Barmp if You Like Art!

I’ve just dropped these paintings off for the opening a figurative art show at the Red Ochre Gallery.

People who know my work will recognize these stamps from my prints inspired by postcards. But, unlike my woodblock engravings, I decided to play around with these paintings, and not try and replicate the original stamps. I’d like to thank Christine Hennebury for this spirit of playfulness, since she invited me to paint a traffic box in Mount Pearl. Also Christine is a writer who approaches her art with humor and fun.

I couldn’t control the shape of the traffic box. So I decided to paint the Queens Victoria and Mary, wrapped around the box. I asked for a corner of Commonwealth Avenue, because I loved the idea of Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds, sadly looking down that busy street.

The five days I painted turned into a performance art piece for me–people slowed down to give me a thumbs up and call out greetings and compliments. (Who knew Queen Vic was still such a popular gal?) I posted on my FaceBook page “Barmp if you like art!” And people did.

This time, while I was painting Queen Victoria, I started to see a rocky “Gerald Squires” landscape wrapped around the bottom text. I guess I was asking myself what made this postage stamp a particularly Newfoundland image. The final piece, “Queen of Newfoundland” is a homage to Gerald Squires, whom I took three classes from in the eighties, and who granted me an interview for a show he had in the early 2000’s. Since he died last fall, people have said a lot about him, but I haven’t heard anyone say what a courageous artist he was. Squires painted in failure. He painted in success. He painted in poverty, and, just when you thought he was finished, he would throw on a muddy wash. Vermilion rivulets covering the woman’s face. A dirty rag picking out the highlights. And it was perfect!

When I took the portrait class from Squires, he had his friend, and Evening Telegram art critic, James Wade pose for us. On the first night I covered a large canvas with phthalocyanine green. Then I painted an absolutely brilliant portrait of Wade in golden umbers. For the rest of the month, I would show up once a week to spend a miserable evening adding flesh tones and scraping everything off. I never recovered that first golden painting.

At one point Wade, who was dying of cancer at the time, standing by my quietly bleeding painting, said, “I’d like to write about your painting in my column.”

I glared at the poor man, “Don’t. You. Dare.”

And he didn’t.

I thought of that painting, when I tried to pull King James out of a Prussian blue background. Once again, my fallback WASP skin mixes, were not working. So I scraped everything off, and started an ochre underpainting. Gradually I lightened the tones, one layer at a time. At one point I had the Scottish King looking like a light-skinned African American, and I was tempted to leave him there. But this painting wasn’t about race. So, I brought his face up to that pasty yellow colour we honkies call skintone.

I’m thinking of this painting as an homage to my other early influence, abstract expressionism. (New Yorker cartoon from the nineties showing a group of people sitting in a circle, “Hi, my name is John, and I’m an Abstract Expressionist.”) I’ve just been to a wonderful show at the Bonnie Leyton Gallery by John McCallum which has reignited my love of raw, emotive, abstract expressionism. McCallum, a furniture maker and construction worker in his day job, uses shaped canvases and glues everything on in unrestrained creativity. I loved his landscape showing Harbour Drive and James Baird’s Cove from the Atlantic Parking Garage. Right at your “feet” the viewer sees actual roofing tiles stuck on the painting. In addition to being fearless, McCallum is a really strong draftsman, capturing a figure with a few deft strokes, and a room with minimal but accurate perspective lines.

Hence the addition of the rope. That was a good idea borrowed from McCallum.

All my Newfoundland stamps owe a credit to Christopher Pratt. And, Andy Warhol, who reproduced Campbell’s Soup cans. And Bill Rose, who has been combining American Pop Art with Newfoundland imagery throughout his career.

So these are two fun pieces, that celebrate my personal art history. “Barmp if you like art!”

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Je suis Charlie Hebdo

I’ve been very quiet on FaceBook lately and my promise to keep a blog for 2015 has fallen by the wayside. However, I am taking a course in my master’s program at Mount Saint Vincent University in Media, Culture and Society. I thought I would post the journal entries that I have been submitting. This was submitted on January 20, 2015.

Fourteen years after the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center, I still don’t understand Islamist terrorists. These last few weeks, while I was reading about communication theory and society, I have also been trying to understand the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and the aftermath that lead to the death of seventeen victims and three gunmen. Somewhere in my media bath that week, the phrase “conflicting narratives” attached itself to this event. This essay is my attempt to parse meaning from the actions of Wednesday, January 7th and the week that followed.

First I had to reject my preconception that the medium of the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Boko Haram is the Internet. In his first chapter of “Understanding Media” (1964) Marshall McLuhan explains that a night time baseball game is possible because of the electric light—therefore the light is the medium and the baseball game is the content. The content is a “matter of indifference”—it could be a baseball game, it could be brain surgery. What is important is that human association and activity has happened because of the electric light (McLuhan 8). Federman, in his very helpful essay “What is the meaning of the medium is the message?” defines a medium as anything from which a change emerges. That change in human association and activity is McLuhan’s message.

After the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office, Western media drew attention to the cartoons in that week’s issue of that magazine. Media panels debated both sides of the perceived issue: freedom of press versus offensive content. But the content of the Charlie Hebdo magazine was a matter of indifference. The medium that the Islamist terrorists used was violence, and the message was the reaction to that violence in the Western world.

In The Telegram (St. John’s, Newfoundland) columnist Gwynne Dyer said the Paris gunmen acted out a sophisticated strategy as part of a Muslim civil war over modernity. Despite the innocent people killed last week in Paris, even adding seven thousand killed in New York and victims in London and Bombay, the overwhelming majority of deaths in this civil war are Muslims killed by other Muslims. The message of the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission” (Dyer 2015). The message was the reaction of the West to that violence.

Islamist terrorists include many groups that disagree with each other, but are united in their disapproval of modernization in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, for the terrorists, most Muslims like modernity. Violence outside of the Muslim world, in Paris last week, is not to send a message to Westerners but to modernized Muslims. Islamists claim that democracy, free press, and Western education, are acts of colonization. An attack on a Western target triggers Western military invasions into Muslim countries, proving the jihadi contention that modernity is a Western plot (Dyer 2015).

I don’t want to minimize the deaths of seventeen innocent people. But this event perfectly fits the four characteristics of what Daniel J. Boorstin called a “pseudo-event”.

  1. It was not spontaneous. On the evening of the shooting a security expert on CBC’s The National, with nothing but an amateur video to analyze determined that these were professionals acting on a plan.
  2. It was designed for reproduction. One of the three gunmen, Cherif Kouachi, gave credit to al-Qaeda in Yemen, in an interview with a journalist (IBT 2015). This interview was taped during the hostage taking. A video was released two days after the death of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman in the Paris kosher supermarket. In the pre-recorded video Coulibaly pledged allegiance to ISIS (CBC News, January 11, 2015).
  3. Both released statements had an ambiguous relationship with reality. “We are not killers! We are defenders of the Prophet,” Kouachi told his interviewer. (IBT 2015) In real news events journalists tell us what happened, but reports of Coulibaly’s video and Kouachi’s interview explored motive and their conflicting claims of allegiance. Like all media releases, the content of their press statements was predictable and of little interest to Western audiences.
  4. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The cover of the next issue of Charlie Hebdo was a cartoon of the Prophet weeping with the words “All is forgiven.” In the Western narrative this was a gracious response, showing how the true Mohammed would feel about the killings. Western media largely represented the event as an attack on the freedom of the press, but modern Muslims were the targets of the violence. Modern Muslims were not reconciled by the cartoon image of the Prophet, but were offended and it placed them in a difficult position. The jihadists accused the West and modern Muslims of blaspheming. By representing the image of Mohammed, Charlie Hebdo showed that the jihadists were right, and any Muslim who said “Je suis Charlie” was demonstrably a blasphemer. It could be argued that the terrorists designed Charlie Hebdo’s cover cartoon.

In a sense all communication is a crude caricature, a clumsy attempt to say who we are and what we value. As our technology grows lighter, our world shrinks, our social contacts grow and our messages can be misunderstood by, and offensive to more people. The Islamist terrorists have discovered how to use media to create social change. But we need to understand more than how to use the media. We need to know when we are being played, and not continue to give violence a positive feedback loop. In a media-saturated society, we need to learn how to control both the medium and the message. Events like the attacks in Paris are recruitment tools attracting Western-raised and educated youth to join the Islamist terrorists. The West is in danger of losing a communications battle over the hearts and minds of modern Muslims because we don’t know what we are saying.

Boorstin, D. (1961). The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Random House.

Dyer, G. (2015, January 17). “There’s a strategy behind the Paris attacks.” The Telegram. p. 18A.

Federman, M. (2004, July 23). “What is the meaning of the medium is the message?” Retrieved from http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.htm .

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill.

(2015, January 11). “Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly pledges allegiance to ISIS in video.” CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/paris-gunman-amedy-coulibaly-pledges-allegiance-to-isis-in-video-1.2897127

Riva, Alberto. (2015, January 9). “Cherif Kouachi, Charle Hebdo Killer, Told French TV He Was Sent By Al Qaeda.” International Business Times. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/cherif-kouachi-charlie-hebdo-killer-told-french-tv-he-was-sent-al-qaeda-1779176

(2015, January 9). “Timeline/ Charlie Hebdo shooting: Key events in the attacks.” CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/charlie-hebdo-shooting-key-events-in-the-paris-attacks-1.2896084

Feminity Defined by a Postcard

One night my mother-in-law dreamed that she was standing in a crowd waiting for Clint Eastwood to pass.

When he walked by she called out, “Hi Clint! Remember me? I’m Jean Baltzer. George and I used to work for you at your ranch.”

And Clint said, “Hi Jean.”

I thought the dream was sad, but Jean seemed happy that Clint said hi to her.

“He was always real friendly,” she said.

The postcard in this collage was one of the early examples of celebrity culture. Neither E.L. Martin who wrote this postcard, nor her friend Emma Morgan, nicknamed “Puggie”, would have seen Miss Ellaline Terriss on the London stage. And this postcard was mailed a year before Ellaline Terriss’s first silent film. But Ellaline’s strength after the murder of her famous father, her marriage to another actor, and her raising two daughters, were all sympathetically covered in contemporary newspapers. Shown with a creamy complexion and the cinched waist of the Edwardian lady, Ellaline appears the model of womanhood.

The text on the postcard shows a less dramatic life with a very common dilemma. “No dear my way is not clear yet,” writes E. L. Martin aka “Muddles”. “Oh I do wish the answer would soon come. Geo. is so opposed to us going away he told me he would do everything in his power to prevent us from going  with the exception of ‘chaining me on’ with a piece of chain. So now it is very difficult for me to decide and Floss & Will are urging me the other way.”

The domestic interior in this collage shows the living room in Hawthorne Cottage, home to the mother and two sisters of Captain Bob Bartlett. They called this room “The Arctic Room” and filled it with photographs of Bartlett with famous people, apparently to promote his celebrity status. Ironically the Arctic Room is also covered in feminine flowers including the linoleum floor and the woodwork on the couch. Through the Great Depression, these women ran a farm and a teahouse, and struggled to maintain their cottage in style. The Arctic Room speaks to me of how hard women have worked to keep up appearances and meet external standards.

From the perspective of time, I am more curious about the domestic concerns of Muddles than the story of Ellaline Terriss. But any photo of E.L. Martin has been lost, and we are left with the image of celebrity. In the same way the Arctic Room doesn’t show us the turn-of-the-century lifestyle of the average woman in Conception Bay North, but the contemporary decorating fashions in London and New York. I don’t mean to be critical of the aesthetic choices of either the Bartlett women or Muddles. I thought that by framing their choices I could direct our attention to the women behind these images and the feminine ideal that shaped the lives of rural Newfoundland women in 1912.

Upcoming Event!

Here’s an interview that my cousin Trudy Morgan-Cole and I had with Angela Antle on CBC Radio’s Weekend Arts Magazine on Sunday, March 9, 2014:

Hypergraffiti

My cousin Jennifer Morgan and I are doing an artist talk together this Wednesday evening at the Red Ochre Gallery here in St. John’s, where Jennifer has an exhibit of prints based on the same collection of Coley’s Point postcards that inspired my book That Forgetful Shore (enough links in that sentence fer ya?). We were interviewed on CBC Radio’s Weekend Arts Magazine about it, and I put together this video of the postcards and some of Jennifer’s prints to accompany the audio of our interview. Hopefully it gives you a little foretaste of what you’re doing and perhaps, if you’re in the local area, you might want to drop down and see us this Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m.

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CofE Teacher

    “C. of E. Teacher” and “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Latifah”

I often like to listen to audio books when I’m working in my home studio. Sometimes I miss pages and have to rewind, but often I’ve found that the book I’m listening to begins to inform my artwork. Last September, when I started the finishing work of this collage, I was listening to the book, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” by Umberto Eco. I should clarify that this book is not called “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Latifah,” as I mistakenly told my friends–but it should have been! The Queen Loana in Eco’s novel is a pop culture creation, much like our modern day Queen Latifah, but maybe less a celebrity and more confined to her comic book setting. Or not.

The pretext of Eco’s book is that an Italian man wakes up in hospital with no idea of who he is. The doctors tell him he has been unconscious and has suffered memory loss. But his long-term formal memories remain, it is his personal memories that have disappeared. The book spools out like a mystery novel, as the main character, Yambo, searches for clues about his own life. His first conversation is composed of quotations he had memorized. People tell him stories about his life, but he fears that he is constructing a fake past from the memories of his friends and family. Yambo returns alone to his rural family home, and in an attic, begins to read the literature and listen to the music of his childhood.

I found the catalogue of the items in the attic fascinating and particularly compelling as I worked on a collage of images and artifacts found in our old family house in Coley’s Point. But as Eco’s novel continued, I was struck with how sympathetic Yambo’s problem was with mine. We have no photographs that identify Emma Morgan, the young woman who received these postcards I’ve been studying. And, because she only kept postcards sent to her, we don’t even have her writing. All I have to go by are what her friends and family sent her.

From badly written poems of his youth, Yambo deduces that he was in love with a beautiful blond. And he comes to believe that he spent his life looking for that woman. But then he finds the comic book about Queen Loana and her mysterious flame. Maybe Queen Loana was the template that made him fall in love with the mysterious blond. Eco seems to suggest that Yambo is a collection of stories that inspired his sex drive and his reactions in times of danger. My gut reaction is to disagree with such a mechanistic view of personality. But I’m also wondering–who am I if you take away my stories?

I have included in this collage a photograph of a group of people standing formally, behind four seated people. The women wear black skirts and white blouses, they all have their hair up. We have no idea who these people are–but I have decided that it is a photo of Emma Morgan’s teachers and graduating class of fellow future teachers. In the second row, one person over from the left, stands a short, spunky looking young woman with dark hair who fits the only physical description I have of Emma Morgan. I have decided that this woman, with the wisp of a smile, is Emma: standing in front of the photographer, about to start her new life.

I have coupled this photo of “Emma” with things from the house: the marble shoe with the lion on it was a souvenir from Europe, the wallpaper design would have been bought and put up by Emma and her sister Lizzie. I have included embroidery, because we do have a sampler from Emma’s mother, and there is the title of a self-improvement book, and a clock, the latter probably from the 1930’s. These are all things found in the house–but I have created a fiction. I have no idea who Emma was. The only thing I can say for certain is that, as in the postcard’s address, she was the Church of England Teacher in Rantem, Trinity Bay, in 1910. Emma, like Yambo, is an invention. I have created her, from these artifacts, and she invented herself, like Yambo, from her education, literature and culture.

Another question I’m asking myself is, is there anything that makes this collage distinctly “Newfoundland” art? I can see British influences, certainly with the sad and disappointed face of Victoria looking out from the postage stamp, but, aside from the island’s name on the stamp, and the address, this collection of memorabilia, could have come from any part of the British Empire, or in the case of Newfoundland, the former Empire, in the 1910’s.

The real Emma married Kenneth Reid, had children and moved to Boston, where she died in 1970, a U.S. citizen. Since we know so little about her, I feel free to create the spunky, ambitious, fisherman’s daughter that I’ve deduced from the pop images and text in these postcards and the pretty feminine things she left behind. But please be aware as you enter these images, this art just as much a historical fiction as my cousin Trudy Morgan-Cole’s novel “That Forgetful Shore.”