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Maria Litwin’s winter weave

Visual artist Maria Flawia Litwin was at The Banff Centre recently for a self-directed residency.  I spoke to her about her project, which involved weaving, Banff National Park, and a six-foot loom.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

I came to The Banff Centre with the intention of making a blanket for the National Park. I wanted to explore the idea of making something for a space that’s vast and unfeasible. You can’t leave anything behind and you can’t take anything away from the park, because it’s such a special environment, and a protected environment. So I thought of the idea of how this logically could happen, and what I came up with was an illusion, because realistically you could never really make a blanket for the park. I actually structured the loom in such a way that I could carry it outdoors. It has these portable legs, that I just bolt it into and I could take it anywhere. Schlepping that loom was not easy! It’s almost my height, and it’s icy out there, and cold, and wind catches the loom. It actually collapsed on me at a few points. But that’s where the magic happens.

To see more of Maria’s weaving project in action, click here.

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Walter Phillips Gallery: 1970s snapshot

The cover of the Food issue of the Canadian Whole Earth Almanac (1970).

The Walter Phillips Gallery exhibition To Become Whole (The Whole Issue) opened recently in the west lobby of the Eric Harvie Theatre. It’s a broad look at The Canadian Whole Earth Almanac, and uses the work of the Almanac’s founder, Ken Coupland, to investigate the community, ideology, and structure of the publication and the loose-knit artistic community that grew up around the Almanac in the 1970s.

I met curators Robin Simpson and Danielle St. Amour as they were putting the finishing touches on the exhibition before its opening. Simpson is an art historian and curator currently studying for a PhD at the University of British Columbia. St. Amour is the Walter Phillips Gallery Curatorial Research work study.

Where did you first encounter the Almanac?

DS: I grew up with the Whole Earth Catalogue in my house. It was my father’s, and I was really interested in this Canadian counterpart, the trajectory of which was completely different. The readers and makers of the Whole Earth Catalogue have a trajectory that’s been traced through to Silicon Valley, which formed companies such as Google and other massive technological corporations. With the Almanac, they were more involved in grassroots communities and the artist-run community at large.

Curators Danielle St. Amour (left) and Robin Simpson at the opening of their show To Become Whole (The Whole Issue). Photo: Rita Taylor.

RS: As a designer, he seemed to have his hands in absolutely everything in Toronto. He was designing this almanac, he was an architecture school dropout, he was working for a publishing house, he was collaborating with other artists, he moved to San Francisco, he started making animated films, he was a journalist for the San Francisco Sentinel, which was an early gay newspaper and later, throughout the ’80s, became more of a professional graphic designer. Ken’s style was really noticeable. There is a sensuality to it, and a precision, and there’s a playfulness to it in terms of the juxtapositions and the images chosen. It seemed like it was worth investigating.

Did you find anything unexpected? 

RS: The archival material we’ve been working with has principally been correspondence between men. What we’ve been thinking about, as the project carries on, is how can you rewire this inventory in such a way as to subdue those male voices for a bit so we can take into account the great deal of women involved in that project too?

The Walter Phillips Gallery show To Become Whole (The Whole Issue), in the west lobby of the Eric Harvie Theatre. Photo: Rita Taylor.

DS: There are a few issues mentioned in the back of the almanacs that were never actually completed. We took one of the titles, the Dream Issue, and collaborated with some artists and writers—many of whom have passed through The Banff Centre in the last little while. We put together a publication to complement the exhibition— it’s as much a part of the exhibition as it is a catalog for it. It’s for sale at the front desk of the Walter Phillips Gallery.

I noticed that geodesic dome houses were quite popular during the Whole Earth Almanac days. Would you recommend that The Banff Centre get a dome dorm?

DS: I think we should get a dome! RS: Although they were known to be quite leaky. DS: They weren’t very efficient, though. RS: Maybe we should get a yurt.

To Become Whole (The Whole Issue) is on through January 19, 2014.

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Sarah Anne Johnson: beauty and intimacy

Grange Prize-winning visual artist Sarah Anne Johnson was in Banff recently to lead the thematic residency Another World in the Studio. She was also getting ready for a new photography exhibition, Wonderlust, at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York.

The residency was open to artists of all disciplines with a theme of focused time in the studio. “We make work, and then we talk about the work that we’ve made, instead of talking about someone else’s theories or ideas,” she explains. “Everyone seems to respect each other enough to give each other the truth.” The group critique sessions were Johnson’s favourite aspect of the residency. “People finish school and they feel like they have to solve all of their problems themselves, and it’s not easy, allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of a group,” she says. In fact, the critique sessions helped the group bond. “At the end of the first week, the ‘I love you’s started to get thrown around. This has happened before when I’ve been here too, because I think a place like this brings out the best in people.”

Artist Sarah Anne Johnson in her studio in Glyde Hall.

Artist Sarah Anne Johnson in her studio in Glyde Hall. Photo: Don Lee.

The Winnipeg-based artist’s work has often combined photography with diorama, multimedia, painting, sculpture, and performance. Series including Tree Planting and Arctic Wonderland have led to her current work, Wonderlust, which explores sex and intimacy, burnished with scratching, gouging, and glitter to effect both beauty and intimacy.

Another World in the Studio marked Johnson’s fifth visit to The Banff Centre. She’s participated in three self-directed residencies and one thematic residency, and was at the Centre in 2012 to work with sculpture facilitator Sean Procyk. When I went into her studio, it was filled with work inspired by many different things. Some of the photographs on the walls were from Wonderlust, while others were from music festivals she’s been attending for years. “I’ve only begun to work on this so I’m not sure what direction it will take, but as in all my photographic work I am interested in temporary communities and how we experience the great outdoors,” Johnson says. “By painting, scratching or collaging over the image I’m trying to show what the experience feels like, not just what it looks like. I want to show psychology of the space.” She also said that she’s always nervous about showing new work—especially Wonderlust. “My last work was about the arctic—these cold, vast, looming landscapes—and this is people having sex. So it couldn’t be any more different.”

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Del Hillier’s industrial park walkabout

It’s frighteningly easy to let Banff Avenue’s tourist gauntlet engulf you. And it’s even easier to find multiple reasons to never leave the artistic utopia that is The Banff Centre. But as residents of the world’s most famous mountain town, it’s harder than expected to explain what makes Banff, well…Banff. The Banff Centre artist and work study Del Hillier is working on it. He’s curated walking tours of Banff’s industrial park, delving into the history and development of an area of town sight-seers usually skip over.

“I’m just as preoccupied with my life as everyone else and don’t always see the things which actually interest me,” Hillier says. “One afternoon, I was hanging out in the industrial park with my friend and I was pretending to be a tour guide. It was entertaining and funny and that’s how the idea was born. The next thing you know, my number-one goal is to become a Banff Industrial Park expert so I’d feel comfortable enough to lead a walking tour. I trained myself.”

As an artist, Hillier was already working in immersive environments: repurposing an abandoned building in the Yukon to establish a trading post, and photographing salvaged hubcaps, gift-wrapped and placed next to vehicles on the streets of Prague.

“I’m not sure if I have an artistic practice in the way I consider how others pursue their work,” he says. “Since art school I’ve been dabbling and trying to figure out what’s going to sustain my interest in the so-called ‘real world.’ Anything that even remotely begins to take off as a project, I’ve grabbed onto right away with the hopes something worthy will come of it.”

The idea of immersion in the “real world” hinges upon a sense of openness and curiosity that inevitably leads to new perspectives on existing surroundings. And this is what Del’s tour — combining facts, historical accounts and anecdotes, and personal experience — accomplishes. On my second tour, I found myself noticing things I had previously missed, like the spinal column of an animal resting next to a barrel, and some pallets by the entrance of the industrial park’s wildlife research laboratory.

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Renske Janssen: “I keep trying to erase the big things”

Renske Janssen in the Gerin-Lajoie studio with her recent work. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Renske Janssen in the Gerin-Lajoie studio with her recent work. Photo: Rita Taylor.

During her three-month residency here through the Mondriaan Fund in the Netherlands, Renske Janssen’s plan was to write a short publication of 10 essays exploring how thought leads to action, “how theories lead to material things.” But setting out to explore the relationship between art and nature in Banff, she ran into a bit of a challenge. “At one point I felt the mountains were over-subjectified in a way, it felt to me almost a cliché to do something with the mountains,” she says. In order to approach the challenge she made her focus more personal, ”as I walk around Tunnel Mountain and around the studio I keep trying to erase the big things and focus on the small things.”

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Under the Influence with Michael Turner


Michael Turner in Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson’s Walter Phillips Gallery exhibition Bottles Under the Influence. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Michael Turner is as close as any Canadian author to a punk icon. His 1992 book Hard Core Logo provided the source material for what is routinely touted as the best Canadian film of all time: a mockumentary, of the same title, that depicts the turbulent final tour of an aging Vancouver punk band. I remember my high school English teacher’s section on Turner’s novel, which unfolds its narrative through a mix of prose, song lyrics, and diner receipts, as a singular period of class participation from a group of stoner kids.

With the blood, sweat, and vomit that drip from the pages of that novel, I think those stoners would have been surprised to find that Turner’s attention had shifted to the loftier world of contemporary art. I was. The author gave a recent talk here on Canadian artists Tamara Henderson and Julia Feyrer, whose exhibition Bottles Under the Influence is currently at Walter Philips Gallery. I talked to Turner before the event, and learned how his early punk writings channel the spirit of visual art. Continue Reading →

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