Art Road Trip: Ottawa, Part One (Inuit Art)

Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada (NGC) isn't the Smithsonian and it doesn't try to be. It's mostly as advertised: a repository of works from our northern neighbor and that makes it a treasure in its own right.  Remarkably, prior to comedian Steve Martin's recent curation of the works of landscape artist Lawren Harris, few Americans had thought much about Canadian art. Their loss. I will highlight a few things that struck my fancy in a recent visit to the NGC. Full disclosure: I'm not an art historian, so my remarks will be personal, observational, and preferential.

The Canadian aesthetic begins with how Canadians view indigenous peoples. They neither ghettoize native peoples nor assume that works from academically trained practitioners of the "fine arts" tradition are superior or more complex. It's normal to enter a NGC gallery and see works from "First Nations Peoples" such as the Cree, the Crow, the Tlingit, or the M├ętis (Indian/European mixed race) standing cheek by jowl with oils, sculptures, and other pieces produced by Euro-Canadians. And when curators comment on a Haida carved box from the Northwest, they do so with the same reverent terms they apply to Impressionist or Renaissance paintings.

My favorite First Nations artists are the Inuit. Art from the Arctic Circle region consists largely of ritual objects, stone-engraved prints, graphic designs, drawings, sculpture, and vernacular items such as baskets, clothing, fishhooks, harpoons, blankets, and tools. Some of these are ancient and date as far back as the 5 th century BCE, but much is more recent. That's because a lot Inuit art is analogous to that from Native Americans of the Southwest: it developed in response to Euro-Caucasian market forces. In other words, it was made for trade or sale. This became even more pronounced in the 1960s when the Canadian government set up art cooperatives to bring outside income into remote areas. It worked especially well in Cape Dorset, located on the southwest tip of Baffin Island. Today, Cape Dorset prints and carvings fetch handsome prices across the globe.

 My love of Inuit art comes from having seen works on paper from Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92) in both Montreal and Toronto in the 1970s, and then the NGC's retrospective of his work in 1990. I'll leave it others to determine Pudlo's place in the Inuit artistic pantheon, but if you have any doubts about whether art can change society, consider that in the 1970s most North Americans knew little about Baffin Island other than what they read in tales of ice-bound explorers and now it's the center of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut.  Its art is often naturalistic, mythical, or religious in nature, but there are also heavy doses of geometric design and representations of ordinary life. Some of my favorites are trenchant comments cloaked in humor on the ways in which tradition melds, contrasts, and clashes with Western religion, politics, customs and technology. There are scores of graphic artists on display at the NGC, but you need not take a crash course to appreciate their skillfulness, whimsy, or command of color and shape.

Carving is the best-known Inuit tradition. There's a gallery devoted to centuries of Inuit carving and even a brisk walk through will reveal the differences between museum and gallery quality works and the cheap knockoffs pedaled in tourist shops. Carvers originally worked in antler and ivory (from walruses and narwhals). Some still do as First Nations are allowed to hunt whales and game, but most newer works are fashioned from resin, bone, or soapstone—polished and buffed to a high sheen. These works are solid, weighty, and tactile. Popular themes include marine animals, bears, mythical creatures, and people. 

I highly recommend spending a lot of time in these galleries. Let's face it, you don't need to go to Ottawa to see European art, but you might to see stuff from Baffin Island. It may be the world's fifth largest island (who knew?), but all of Nunavut has just 37,000 people. Inuit art will help you imagine what life was once like in such a remote land. It also challenges you to imagine it is now. Art and technology have helped transform Nunavut, but next time you're in Montreal, pause to consider that Cape Dorset is still another 1250 miles to the north!     


New Music for Early October: Featuring Shelly Waters, Swearingen and Kelli and More


Remember this name: Shelly Waters. Her new self-titled recording showcases a voice that demands adjectives such as huge and wide ranging. Best of all, she really knows how to sing. These twelve tracks capture her in many moods. “Drink the Water” is a gritty and grungy song in which the soulfulness of an old Motown record meets the muscularity of a Stax recording with Waters wailing above the Hammond B-3 about the man who done her wrong. She gets saucy on “Red Hot Red,” a retro road song with surf guitar, gets bluesy in old-style country way on “Jackpot,” covers Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” like it’s a six-tissue weepy, makes the miles melt away in the (ahem!)  MyFirst Car,” and goes all Emmy Lou-like on “Evangeline.” Waters milks emotions from her material, sometimes in a commanding way, as she leads a bold electric song like “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” and sometimes by making herself vulnerable, as in the lovely “Louisiana Rain.” ★★★★

Add E.J. Ouellette to the list of local artists whose music ought to get out more. He’s a Virginian by birth, but he and his band Crazy Maggie have long been a fixture in the Boston rock scene, though he’s more of a hybrid than a true rocker. Think Steve Earle with a fiddle. A Noisetrade sampler highlights his mix of roadhouse rock, blues, folk, and Celtic. He can swamp out on songs like “Conjure Man,” but hecan also put on the Irish and get reel; “Jenny’s Jam” is an exciting exploration of the Celtic standard “Jenny’s Chickens,” which is known in Scotland and Cape Breton as “Sleepy Maggie.” ★★★ ½

The National Parks” bills itself as an “alternative,” a (perhaps too expansive) label thrown onto music that takes advantage of electronics and strays a bit too far from the pop mainstream. The first adjective that pops into my mind upon listening to Until I Live is “shimmery.” Songs such as “Caracao,” “Anywhere,” “Meridians,” and “Take You Away” are indicative of the band’s preference for upbeat love songs and a surround sound presentation style that generally opens small, becomes big, and swells. Vocalist Brady Parks has a pleasant voice, though it is sometimes subsumed by all the production. At times, “alternative” means too many musical ingredients, which is what I felt about the string bridge of “Monsters of the North.” But I liked the use of strings on “You Are Gold” where things come together in a dramatic manner that feels like it ought to be playing behind a film. I also liked the simpler, sincere, yet mildly goofy “BaBa Ra.” Guess I’m suggesting that this band could use my stylistic variation—not just more things added to the mix. ★★★

The husband-wife team of Swearingen and Kelli (A.J. and Jayne) offer up a delightful new album heavy on love songs. Swearingen grew up in Pennsylvania with a love of outlaw country, Jim Croce, and the guitar playing of David Lindley. Kelli was weaned on artists such as John Denver, Glen Campbell, and Fleetwood Mac. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that their music draws from country, folk, pop, and soul—the stuff we tend to call Americana. It’s honest stuff and they have great voices. Listen hard to the launch notes from Swearingen; he’s a baritone, but you’ll hear bass at the bottom. Kelli is skillful in adding hints of defiance to her prettier tones. The title track of Marrying Kind is tender, but forceful—as befits a song about a woman who thinks she might not be cut out for matrimony, but might go there—on her own terms! Freedom and risk-taking also get workouts on “Trying to Try” and “Survival.” For his part, Swearingen adds husk through both voice and a variety of guitars, including a lap steel and an old Rickenbacker. The only video currently available from the new record is “Annalise,” a bittersweet remembrance of true love. This one is a tad lighter than some of the rest, so check out older stuff on their Website as one of the things I like about these folks is the way they mix things up. ★★★★     

Feel like you're out of touch with what the college crowd is into? Since 2003, Louisville's Forecastle Festival has showcased hot bands. I heard a mix tape previewing the 2017 festival that also included some past performances. Check out reggae-influenced "Feels Like Summer" from Weezer; the emo "Barbary Coast" from Conor Oberst; the ambient "Horizon" from Tycho; cacophonous rock from Big Thief ("Shark Smile"); power pop from Farro ("Walkways"); punk from Beach Slang ("Spin the Dial"); and soulful sounds from Chicano Batman ("Friendship")and Jeffrey James. There's also some badass rap that disses Kanye West from Jack Harlow. Others to check out include: Rayland Baxter, Jay Jayle, Oyster Kids, Whitney, and a host of others. You won't like it all, but at least you'll set your personal refresh button. ★★★

Joshua Radin and Rachel Yamagata have teamed up for a EP appropriately named The Coffee House Tour. Radin has been around for a while and you may have caught him on TV with Ellen DeGeneres. He offers sweet-voiced acoustic music that's like being wrapped in a blanket made of musical fleece. "Falling" is a fragile, pretty song about cutting to the no-BS part of a relationship: When you're falling/Do you think of me?/Are you the road or the end? "High and Low" is the logical follow-up: an I-in-for-the-long run song of commitment. These, like "My My Love" are bright songs sung in high tenor voice. I wish he'd do more at places where he aspirates, but that's me. Rachel Yamagata is the one who adds oomph. Her "Let Me Be Your Girl" won't knock you over with its pop lyrics, but she gives it some blue-eyed soul grit and meshes well with the song's strong bass structure. She's jazzy soulful on "Stick Around," and evokes late-night country blues on "Black Sheep." ★★★ ½


Beartown Derivative but Redeems Itself


By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 415 pages.

Here's a rarity: a Fredrick Backman book I merely liked instead of loving. It tells of a small Swedish town whose better days are in the past. Beartown lies in the sticks, it's cold, its economic base has withered, and more of its population struggles than thrives. In the States we'd call it a "tough" town. There is even a gang of black-jacketed men that frequent the local bar and menace everyone except the bar's owner, Ramona.

Beartown doesn't have much going for it—except hockey—a stand-in for what passes for civic pride. Hockey rules in Beartown and its best players are idolized, even when still in their teens. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Erdhal is a god on ice—one destined for the NHL, the former fate of Beartown's general manager Peter Andersson. Kevin and his brilliant coach David might even bring a national juniors championship to Beartown, which might mean a new rink, a hockey academy, and needed economic revitalization. It's practically a given that David's former mentor, Sune, will be fired as A-level coach and that he and Kevin will transition to A hockey.

A quick word on Swedish hockey: There are six levels of competitive hockey and things get serious when a player advances to the highly competitive top junior leagues for players aged (mostly) 16-21. The best junior players go A-level (for HockeyAllvenskan), a steppingstone to professional hockey for elite players. This is important for this story, as Swedish hockey is generally a club sport rather than one identified with schools. They have presidents, executive boards, well-heeled sponsors, and general managers, not just a coach or two.

Bang… bang … bang…. That's the sound of hockey pucks smacking up against the rink boards and it's also Backman's cue to look for chips in the ice that misdirect good intentions, good manners, good values, and basic dignity. Eventually. The first 170 pages of Beartown are derivative of Britt-Marie Was Here, but with a different town, older kids, hockey instead of soccer, and sans quirky Britt-Marie. After page 170, the novel turns darker and that's what saves it. Of hockey Backman writes, "It's only a game. It can only change people's lives." But not necessarily in good ways.

After page 170, Beartown ceases to be as much about hockey the sport and more about the culture of hockey—one that turns boys into skating warriors, transforms them into a wolf pack of spoiled brats, sows the seeds of misogyny, and so robs them of their childhood that they develop adult habits—mostly the bad ones. Beartown's adults have plenty of bad habits to pass on: alcoholism, domestic strife, hooliganism, ruthless ambition, emotional absenteeism, and a whole lot of stuff that falls into the category of what is often dubbed "the hidden injuries of class."
Backman once again assembles memorable characters. On the youth side there is Kevin, the hulking blue-collar defenseman Bobo, the pampered William Flyt, and Kevin's best friend, the sullen and secretive Benji. There's also a quartet of 15-year-olds: Peter's daughter Maya, her BFF Ana, immigrant Amat, and his best bud, the pudgy Zacharias. On the adult side there is Peter, a former star and present-day milquetoast; his passionate lawyer wife, Kira; Amat's single-parent mother, Fatima; and a wide ensemble of venomous hockey moms, amoral sponsors, local lowlifes, a teacher growing wiser by the moment, and a trio of protective sisters. The salty-tongued Ramona, though, is hard to resist. A sample Ramona rant: "Keep your trap shut when I'm talking! Fucking men! YOU'RE the problem! Religion doesn't fight, guns don't kill, and you need to be fucking clear that hockey has never raped anyone! But do you know who do? ...MEN! It's always fucking men!"

Of course, even Ramona is cribbed from the character Bank in Britt-Marie Was Here and Beartown is that book's Borg [town name, not Star Trek characters] set in the woods. Objectively speaking, Beartown is more pastiche than panache. But it does raise big questions, not the least of which is that its strip-away-the-crap look at sports obsession is like a high stick to the nose. If all a town cares about is its junior hockey team, does it have any values at all? Backman invites us to extend that metaphor. And so we should.

Rob Weir