Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Clay Speaks

When Clay Speaks

By Tom Wachunas

    “…You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned with keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”  - Peter Voulkos

   “You are not an artist simply because you paint or sculpt or make pots that cannot be used. An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, an unsaid quality; it is alive.”  - Toshiko Takaezu
   EXHIBIT: Frozen in Fire – Ceramic works from the Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection / THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio  / 330-453-7666

    For this exhibit, here’s how Lynnda Arrasmith, Chief Curator at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), addresses her exquisite selection of ceramic works from the CMA permanent collection: “The flames are released. The heat rises and settles over the pieces in the kiln, freezing them in their current forms. For better or worse, they are now frozen in fire. Not all pieces will survive this process and the artist must choose the piece which, in their eyes, has met perfection. The Frozen in Fire exhibition explores the insight of artists being satisfied with their work. Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?  Each vessel is meant to be looked at, appreciated and contemplated.”

   Somewhat resonant in those words (as well as in the words by the late clay artist, Toshiko Takaezo, quoted at the top of this post, referencing “…pots that cannot be used” and the mystery of their “unsaid quality”) is that pesky old question which  some – perhaps still many -  might consider about the ceramics medium. Is working in clay a craft, or a fine art? Of course history shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive at all. So while clay is certainly a medium long-associated with traditional ideas about utilitarian forms, this breathtaking exhibit presents a lavish array of objects that transcend the notion of clay vessels as banal containers. It’s the difference between the innocuous and the inspiring. 

   This is a remarkably eclectic collection of objects that spans the full gamut of ceramic methodologies and iconography. Call it a sumptuous mélange of tasty baked goods. Some are stuffed with vivid imagination and whimsy, like Jack Earl’s Cloud Man, Dan Lovelace’s teapot tank called 1st Battalion, Juliellen Byrne’s delirious Rat Jacket, or Janice Mars Wunderlich’s comical Puppy Queen. Others are absolutely startling transformations of clay into hyper-realistic facsimiles of other materials, such as Richard Newman’s Baseball Glove, Marilyn Levine’s Black Shoe Bag, and Victor Spinski’s Tool Box I.  

   Included among the more intriguing abstract configurations are Tom Radca’s Stoneware Wall Tile, suggesting an aerial topography of geological terrains, or fossilized expanses of soil; Paul Soldner’s Wall Piece with Two Figures, with its unfurled layers of stamped and carved surfaces; and Betty Woodman’s wall installation, Egyptian Papyrus, a multi-part deconstruction of ancient urn forms.

   Considering the disarming simplicity and earthy charm of Toshiko Takaezu’s three vessels here brings me back to her words, “An artist is a poet in his or her own medium,” as well as the curator’s question, “Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?”  Containers, or containment? 

    The image evoked of completed ceramic objects being “frozen in fire” is a particularly fascinating and dichotomous one. Yes, baked clay can be said to be frozen, as in still, or physically static. But certainly neither mute nor dead. Is it any wonder that a passionate ceramist should find something poetic waiting to be drawn out from something as common as clay, that gritty, viscous stuff of natural forces and processes that have been at work for millennia? When a potter or sculptor surrenders to such an alluring substance, he or she is communing with something primal if not intrinsically mysterious in order to utter something about being alive.

   And in the end, isn’t the essential function of all our finest artistic pursuits to speak the un-sayable?

   PHOTOS, from top: Egyptian Papyrus, by Betty Woodman / Stoneware Wall Tile, by Tom Radca / Cloud Man, by Jack Earl / vessels by Toshiko Takaezu / Vessel I by Anna Silver / Basket Form II, by Dick Schneider         

Monday, January 23, 2017

Re-inventing a Beautiful Dreamer

Re-inventing a Beautiful Dreamer 

By Tom Wachunas

  “How many times do you read about 'the Cinderella story,' the story of the underdog, the story of the ordinary human being, often subjected to cruelty and ignorance and neglect, who somehow triumphs?”  - Kenneth Branagh

   How many times indeed. After only a few minutes of research, I was sufficiently reminded of the long history behind the tale that we in the West know as Cinderella. If there are any readers out there not familiar with it, I pray for you. In any case, the roots of this iconic narrative - which is essentially about how a downtrodden heroine triumphs over her oppressors - date as far back as a Greek story from around 7 BCE. I think it fair to say that despite centuries of literary and theatrical adaptations and revisions (not to mention cinematic variants), from across many eras and cultures, it continues to be something more than an escapist fairy tale. You could call it an allegory of the human condition, if for no other reason than it seems that we, under myriad names and circumstances, are still defining and searching for our “happily ever after.”

   So enter yet another adaptation. This brand new one delivers a refreshingly modernized and relevant message without succumbing to saccharine preaching. Loosely based on The Brothers Grimm version, it’s written by Beth Knox, Managing Director of Canton’s Players Guild Theatre, and premiering now in the Guild’s intimate arena theater. Not surprisingly, the production features a superbly talented 13-member cast, directed here by Michael Lawrence Akers and Jonathan Tisevich. 

     Raucous chaos ensues whenever Ella’s mean-spirited stepsisters and  stepmother are present.  Kassandra Frazier, as Esmeralda, and Sarah Marie Young, as Prudence, have several show-stopping scenes, none more hilarious than when they clumsily attempt to take instruction from their flustered mother (Madame Arrington, played by Daryl Robinson) on how to waltz. Frazier’s  unruly Esmeralda often speaks while chomping on the biscuits and rolls she routinely pulls from her bodice, making the many insults she hurls at Ella (including naming her Cinderella) all the more…cheeky. Young’s air-headed, whiny Prudence is something of a sonic phenomenon. Complementing her expressive if not cartoonish facial contortions is a speaking voice shrill and piercing enough to peel wallpaper. Like, eeewwwww… Meanwhile, Daryl Robinson deftly turns the manipulative, haughty, and frenetic Madame Arrington into an effectively chilling portrait of vapid pomp and strident greed. 

   Talk about passing on family values to the next generation… In that regard, Ella, played by Desirée Hargrave, is anything but self-serving or deceitful. Hargrave invests her character with palpable tenderness tempered with unflappable resolve to make the best of the bad circumstances engineered by her feckless and dysfunctional family. It’s that disarming tenderness and determination that grabs both the attentions of the Fairy Godmother – a truly giddy spirit delivered with lovable swagger by Elyse Ramirez – as well as the introspective heart of the prince, Alexander, played by Drake Harbert. To that role, Harbert brings authentic warmth and gentleness. It’s a trait that seems to run in the Royal family, as Corey Paulus, in his role of King, plays his part too with equal credibility. 

   Here is a Cinderella with a true servant’s heart, evident in the brief but endearing scenes when she so freely shares her passion for books and the wisdom they can impart by teaching some local children, here named Catherine and Nicholas, how to read.  In those roles, both Rylee Horning and Noah Tisevich make a delightful picture of youthful, effervescent eagerness to imagine life as a fulfilling adventure.   

   In the end, this new adaptation tweaks or deletes many of the extraneous incidentals of the familiar (and frankly all too sappy) Disneyesque narrative we’re accustomed to. Instead, we’re given a compelling scenario of a selfless and courageous dreamer. She's not the numbed victim of life’s cruel and unexpected vicissitudes. She doesn't sing a self-pitying 'someday-my-prince-will-come' dirge. She simply pours her gifts into others. Walk a mile in her shoes, and the world could well live all the more happily.    

   Players Guild Theatre presents Cinderella – A New Adaptation, in the William G. Frye Theater, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / FRIDAY at 7:00 p.m, SATURDAY and SUNDAY at 2 p.m., THROUGH FEB. 5, 2017 / TICKETS: $17 adults, $13  for ages 17 and younger, available at  or call 330-452-7617

   PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Desirée Hargrave /  Desirée Hargrave and Drake Harbert / (l to r) Kassandra Frazier, Desirée Hargrave, Sarah Marie Young

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Delectable Dialect

A Delectable Dialect  

By Tom Wachunas

   “We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it, and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium.”  - Ansel Adams

   “I look to highlight those special things that add the flavor and interest to the world we see…”  - Carolyn Jacob                          

   EXHIBIT: Painting With Light – images by Carolyn Jacob / at Stark State College Gallery, second floor in the Student Center, 6200 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton / THROUGH JANUARY 26, 2017 / Viewing hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday. For additional information about the show, call 330-494-6170, ext. 4733 / For more information about Jacob’s work, visit   or email

The public is invited to an artists’ RECEPTION on WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18 from 6:00-7:30 pm. in Room S201 of the Student Center at Stark State College

   In approaching “the full possibilities of the medium” mentioned in the above quote, one of Ansel Adams’ most significant contributions to the art of photography was the Zone System he and Fred Archer developed in 1939-1940. It was a method for realizing the desired look of a finished photograph by selectively adjusting particular aspects of the picture– in and out of the darkroom - such as, among many other technical and formal elements, value contrasts and tonal variations. Consequently, Adams was able to leave us a substantial body of work that advanced the art of black and white landscape photography to extraordinary levels of expressivity. 

   In so doing, he further expanded the parameters of the medium beyond “straight” or strictly objective replication of the physical world. “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas,” he once observed, adding, “It is a creative art…You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

   Adams may or may not have foreseen the coming of our electronic age and all the astonishing possibilities it affords for making compelling pictures. Far beyond his Zone System, we’ve seen the emergence of an entirely new digital language and methodology for enhancing the photographic image. Nevertheless, he knew in his day – as do like-minded artists of today - that elevating photography to the status of true fine art was always a matter of harnessing the mechanical limitations of the camera’s eye to that of the artist’s larger field of experiential vision. A matter of marrying the tangible to the ineffable.  Real artistry in photography demands an intuitive seeing beyond the obvious to deliver a timeless essence. 

   In her own laudable efforts to transcend everyday visions of physical reality, Carolyn Jacob boarded the digital photo-effects train some years ago. Think of her perhaps as a well-traveled tourist, avidly looking to see what she has called the “picture in the picture.” An essence.  Accordingly, she has created a thoroughly refreshing travelogue, so to speak, of otherwise conventional art destinations including, among others, architectural, floral, and still-life subjects. 

   In this very crowded exhibit, her images printed on canvas are especially arresting. With these elegant compositions, we can better appreciate the exhibit title, “Painting With Light.”  In their fluidity of line, shimmering and subtly blended colors, the suggestion of rich textures, and intriguing  tendencies towards eloquent abstraction, there is often the distinct sense, albeit illusory, of a facile painter’s brush at work.

   Like any painting, a photograph is a visual language. And like any given spoken language, a visual language can have many vernacular variances.  If we consider it a matter of dialect, then Carol Jacob speaks a particularly delectable one.

   PHOTOS, from top: Pears in a Bowl / Dreaming in Green / White Tulip Fantasy / Impression of a Rose in Blue / Breath of Spring

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Imagine That

Imagine That

By Tom Wachunas

      “In any art, you don’t know in advance what you want to say – it’s revealed to you as you say it. That’s the difference between art and illustration.”  -Aaron Siskind

    “But, after all, the aim of art is to create space – space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live.”  - Frank Stella

   “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  - Lewis Carroll

    EXHIBIT: Dream Worlds: The Art of Imaginative Realism, at the Canton Museum of Art / THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017 / Curated by Chris Seaman / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330-453-7666 /

   Once upon a time, a genre named Fantasy Art was born. When it was young, it was relegated to the covers or the pages of sci-fi and fairytale books, or sometimes movies. But it could find neither a validating assessment from the intellectual art world elite, nor a substantial place in world-class art museums, where contentious purists too often looked down their noses, crinkled their high brows, and sniffed, “Why, that’s not really fine art, it’s just illustration.” Harrrumph. 

   It’s no secret that by the second half of the 20th century, many purveyors of Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetics theory, particularly in the context of  abstract painting, viewed Fantasy Art (or Imaginative Realism, if you will)  pejoratively as some sort of cultural pariah. In dismissing it as the commercialized craft of eccentric illusionism, they effectively marginalized historic precedents for rendering dream-like, mythological, or otherworldly realities. Many Western-culture artists and styles come to mind in this regard, among them Hieronymous Bosch, the Mannerists, Fransisco Goya, William Blake, the Symbolists, and the Surrealists.  

   But as this exhibit, guest-curated by Canton native Chris Seaman, so abundantly demonstrates (with some 65 works from more than 20 arists, many of them significantly impacting the international realms of cinema, 3D animation, and gaming), these days the genre is something more than just a problematic aesthetic anachronism or peripheral creative pursuit. The simple fact of the matter is that the Imaginative Realism genre very often reveals an uncanny level of disciplined technical and formal finesse on the part of the artist. Understandably enough, such creative prowess can certainly tantalize and otherwise entertain viewers in a manner similar to that of master magicians who leave us awestruck with their elaborate prestidigitations. 

   While there are several remarkable 3D works here - including a thoroughly spooky, incredibly credible, life-sized tableau by Tom Kuebler called The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon - the exhibit is predominantly paintings. In many of these, the caliber of hyper-realistic illusionism, combined with elegant naturalism, is nothing short of astounding. 

   Some of the thematic content is unabashedly whimsical or at times cartoonish, such as Jeff Miracola’s exceedingly goofy Kurious Kong. Other spectacular renderings, like Donato Giancola’s Wounded Hawk, or Rob Rey’s We are Made of Stars, recall Baroque and Romantic-era stylizations. And in an intriguing if not bizarre Neoclassical vein, few works here exude more arresting theatricality than the paintings by John Jude Palencar.  His compelling figures, such as in Pagan, are at once monstrous and tender, placed in lonely, compact spaces, rendered with an earthen tonality and muted light that brings to mind some of Andrew Wyeth’s more haunting scenes.  
    All the artworks in this exhibit tell or imply a story of one kind or another. So call them allegories. Cross-pollinated as they are with the powerful resonance of art history, keep in mind that wherever we go, even in our most far-fetched imaginings, there we still are. Whether celebrating the courage, hope, or love that brings nobility to our unpredictable, embattled lives, or portraying the terrifying demons in our midst, the so called worlds they describe aren’t really as impossible or alternative as they might seem at first blush. The realities they depict are actually more quotidian than completely new or otherworldly. 

   Consider, then, the impassioned intensity of technical execution that informs these works, with its meticulous attention to the mysterious and magical, the infinitesimal, the unknowable. Look closely, and you may rightly get the sense that this exhibit glows with the subtle aura of a benevolent madness. As fine art, Imaginative Realism is indeed a magnificent mania.      

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Craig Maher (American). Tread, 2011. Oil on paper on board, 45 x 30 in. ©Craig Maher / 2. 1. Donato Giancola (American). Wounded Hawk, 2007. Oil on panel, 48 x 36 in. © Donato Giancola / 3. Jeff Miracola (American). Kurious Kong, 2016. Acrylic on Masonite, 24 x 18 in. ©Jeff Miracola / 4. Rob Rey (American). We Are Made of Stars, 2014. Oil on board, 30 x 24 in. © Rob Rey / 5. John Jude Palencar (American). Pagan, 2015. Acrylic on birch panel, 33 x 37 in. © John Jude Palencar / 6. The Mythical Menagerie of Doctor Baltus Bagoon, by Tom Kuebler, silicone and mixed media, 9’1” x 6’1” x 3’9”