Impressions of the Audain Art Museum, Whistler

Since our visit to the Audain Art Museum in Whistler last week, I have been trying to decide why I feel some ambivalence about my experience there.  The Museum is in a forest, and overlooks a meadow and woods.  It is beautifully integrated into the natural setting and is a spectacular building, about 55,000 square feet, which includes six galleries for the permanent collection and an exhibition wing with galleries on two floors.

The Museum is the generous gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa, and includes a large part of their personal art collection, an eclectic combination of British Columbia art, with a strong focus on northwest first nations art, and Canada’s largest permanent display of the works of Emily Carr.

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“Forest Light”, Emily Carr, c 1931

“The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)”, by Haida Master Carver, James Hart was the highlight of the tour for me.   It is the only free- standing dance screen in the world, and the only one carved to this level of detail.  Principal animal figures from Haida legends have been brought together in this piece.

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The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) by James Hart in the Audain Art Museum

Although I saw many other beautiful pieces of art in the spectacular new museum building, I was surprised that I did not have a stronger connection with the Museum, and wondered why that might be.

I have been comparing my reactions to those I had the first time (and subsequent times) I have visited the Haida Heritage Centre near Skidegate in Haida Gwaii.  From my first visit there in 2007, I was inspired and enriched by my engagement with the works of art, and by the people I met there.    Although it is similar in size to the Audain Art Museum, it serves more diverse purposes.  It houses the Haida Gwaii Museum, Performance House, Canoe House, Bill Reid Teaching Centre, two multipurpose classrooms, a Welcome House area, and Eating House.  It had been a dream of the Haida people for decades to build a place where they would be able to preserve and celebrate their past, as well as celebrate the living culture of their people.  In 2007, when the Centre was finally opened at the ancient village site at Kay Llnagaay, people could take pride in this achievement as the result of the collaboration of the whole community, reflecting the values of that community.  Every piece of art in the museum has meaning to the Haida, as it is part of their history and culture, and that makes the experience, even for a non-Haida person, very powerful.

 

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Haida Heritage Centre Museum, Haida Gwaii

The current holdings of the Audain Art Museum reflect the artistic choices of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa over many years, and of course, reflect their values and tastes in art.  The Museum was built at Whistler, in part, because the Resort Municipality offered a 199-year lease for $1 a year, not because the donors or the artists had any particular connection to the area.  Although Emily Carr is prominent in this collection, there are few other women whose work is displayed. This is starting to change, according to Darrin Martens, Chief Curator.  A new work by Susan Point, Salish artist, will become part of the collection in the Fall of 2017.  Although not part of the Museum’s works, but right outside the Museum, is Point’s joyful installation “A Timeless Circle.”  It is the newest addition (March 2016) to Whistler’s Public Art Program.

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  • “A Timeless Circle” Art Installation, Whistler, by Susan Point, Salish Artist

When James Hart was carving “The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)” he said that doing this work was proving “that we are still here.  We are not gone.  We are not a dead culture.”  If I had seen that work in Haida Gwaii, I would have felt his message very clearly.  Although I loved the piece, I didn’t feel that context in the Audain Gallery.   I think this missing context is what made me less connected to many of the works, than I might have been.   In Haida Gwaii, the works are part of survival of a people and a culture.  In the Audain Gallery, they are beautiful pieces of art, which have been purchased for their beauty.

The Museum has only been open since March of 2016, so will inevitably change over time.  It has developed, out of necessity, as a “top down” project, not a community project.   I hope that when new acquisitions are made, more British Columbians will have input to the direction of the museum, and will be able to make suggestions for educational and cultural events that could be held in that space.  Using the donated works as a base, I hope that the Museum will evolve to be truly reflective of the work of the artists of British Columbia, and will develop to take its place as an integral and critical part of the larger British Columbia arts community.

Statement of Intent for Creative Project–Documentary–“Susan Point–Bringing Salish Art Back to the World”

 “Many of us have stood before a painting, listened to a piece of music or watched a piece of choreography and felt a sense of inexplicable, even inexpressible, understanding or revelation.  Our emotions or thoughts—what we might even call responses of the spirit—may have no rational source, yet they reverberate within us with a strange conviction.” (Wyman, 3)

These words of Max Wyman have guided my journey in approaching art over the past weeks, as I have made a conscious attempt to remain open to the possibility of being swept away by the works I have experienced.

Last year, in the GLS travel study tour of Italy, I made every attempt to remain open to the magnificent works of art we visited, and hoped to find the pure joy that Wyman describes.  It was, however, at the Vancouver Art Gallery in May 2017, that I first experienced the gift of a deep and significant emotional connection with art.

As I engaged with the works of Susan Point’s exhibition, “Spindle Whorl” at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I felt an inexplicable sense of joy and inner understanding.  I was connected to the art through the different materials, shapes and colours, and my spirit was touched.

I was also moved by the story of the artist.  At the age of 9,  by government decree, Susan Point was sent away from her home and family to live at the the Sechelt Residential School, where she stayed for five years.  She describes that period of her life as a “heartbreaking time”.  Her powerful installation, “Butterfly Grid”, represents her disconnection from the traditional wisdom and teachings of the Salish, and the loss of her Hul‘q’umi’num’ language. (Point)

At age 28, and with three small children, she began her life as an artist.  She initially didn’t know that Salish art still existed.  The cultural heritage that had existed for thousands of years had been lost after contact with Europeans.  Smallpox and other diseases had reduced the Musqueam population, estimated to have been 25,000 before contact, to fewer than 100 people by 1920.  What might have been left of the culture at that time, was further destroyed by Canadian government law that forced first nations children to attend residential schools from the 1840’s to the final closures in 1996. (Kew). For 150 years, indigenous children were prevented from learning the languages, customs, teaching and practices of their ancestors.  Salish art had almost been lost to the world.

After training in the techniques of the northwest First Nations traditions, Point did some research at the Museum of Anthropology at U.B.C. and discovered some ancient Salish artifacts.  These pieces inspired her, and have guided her artistic practice to this day.  She resolved to bring back the lost Salish art of her ancestors.  (Point, 2007).

In a recent panel discussion at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Jim Kew, Cultural Representative for the Musqueam, described the results of the decimated population and the imposition of residential schools this way.  “We were pushed to the edge of eternity by colonial genocide, but our world staggered on.”  Speaking of Point’s extensive revival of Salish art over the past 36 years, Kew says, “Susan has breathed new life into our future.”

Wyman has described culture, in part, as “the collective awareness, experience and memory that we share with the people around us”, and that artistic creativity becomes the tangible expression of the culture in which it exists, a living affirmation of the shared hopes and visions of a group of people who have chosen to live together.” (Wyman, 14)

With the loss of that awareness, experience and memory, the Salish people lost their culture, and their suffering was intense.  Susan Point has become “a force and a living legend”, (Young), and has motivated and mentored a whole new generation of Salish artists, including her four children.

I knew that through my interaction with Susan Point’s work, I had experienced something exceptional, and wanted to find a way to share this.  I felt that by using images of the art, and providing some of the stories narrated by the artist herself, I would be able to express my emotional connection and experience most effectively.  Rather than a traditional essay, I decided to produce my first documentary film, “Susan Point—Bringing Salish Art Back to the World” (7 minutes, 40 seconds).

This is a personal interpretation of the beauty of Susan Point’s art, and a story of the artist.  It is a story of heartbreak, resilience, strength, creativity and the re-birth of Coast Salish art.   It is a story of a woman who has created masterpieces of beauty we can now experience here, in the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people, and these can be found in galleries, churches, parks, and public spaces.  It is an assertion of the cultural presence that was almost destroyed, but is now thriving, due to the artist’s genius and persistence.

 

Works Cited

 Kew, Jim.  “The Influence and Legacy of Susan Point.” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver. 2 May 2017.  Panel Discussion. (Unedited video supplied by Vancouver Art Gallery to Linn Teetzel)

Point, Susan.  Butterfly Grid (2016).  Art Installation.  Vancouver Art Gallery.  Vancouver, B.C.

—. Susan Point. 2007. Film. BC Achievement Foundation–BC Creative Achievement Awards for First Nations Art.

Thom, Ian, Senior Curator—Historical and Arnold Grant, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art.  Spindle Whorl. 2017. Vancouver Art Gallery.                   https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_point.html

Wyman, Max. Defiant Imagination. 1 edition. Vancouver, B.C:  2004. Print.

Young, India.  “The Influence and Legacy of Susan Point.” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver. 2 May 2017.  Panel Discussion. (Unedited video supplied by Vancouver Art Gallery to Linn Teetzel)

 

 

Moving Through Grief: A Review of Dorothy Dittrich’s new play, “The Piano Teacher”

The Piano Teacher, a powerful new play by Vancouver’s Dorothy Dittrich, musician, writer, musical director and playwright, explores themes of loss and grief and the slow process of healing.  It is also a story of love and friendship and the healing powers of music.

The story starts with Erin, a woman who has been incapacitated by grief since the tragic death of her husband and son, killed in a car accident by a drunk driver, just before Christmas,  two years earlier.  Although she is a concert pianist, she has receded into herself, and has been unable to touch her piano since the tragedy ripped her life apart.

We meet Erin when she has finally been able to find enough energy and interest to attend a piano recital for the young daughter of a friend.  At that recital, Erin meets the piano teacher, Elaine, and unexpectedly discovers a sanctuary where she feels safe, again, for the first time.

Erin reaches out to Elaine, and the two meet at Elaine’s home.

Actor Megan Leitch, as Erin, does a masterful job of portraying the pain Erin is feeling, and at the beginning of the play, seems fragile and smaller than life.  On the other hand, Caitriona Murphy, as Elaine, portrays a vibrant and strong character who is very much in control of her life, but is also sensitive and empathetic to Erin and her pain.  The actors captured the fragility of Erin and the strength of Elaine in a powerful way that immediately drew me in, and I became an active part of the experience until after the last line was spoken.

As a friendship between Erin and Elaine evolves, we see that Elaine has also experienced her own losses and grief, but is healthy enough to be living a vibrant life.  She initially doesn’t know how to help Erin, but continues to listen and to be available for her.  This is a story of transition, of moving through difficult emotions to a different state of mind and health, with the help of people who offer their love and support.   Playwright, Dittrich, says that “something about flow and moving through a feeling struck me as distinctly musical”, and music is central to this work.  Part of the message I took from this play was that grief and loss can be mitigated, in part, by the act of creation.  In Erin and Elaine’s case, it was creating music, but other forms of creativity could also assist a person suffering from loss to move through the pain, and on to another stage of his or her life.

A turning point for Erin was when she had the courage to follow Elaine’s suggestion that she “make a change” in her life, and Erin made that change by hiring a handyman to install a large window in her home.  This was a renovation she had always wanted to make, but one vetoed by her late husband.  The installation was an obvious metaphor for bringing new light into her world, but it was also a significant step away from her past life, and into her new life.

The handyman, Tom, was played by Kamyar Pazandeh.   Tom added a new dimension to the play with his energy, humour, common sense, and his love of life.  We know that he had his own regrets about his life, but we didn’t learn a lot about these, as the focus of the work was on the relationship between Erin and Elaine.

As an audience member, drawn into Erin’s grief, I found it difficult to be reminded of the painful, visceral grief buried inside myself from the past, and of the knowledge that if I live long enough, more losses are ahead.  The work caused me to reflect upon how I might deal with this pain in the future, and was reminded of the power of friendship, creativity and the importance taking those difficult first steps forward, after a significant loss.

Congratulations to actors, Megan Leitch, Caitriona Murphy, and Kamyar Pazandeh;  creative team, Yvette Nolan, Director, Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg, David Roberts, Set Designer, Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer, Kyla Gardiner, Lighting Designer, Patrick Pennefather, Sound Designer, Allison Spearin, Stage Manager, and Sandra Drag, Apprentice Stage Manager, for bringing Dorothy Dittrich’s compelling work to life, and for contributing to the richness of Vancouver theatre and to the cultural and emotional experiences of those who shared this creative, thoughtful and important new work.