Monday, September 25, 2017

We've Been Served

 We’ve Been Served

By Tom Wachunas

“…Ever just the same /Ever a surprise/Ever as before/
Ever just as sure…”  - lyrics from Beauty and the Beast

    With its current production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, directed by Jonathan Tisevich, the Players Guild Theatre offers yet another pièce de résistance of theatrical art. In keeping with the ebullient spirit of one of its signature songs, “Be Our Guest,” think of this show as a lovingly prepared, extravagant banquet served piping hot by an exuberant, impassioned cast.

   As the heroine, Belle - whose dreams of a better world are inspired by her passion for books - Rachel Smith is a thoroughly charming newcomer to the stage. Yet in both her acting and singing, she’s more than a diamond-in-the- rough. For all of her youthfulness, she’s a remarkably complete performer - a refined, multi-faceted jewel as it were - gracefully exhibiting all the subtle variations of light and darkness built into this classic tale of redemptive love. The emotive power in the gentle vibrato of her singing voice is a marvelous instrument in itself, effectively finessing her character’s innocence, feisty independence, and vulnerability.

   Early in the story, Belle’s father, Maurice, an affectionate and sweetly peculiar man played by Ralph Cooley, gets lost in the woods and imprisoned in the castle of the erstwhile Prince who was at the time cursed to be a Beast forever unless he can learn to love and be lovable. Belle offers herself in exchange for her father’s release. Her disarming, authentic tenderness and love will eventually transform her jailer’s hardened heart. 

   As the Beast, Sean Fleming is certainly a fearsome physical entity, but he’s also a soaring spiritual and emotional presence, embodying real pathos. Smitten and empowered by Belle’s unrestrained selflessness, he’s fascinating to watch as he slowly sheds his toxic bitterness to reclaim his humanity.

   Mason Stewart gives us a muscular portrayal of the dashing and dastardly Gaston. Authoritative and comical, Gaston is nevertheless a self-absorbed, feckless, and cruel trophy hunter, obsessed with marrying Belle who in turn fiercely resists his advances. Undeterred, he struts about town with  exaggerated machismo, much to the delight of three ‘silly girls’ – played with ditzy abandon by Kaylah Lehman, Aaliyah Kinnard, and Alexis Wilson - who vie for his affections while swooning over his every word. Anthony Woods-Mitchell is similarly giddy in his role of the fawning Lefou, Gaston’s unreasonably loyal punching bag. 

   Meanwhile in the castle, even the domestic staff has been infected by the Beast’s plight. They’re progressively turning into inanimate objects. With their visceral French accents and incessant flirting, Justin Woody as the lascivious candlestick, Lumiere, and Desiree Hargrave as the frenetic feather duster, Babette, are hilarious. Jacob Sustersic is delightfully engaging as a clock named Cogsworth, the jittery sentinel trying to maintain order and proper castle etiquette amidst titillating operatic outbursts from Tehilah Caviness, who plays a fancy wardrobe. And Julie Connair, as Mrs. Potts the teapot, articulates a wholly soothing energy of motherly hope, comforting Chip, her teacup son, played by Noah Tisevich, equally endearing as he voices his desire to be a real boy again.

      Setting the well-appointed table for this aesthetic feast with inventive magical effects and visuals are scenic designer Joshua Erichsen with master carpenter Micah Harvey, lighting and sound designer Scott Sutton, and costumer Stephen Ostertag.  The cast performs Michael Lawrence Akers’ robust choreography with infectious panache, especially in one of the evening’s most raucous numbers, “Gaston,” featuring a wildly complex rhythmic flurry of clinking beer mugs. And the live orchestra directed by Steve Parsons brings exhilarating aural depth to the proceedings.

   I think one verse in “Be Our Guest” still resonates as best illustrating the inspired motivation behind this Players Guild production: “Life is so unnerving / For a servant who’s not serving / He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”  In navigating the often ambiguous boundaries between technically excellent entertainment, so abundantly evident here, and truly impactful art, this cast and crew have literally taken that lyrical sentiment to heart and effectively become the collective, compelling soul of a servant. 

   And so it is that in the end, I had the wondrously uncanny sensation of being embraced and otherwise artfully…loved.

   Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 8 – Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / Tickets $29 adults, $26 seniors, $22 for 17 and younger / Order at or call 330.453.7617

   PLAYERS GUILD PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: 1. Rachel Smith as Belle / 2. Ralph Cooley as Maurice, Rachel Smith / 3. Sean Fleming as the Beast, Rachel Smith / 4.  Jacob Sustersic (left) as Cogsworth, Justin Woody as Lumiere / 5. Julie Connair as Mrs. Potts

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Brio Trio - Delicious Food for Thought

Brio Trio – Delicious Food for Thought 

By Tom Wachunas

  “Every line is the actual experience with its own unique story… The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.  – Cy Twombly

  “All our interior world is reality, and that, perhaps, more so than our apparent world.”  - Marc Chagall 

   “Reality only reveals itself when it is illuminated by a ray of poetry.”  - Georges Braque
   EXHIBIT: BRIO TRIO – works by Sherri Hornbrook,  Eleanor Dillon Kuder, and Ariana Parry / at GALLERY 6000, Conference Center Dining Room, Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio EXHIBIT RUNS THROUGH NOVEMBER 10, 2017

---SAVE THE DATE !! ---- OPENING RECEPTION on Wed., September 27, 5:30 – 7:30 P.M.

PLEASE RSVP to Aleksandar Grahovac: 

   OK so it’s a dining room, not a real art gallery. It’s not the most optimal of environs for serious, concentrated looking at something other than the food and drink on your table. There are lots of visual distractions and obstacles to contend with. As curator of Gallery 6000 since 2008, I’ve often seen my role as equal parts local art presenter and interior decorator. Still, I also enjoy a fantasy role of a Twilight Zone maître d', singing his praises of the excellent menu to curious diners. Food for the mind is good for the heart. “Today’s chef’s special,” I eagerly intone to my imaginary guests, “is une casserole délicieuse !”  Let them eat art, I always say. 

   I have observed for several years how each of the three artists in this exhibit has honed a distinctly personal and intriguing brand of mark-making. Given the diversity of their pictorial styles, in distributing their works along the walls I wanted to preserve and spotlight their individuality and at the same time give the whole space a unified heartbeat. Granted, I’m a biased observer. Nevertheless, I think the air in the room crackles with palpable brio.

   Sherri Hornbrook calls her acrylic paintings of idiosyncratic shapes and patterns suspended in soft, spectral color fields collectively “a ray or speck of what’s in my head, intuitively gathered…”  What’s in her head might be snippets of remembered conversations, textures of objects, impressions of places, or ephemeral moods. What we see in turn is metaphorical in nature, as if those conversations have been edited down to fascinating abstractions - simple phrases or even single words, so to speak, interspersed with diacritical marks that float in misty space.

   Ariana Parry has written that her intimately-scaled graphite drawings are “…metaphysical visualizations inspired by my own meditative practice and relationship with the divine.” Despite the airy simplicity and sheer thinness of these elegantly measured linear configurations, and for all of that unoccupied white space of the picture plane wherein they hover - as if slowly turning or unfolding- there is nevertheless an uncanny implication of something objectively vast, something of immeasurable depth. There’s nothing empty or shallow here after all. You could call it the geometry or architecture of infinity.  

  Painter Eleanor Dillon Kuder says of her boldly colored figurative and organic forms, “I believe in possibilities beyond our realities. It is like the scent of lilacs amidst the chaos.”  Possibilities beyond our realities…allegories, fantasies, dreamscapes.  Her images are loaded with infectious exuberance, and the emotive potency of her palette reminds me at times of Matisse and Chagall on steroids. Her paintings in this context are like a robust marinade for an already zesty entrée.  

  Here then, three divergent styles converge on one space. Together they make for a memorably hearty aesthetic feast, simmering in the exhilarating aromas of the mystical and poetic. 

   So please join me for the artists’ reception on September 27. Bon appétit !

   PHOTOS, from top: Vision, by Sherri Hornbrook; Seclusion, by Sherri Hornbrook; Essentials, by Ariana Parry; Contained, by Ariana Parry; Cut From the Fold, by Eleanor Dillon Kuder; Mine, by Eleanor Dillon Kuder

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Looking at Looking

Looking at Looking

By Tom Wachunas

   “…There is a sense of anticipation in the works. Forms surface and submerge, press against one another as if for support or come together as if magnetically, sexually attracted. In these works, idiosyncratic markings disrupt and energize the expansiveness of the surfaces and the solidity of the shapes, imbuing the paintings with a quirky sense of humor…”  - Patricia Spergel

   EXHIBIT: PEEKING THROUGH- Recent paintings, drawings & monotypes by Patricia Spergel /  THROUGH SEPTEMBER 29, 2017 at Main Hall Art Gallery, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / viewing hours Monday-Friday, 11 A.M.-5 P.M.

   We are living in a world increasingly stooped by the weight of accumulated visual data that both demands and divides our attentions. The sheer ubiquity of photographs and otherwise traditional representational art alone can be so overwhelming as to leave us floundering in rivers of superficiality. Saturated by the common and familiar, we can become desensitized to the truly extraordinary or mesmerizing. As our imaginations might slip into a state of complacent dormancy, we’re numbed. We might notice things, but not really see them. And in our rush to do so, we often look too fast.

   I’ve always respected non-objective abstract painting for its probative descriptions of what is not immediately evident, yet still essential in embracing the visible world. In its most expressive manifestations, it is a genre uniquely suited to rendering – and often reconciling - life’s most vexing dichotomies: chaos and order, harmony and dissonance, disciplined rationality and intuition. Comprehending it first requires our willingness as viewers to click on our pause buttons, as it were, and take the time necessary to fully engage protracted moments of discovery and revelation. 

   The particular type of abstraction practiced by painter Patricia Spergel is, then, an ardent commitment to slowing down long enough to let paint be paint as her imagery emerged through time. But it’s not an illustrative imagery of a static world.

    What we see aren’t completed scenes or finished objects that magically appeared intact on the surface of the canvas. Look long, look slow. There’s a history, an evolution. An evidence trail. These oil paintings are exuberant records of Spergel’s intuitive decisions in response to how her utterly luscious colors might blend or conflict, to the variable detailing and scale of shapes vying for our attention, to shifting figure/ground dynamics, to the lightness or heaviness of touch and line. There are the rhythmic motions of pulling or pushing the brush across a swath of thick or thinned-out paint, now quickly, now slowly… of scraping, dragging, washing, of covering up, exposing, and covering up again.

   Neither monumental nor intimidating in scale (no larger than about 3’ on a side), the paintings are nevertheless big enough to immerse us in a marvelous equipoise of real work and real play. Here is a thoughtful and intimate confluence of drama and humor, of silences and transfixing noises. 

    Spergel’s painterly vernacular is certainly in some ways a codified articulation of private experiences, including her sensations and memories of people, places, and things. It’s important to keep in mind that for as much as an abstract painter is in dialogue with process, method and materials, the painting itself can and should be an invitation for us to enter a conversation, to have an experience in real time. In that sense, looking at a painting should be an RSVP moment. In our own act or method of looking, we can create for ourselves a memorable experience in its own right. 
   The late, great painter, Richard Diebenkorn, once observed, “It is not a matter of painting life. It's a matter of giving life to a painting.”  And it’s a matter that Patricia Spergel has clearly taken to heart.

   PHOTOS from top: Havana Pink / Bolted / Bee Hive / Splish Splash /Santa Maria Novella / Moon Jelly

Monday, September 11, 2017

Eloquent Simplicities

Eloquent Simplicities

By Tom Wachunas

   … I like to believe that mystical powers lie in visual art-- meaning that if people gaze on an image that uplifts them, inspires or even just amuses them on a daily basis... then their life is changed for the better. It's like an instantaneous sort of meditation practice…”
–Su Nimon 

   “…My goal is to recreate the experience of discovering a natural wonder…Just like in nature, my work is filled with philosophical contrasts: simplicity amidst complication, harmony amidst conflict, order amidst chaos…”  - Dyanne Williams

   EXHIBITS: By Leaps and Bounds – Paintings by Su Nimon in the McFadden Gallery / Mosaics by Dyanne Williams in The Malone Gallery / both exhibits on view THROUGH OCTOBER 20, located in the Johnson Center on the campus of Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio / Galleries open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.– 6 p.m., and closed when there are no classes in session.

   Looking at the acrylic paintings by Su Nimon, and the mosaics by Dyanne Williams, I thought of the great English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). When  he reflected in his magnum opus, The Prelude, that he was “…Bent overmuch on superficial things / Pampering myself with meager novelties / Of colour and proportion…,” he was remembering those times when, caught up in the incidental appearances of nature, he could be blind to the real essence, or spirit of what he was beholding. He realized that at its most noble and efficacious, the most compelling art effectively transcends scenery of the apparent to evoke visions of the sublime.

   As an aesthetic, Romanticism emerged in Europe during the 19th century, and much of its legacy in visual art can be found in dramatically painted landscapes. On one level, you could call Dyanne Williams a modern-day Romantic. Interestingly, in her endeavors to transform nature’s physicality into an embodiment of philosophical ideals, she sources the very ancient medium (from as far back as the 3d millennium BCE) of mosaics – decorative abstract designs and representational imagery made by assembling small pieces or tiles of glass and stone. 

  While some of Williams’ pieces here are merely sleek, ornamental modules, her most arresting works are invested with a deeper sort of scenic lyricism, at once earthy and ethereal. These meticulous arrangements of glass, porcelain, sparkling gems, and small river rocks, accented with subtle iridescence, are elegantly designed to exude a mesmerizing charm.

   Su Nimon’s acrylic paintings can be charming – indeed mystical - too, but not for any material intricacies of form or light. Her paintings are neither densely configured nor ‘painterly’ in the visceral sense of the word. With a gentle brush she pampers us with disarming airiness, at times reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink-and-brush painting. 

   With the exception of her realistic renderings of crows (or ravens - folkloric and mythological denizens of many cultures, symbolizing everything from good luck and glad tidings to the oracles, spies, and messengers of the gods), Nimon’s imagery is abstract. Here are wispy occurrences of lines arranged in arcs, circles or spirals, or amorphous washes of color. Her physical gesture of making rudimentary marks to float on blank white fields is essentially a spiritual act, a meditation on the ephemeral… a contemplation, perhaps, of consciousness itself. These images don’t suggest  prosaic narratives or even epic poetry. Instead, in all their sparse, often exquisite simplicity, they’re like visual haiku.   
   Once again, Wordsworth: “How many undervalue the power of simplicity! But it is the real key to the heart.”  Words worth remembering.

   PHOTOS, from top: mosaics by Dyanne Williams – Underneath / Depth / Cycles / paintings by Su Nimon – I Am Restored / There’s Always Hope / Found My Path / My Heart Keeps Looking