In the hallway outside the gym, a life-sized metal eagle clutched in its steel talons a writhing metal fish. On the walls were brilliantly coloured quilts, delicate black and white photographs, a brutal almost impressionistic oil painting of a Canadian soldier with a gun blazing during the D-Day assault on Juno Beach. Alongside them were pictures: “Autumn Breeze”, “Autumn Lake”, “Salad Delights”, and “A Country Day”.
Inside the gymnasium, while there were paintings with titles such as “Red Boat and Fishing Stacks”, “Family Album” and “Fall Apples”, there were also works entitled “Infrared Nexus”, “Torn Sunset” and “Where I’m From #4 – The Mollusk”.
Is was very warm and very dry in the Whitney Pier Memorial Junior High School Gymnasium that first night of the Pierscapes ’98 Art Gallery. If the evening air had been a painting, it might have been “Summer’s Last Sigh” or “Postindustrial Autumn”. Inside it was “Re-circulated Breath”.
As the harsh white gym lighting glared overhead, two hundred or more people shuffled over the earth-toned vinyl sheeting protecting the gym floor as they moved from art cluster to art cluster. There were thirty artists and almost ninety examples of their work on display in every conceivable medium: oil paintings of fishing dories in rocky coves, big technicoloured allegorical canvases of an artist’s psychic journey, tiny colour photographic slides, sculpture assemblies made from old fuses and wooden blocks, beautiful hand-painted silk kimonos, etchings of familiar Maritime landscapes brought alive by their fine detail and wistful watercolours of Pier streetscapes.
People stood and looked. They pointed, cooed and smiled, shook their heads in bafflement, thrust their faces close to the canvasses and, although they were not supposed to, they touched. Then they moved on. As the official opening ceremonies got under way on the gym stage, the mc asked all of the people sitting on the folded slats of the bleachers to make sure they “don’t sit on the art”. Nobody did.
One piece out of the ninety captured me. It was an etching of a hill valley with a slim ribbon of a river winding through by Antigonisher Vicki L. MacLean. The more I looked into the forest and scrub and cloudscape the deeper I walked into the picture. It felt like a homecoming. It made me curious to find out if anyone else had the same reaction to piece another piece of art there that night. All of the art had that power. I looked at the crowd around me and wondered with all there was to see, what was it that they were seeing? Everyone enjoyed what they saw, but was it over-thinking on my part, to hope that everyone should have that experience of encountering something that stops them dead in their tracks?
Two days later I was on the Whitney Pier bus thinking similar thoughts on my way to the Pierscape Literary Evening at Trinity United Church. I thought I knew the route of the Pier bus. I was wrong. The bus went past the double row of company houses on Victoria Road, went by the site of the old dairy, through the homes above Lingan Road, back onto Lingan Road, to the old Radar Base and through the blocks of seniors housing (at this point I thought I had mistakenly got on the New Waterford bus). It headed back down Lingan Road, took a right onto Broadway, down the hill to Victoria Road, out towards South Bar, off Victoria Road through the neighbourhood streets that overlook the big pier, back onto Victoria Road and, at last, to the front door of the church. On Monday night, my niece had driven me to the junior high school in under ten minutes. On Wednesday night, I was on the bus for close to forty. Bud I did get to see a lot of Whitney Pier and that seemed appropriate. (In fact, when the Pierscape organizers plan next year’s event, they might consider loading visitors on the Pier bus, either with a live guide or a pre-recorded tape lecture that sightseers can listen to on their walkmans, like they do at art museums and Civil War battle sites. It would nicely complement the walking tours covering the religious places and industrial architecture of the Pier’s various ethnic communities which they offered this year).
After being bounced around for over half an hour, I was relieved to sit in a sturdy wooden pew facing the bone white pipes of the big organ at the back of the altar. Group readings are as eclectic an experience as group art exhibits; the juxtapositions can be as thought provoking as the individual works themselves. After Sadie Halloway recited a sweet poem about the power of “warm tea and jam” to heal the world’s woes, artist/poet Bernard Siller (who had work in the Art Gallery) read visionary work loaded with phrases like “prestressed tautology” that ran fourteen minutes because, as Siller says in the poem, “free association don’t come cheap”. Lillian Marsman read some short biographical sketches of three people whose community work had enriched the Pier.
Poet Joe Sherman grew up in the Pier but left in his late teens in the mid-sixties, but as he said, “when you leave a place young, you have a door open.” He had chosen some poems that were “Piercentric”—the memory of a corner store owner, a meditation of the transitory nature of local fame experienced by a pair of twin brother musicians. Whenever the audience recognized a local reference in a poem they gave a collective delighted chuckle. Not being from the Pier, I couldn’t share the laugh, but I still enjoyed the poetry.
I wondered if prophets are never honoured in their own lands, can artists really be seen or writers really heard in their hometown? I’ve had this thought at various local cultural events—the works are well-crafted and thoughtful and the audiences supportive and appreciative and the two coming together is always a community enriching experience. But when has a locally produced poem or play or painting pissed off its audience with a hard truth? Even Angus MacLean’s dark and cancerous play “North End & Attic” was wildly cheered by its audience. Sometimes I wonder if audiences should work as hard to challenge the artist as the artist struggles to challenge her or his audience.
I got a drive home with a friend. There was a show about blowing up buildings on the Learning Channel.