19, 2012

When Stone Speaks...

When Stone Speaks…

By Tom Wachunas 

    “I don’t know of any good work of art that doesn’t have a mystery.”  - Henry Moore

    Exhibition: Made in Stone: Human Journey in Time, sculpture by Alice Kiderman. The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio. THROUGH October 28.

    By postmodern aesthetic standards (if in fact there is such a thing), the free-standing stone sculptures by Alice Kiderman might seem somewhat dated. At first blush, several of them are reminiscent of Henry Moore’s distended, ambiguous and lumpy abstractions of the human figure.

    Yet while Kiderman’s forms do share Moore’s (and many other sculptors’) “less is more” ideology, they manage nonetheless to transcend such cosmetic similarities. Hers are quite simply more beautiful. They come from a softer, more subtly distilled and mysterious place, with a clearly soulful respect for the nature of her chosen material. Indeed, it’s as if the great skill and refinement of her craft has accessed the soul of the stone (marble, granite, alabaster, or steatite) as it were, and given it a voice - one which speaks not in brash or exaggerated tones, but in eloquent, intimate whispers.

    Most of the works on pedestals share a biomorphic elegance, and their gently bulbous surfaces seem like a translucent skin through which we can see wispy veins and other shadowy variations of texture. The sensuous undulations of the forms sometimes suggest a fetal pushing or pulling from inside the stone. In that sense, these amorphous masses have a tentative quality, as if in an arrested moment of still becoming.

    In contrast, Kiderman’s wall pieces display a relatively more staid, blunt simplicity. They bring to mind primitive ceremonial masks, or the ‘sympathetic magic’ that many ancient peoples believed they could generate with their ritual figurines and idols - giving faces and form to the ineffable forces of life.

    Collectively, Kiderman’s works are indeed imbued with a quiet magic of sorts. Some conjure serenity and ecstasy. Others speak of darker, more vexing things. Stone will do that. It’s nature’s perfect reliquary of time itself, the countenance of history. And the very act of sculpting it can reasonably be seen as a metaphor for revealing and facing the history of…us.    

PHOTOS top to bottom: Etude, alabaster on granite; Contemplation, carerra marble; Portrait of a Male, steatite