arts and environment
But is it Radical? : St. John's Art Scene From Five Artists
by Emily Deming
Scribbled in the margins of a notebook: Is it making art that is revelatory? Or participating in something radical?
This small aside during a workshop about Art Writing at our provincial gallery, museum and archives (The Rooms) a few months back stuck in my peripheral vision lending a scrim of inquiry to everything I experienced over the ensuing months, here crystallizing into a series of artists’ interviews and many more questions in the form of (refutable?) statements.
Lisa Moore (novelist) has written (1, 2) and spoken about how transformative her time at the MUN Extension Arts classes at 77 Bond street were for her as a youth in the late seventies (when Ray Mackie—visual artist and Department Head of CONA’s Department of Visual Arts in Stephenville—was asking children to sculpt movement and connection with balls of yarn and to contemplate a single piece of popcorn as an architectural study). When I heard her speak about it last spring she referred to art at that time in St. John’s as a radical act and her exposure to it, in such an open and immersive way, as revelatory.
Since the reputation of St. John’s has grown in the last few decades as an arts’ mecca with festivals and galleries and fiddles on every outcrop, the art scene of Newfoundland is now codified and sold to the world through our tourism campaigns. Has creating and experiencing art in St John’s become status quo? Can it still be a radical act? Does art need to be radical to be relevant, or to be revelatory?
St. John’s, Newfoundland is outsider-insider. It is a small city with a metro area population of ~215,000 but, together with the surrounding areas on the Avalon Peninsula, it makes up over half of the population of the entire province; a province isolated from the mainland by water, weather, history and culture. It is the hub of a wheel that has come off the vehicle. It is a hub of art on an island once supported physically and emotionally by handicraft: building boats, flakes, preserving foods, hooking rugs, making and playing instruments, telling stories.
Copyright and Courtesy of Paddy Barry
"TRAD IS RAD"
Statistically we are not as art-centric as the sheen on our reputation implies. The Northeast Avalon does has a slightly higher concentration of “performing and creative artists” than the country as a whole, but Newfoundland and Labrador, as a province, is well below the national average (3). However, in the late 1970’s, and early 1980s, 77 Bond Street was a special vortex of artistic endeavor and generous creativity. It was a time when Don Wright, through the MUN Extension program, was bringing art education and processes from the “hub” of St. John’s to outport communities, and also bringing knowledge and processes back from those outports.
Sellars says that going back to process is radical. The revelation is in the making of art, in taking the time to make art. And when it comes to teaching art, “you can’t rush a potato to grow.” It is about self discovery. “The world is so over-stimulating… you need to let [children] figure things out in their own time. That time is valuable. The more time you take for yourself, the more you expand.” Sellars sees making art as one of the most personal things we do. We share ourselves in so many ways but, he says, “you can’t hide yourself in a brushstroke. It is not curated [in the same was as] a twitter feed… [art] is about getting in and figuring it out, about not holding back.” In learning the process, in the frustration of process; that is where you find yourself.
Sellars is an educator, not just for children, but to the general public who come to experience art in the galleries at his work. “Part of my job,” he explains, “is to remind the artists that [The Rooms] is a public space.” There needs to be a bridge between art and viewers. “I hate art that people feel dumb looking at.” The most successful art is accessible in some way; it engages the viewer; in engaging, it can make them think new thoughts. If we go back to Sellars’ point above, it is by illuminating process that art becomes accessible.
For the artists, the revelation is in the time spent making it. The viewer is then reading that energy that the artist put into it. Sellars gives, as an example, the works Don Wright created as he was dying. “The energy he put into it; that feeling he was having, that rushing.” Sellars feels that 30 years later, “I’m alive; I’m dying.”
Copyright and Courtesy of Paddy Barry
ART AS LIFE
Don Wright’s daughter, Catherine Wright (multidisciplinary artist and educator), says that while her father was “pushing boundaries” in his own work and in others’ (she prefers ‘pushing boundaries’ to ‘radical’; “[radical] is a hard sounding word”) for her, art was a normal part of her upbringing. “All creative processes were fostered in me. It was natural to be involved in art. It was what I knew.”
Wright sees many artists push boundaries without it ever being their goal. She says her father did not make his most controversial piece, The Red Trench, to create an oppositional response. When Wright speaks about her art and the culture of creation in St. John’s, opposition does not come into it. She sees the boundary pushers, the radicals, as co-existing in parallel with the mainstream, “the boundary pushers tick us along.”
For Wright, art is primarily a way to reach out to others: “You touch someone in some way, maybe just in that moment, but it is a communication, a sharing, an empathy [in which we] see our commonalities and our differences.” Even though Wright appreciates art that “grabs and spins you around in a new direction,” the example she gives is a gentle one. She recently took a workshop with visiting artist Julyen Hamilton during The Festival of New Dance. It allowed her “in a really quiet way … to think about things anew.” He had the class touch the floor. He asked them to “touch it slowly.” They realized that they could not. There was a finite point of contact. Touch is touch. Yet the floor was “always supporting” them. In that moment, something as simple as touch became a huge thing: “[The floor] resonated. Sometimes things just resonate with you.”
The teachers, the boundary pushers, are the ones who can get you to look at things a different way. Her father, she says, noticed things, and “maybe this is the purpose of art: noticing things; allowing people to notice things and to feel or respond, or not.”
LIFE AS ART
Though art may be a communication, the various art communities in St. John’s are not always adept at communicating with each other or with each other’s audiences. Cara Windsor Hehir has been a craft and textile artist, singer, performance artist and comedian, but always with the same messages at the heart of her work: bodies, women, acceptance, and not giving a shit. “My life is an art project. The only real way I can present it is by living it. Nude modelling is a part of that … I just think everyone should be fat and hairy. It’s a happier place.”
Hehir also sees “tons” of different artistic traditions around her that are not communicating with each other, or worse, are in conflict. “There is a big fight between dories and innovation [and it is] sad that this arm devalues that.” To her, these insularities cause stagnation. One person, or small group, may have a new idea or a new technique, something radical, they then break away from their original form/group/tradition to make this new thing. But then, they are not always mixing it back in to the larger tradition or craft or discipline. What was radical becomes isolated and isolation leads to stagnation (there is a compelling series of Venn diagrams to be drawn from this… artists? Have at ‘er!).
“I think radicalism comes from new ideas … You can be as funny and as outrageous as possible but if you are just speaking to your people over and over again you aren’t making much of an impact.” Right now she sees a lot of comedy happening in St. John’s. Hehir performed three completely different shows that drew three completely different audiences in one season. But these audiences are not mixing. As well, artists are performing only “in their accustomed space, to their accustomed audience.” This results in a “lack of growth,” and is, she explains, “an example of a larger problem in the art world of St. John’s”
Though, Hehir admits, we cannot compare St. John’s to larger art centres like New York or Paris because we are so isolated and our population is so small. Yet, we can still “be radical in this space. It just takes one person to come back with something new. Then they grow and their group grows and it turns over.” Or, as she so eloquently sums it up, “even though I don’t look at anyone’s art anymore, it really is important to look at new art.
Copyright and Courtesy of Paddy Barry
SPACE TO MAKE WAVES
What is “new” art can depend on where you are, both, quite literally, geographically and canonically (biographically). In short, what is radical can be determined by environment. Joanna Barker (musician) is preoccupied lately with spaces and artists (or potential artists) in our province who are not always in focus in St John’s. She also points out that, while our capital city may not be a New York or a Paris, “in St. John’s the stakes are higher to make something radical” than they are in a smaller town. In Grand Falls, Newfoundland (where Barker grew up), her hosting an open mic night a few years ago was considered radical. And even here in St. John’s “it is still radical for a gallery to make space for an indigenous woman.”
Barker explains she is “making less art than ever but [is now] making more spaces for others to make art.” One such space is Girls Rock NL which she helped start last summer with an inaugural camp, for young girls to learn how to form a band. “Girls Rock Camp was radical because it hadn’t been done. Liz Solo had done a one off Rock/punk/noise camp [and so] she was the first presenter, bringing that initial radical impulse into the new camp.” While the notion of female musicians is not inherently radical, the lack of community and space available to foster them had made it so. While the camp was initially for the girls attending, it represented the women in the community as well, those women who were putting on the camp. Once there was that one new space, more spaces came together. Barker, along with co-founder Kate Lahey, went on to organize St. John’s Women in Music (SWIM). Barker’s focus these days is on women and indigenous people, on “making it easier for them to get exposure. […] Is that radical? I don’t know,” she says, “but some [of the stuff we are doing] with SWIM and GRC is a first.”
Creating access is not only radical in itself but it can expose the radical that already exists but may be overlooked. “Marginalized populations [can be creating] radical art but we wouldn’t know.” She applauds local efforts to form spaces, for instance, a recent showing of the documentary Annie Pootoogook (2006) Co-sponsored by Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador (VANL) and Eastern Edge Gallery, but she still sees a lot of “space for learning” in how “outsiders” and their art are presented, and “if there is space for learning there is still space to be radical.” As we learn, what is radical evolves over time. Each generation has its learning circuit, but each generation also stands atop the last generation’s body of knowledge, like the circulation of water inside a wave that progresses across the ocean.
As far as making art, Barker considers a certain honesty to be radical. She states: “Because everyone’s experience is different, if you open and share, if you are so sincere about your trauma or your privilege [that] is radical.”
Copyright and Courtesy of Paddy Barry
“Those are pearls that were his eyes
When those differences, those sincerities, are transmitted through art, we not only see something new, we are renewed and may then see everything with new eyes. Author Lisa Moore—whose remarks on her time at 77 Bond inspired these interviews—states: “if a work of art is not radical, it’s not art. … I want to show the world in a way someone hasn’t seen it before. [That] creates doubt about our understanding of the notion of existence, and that doubt is radical. Questions are radical.”
These transformative experiences that may define radical art are not about being confronted with something completely unfamiliar. It is thinking, as Moore puts it, “Oh, I thought I knew what it was to tie my shoes/love a child/know a suicide, but I guess I didn’t.” A direct pitch is not always directly received. An artist, Moore says, “cannot always control [their] message. [It is] transmogrified by the audience.” But if art, in production or consumption, can bring us back to “the realm of acting from [our] senses…then [it can elicit] empathy.” To get inside someone’s skin; that is radical as well.
A radical idea may be new to us, but radical art makes us new by shifting our perspective, by adding layers of another’s skin. To accomplish this, the work must make a connection, not just broadcast a message. And there are so many messages being broadcasted, and so few moments of revelation. Moore sees today “a tremendous conservatism in youth… [as] we’ve seen social programs cut, we’ve seen a meanness evolve. […] Kids today grew up in that. [It was] very different from when I went to 77 Bond and saw Newfoundland Arts as a new preoccupation. This is now an environment where people become cautious. They take that caution into their bodies, and that prohibits creation.” While it is clear Moore has her respective political viewpoint, she recognizes the limitations of using art as a message, “as I get older my work gets more and more overtly political and I worry about that because the real radical work is making us see the world differently.”
That slightly wild and unconformable piercing of our veils that art can inflict, so removed from simply receiving data or being taught, is illustrated in one powerful moment Moore recalls from a production she saw with her kids at the LSPU hall downtown. There was a mummers’ hobby-horse, those handcrafted beasts with nails for teeth, and “it snapped its jaws right at us, very close, and it was terrifying and thrilling. I felt like I was in the presence of history and a new moment.” Those moments are a revelation. Those moments are radical. And they cannot be captured in intent. It is not the making of the art or the newness of the idea, but the moment of transmittal where creation, tradition, artist and audience are in contact; it is there where nothing status quo remains quite intact.
Copyright and Courtesy of Paddy Barry
1. Moore, Lisa; Popcorn [homage to several Newfoundland artists; description of 77 Bond St., St. John's art school], Arts Atlantic, Fall 2002, Vol. 19(4), p. 27
3. Sawler, Sarah; Origin Stories: Lisa Moore, Atlantic Books Today, August 25, 2016.
© CUSS Journal