18 December 2010

Hesperus

It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintery sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter,
To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.

The Skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.

Then up and spake an old Sailor,
Had sailed the Spanish Main,
"I pray thee, put into yonder port,
for I fear a hurricane.

"Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!"
The skipper, he blew whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

Colder and louder blew the wind,
A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable's length.

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughter,
And do not tremble so;
For I can weather the roughest gale
That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat
Against the stinging blast;
He cut a rope from a broken spar,
And bound her to the mast.

"O father! I hear the church bells ring,
Oh, say, what may it be?"
"Tis a fog-bell on a rock bound coast!" --
And he steered for the open sea.

"O father! I hear the sound of guns;
Oh, say, what may it be?"
Some ship in distress, that cannot live
In such an angry sea!"

"O father! I see a gleaming light.
Oh say, what may it be?"
But the father answered never a word,
A frozen corpse was he.

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,
With his face turned to the skies,
The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow
On his fixed and glassy eyes.

Then the maiden clasped her hands and prayed
That saved she might be;
And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave,
On the Lake of Galilee.

And fast through the midnight dark and drear,
Through the whistling sleet and snow,
Like a sheeted ghost, the vessel swept
Tow'rds the reef of Norman's Woe.

And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf,
On the rocks and hard sea-sand.

The breakers were right beneath her bows,
She drifted a dreary wreck,
And a whooping billow swept the crew
Like icicles from her deck.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool,
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
With the masts went by the board;
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank,
Ho! ho! the breakers roared!

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman's Woe!

The Wreck of the Hesperus
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


I named this lovely and majestic Manitoba Maple "The Hesperus" early this spring (around about the time I took the picture at the very top of this post) without any intent to connect it to the ship in the poem by Longfellow or even the ancient Greek name for the Evening Star --the name just seemed to fit. One August morn even more so: unknown decades old, The Hesperus was downed by a storm in the wee hours of Monday 23 August 2010.


We like to name things here at Small Pond, but this was the only tree that was named, because, we figured, with 87 acres and thousands of trees, keeping track of them all would be...challenging. I didn't even name the 30-plus trees I planted myself. But this tree was special (I refer you once again to the very first image here), and it deserved a name.

Not having a chainsaw yet, we called the Black River Tree Company to chop it up into manageable portions, which I then moved to the side of the garage. Rolling and hauling each piece was my way of saying goodbye.


The Hesperus lives on, in a way, in the beautiful carvings of Peter Paylor (above) and the weird things we do here at the Pond (see Stickfest). And when we use it for firewood, it'll warm the friendly souls gathered around our fire pit --just a few metres from where it once stood proudly.

15 November 2010

From Small Pond to ‘The Big Land’

Since we moved to Small Pond, I haven’t had much of a chance to travel, but I recently had the privilege of spending a week in Labrador with ArtsCan Circle, a charitable organization that sends teams of volunteer musicians and artists to remote Canadian Indigenous communities to link creative artists with children and youth at risk. I was asked to go and make puppets with school children, and if there’s one thing I cannot resist it’s the opportunity to make puppets and share my love of the art form with anyone who will listen.

Lake Melville
This was my first time to Labrador, and my first trip with ArtsCan Circle. I had a fairly good idea what to expect, as my good friend David Anderson has been volunteering with them for years, and had shared a lot of his experiences with me. To get there I took a taxi to Belleville, a train to Toronto, a flight to Halifax, and another flight to Goose Bay. En route I met up with 2 of my fellow artists, Jessica Levman, former art teacher at Sheshatshiu Innu School, where we were headed, and Magoo, singer/songwriter extraordinaire. It was a long day of travelling, and we were all completely delirious and exhausted, so naturally the first thing we did when we arrived in Goose Bay was head to a surreal jungle-themed restaurant for fish and chips. Our bellies full of cod, we retired to our respective hotel rooms and passed out cold.

Sign in Goose Bay.  We're not in Kansas any more, Toto.
We were up early the next morning, and drove to Sheshatshiu, about a half hour drive. The landscape reminded me in some ways of Alberta, where I grew up, with tall dark pine trees and mountains on the horizon. The air was crisp and cold, and there was only a sprinkle of snow here and there.

View from the school.
The people of Sheshatshiu (population 1276) are Innu, and for most of them their first language is Innu-aimun. The Innu were one of the last Aboriginal people in Canada to give up much of their traditional way of life, and as can be seen with countless indigenous peoples across our country and throughout the world, such changes can have disastrous consequences. High levels of alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and high suicide rates are a depressing reality. It would be naïve of me to try and encapsulate here the complex history of the Innu, but I think it’s fair to say that this community has experienced much grief and loss over the last 50 years. But things in Sheshatshiu are starting to change, and for the better; and ArtsCan Circle regularly visits this community to help be part of that positive movement.

That's me in the middle of the crush of kindergarteners and sock puppets.
Upon arriving at the school, Jessica and I made ourselves at home in the art room and became the self-professed puppet tag-team. Class after class streamed in and out of the art room, children from kindergarten through high school, and we made both sock puppets and shadow puppets with them. To our delight almost all of the kids responded to puppet-making with enthusiasm.

Sock puppet appeal reaches far and wide!
Kids that I thought were too old or too cool or too tough to like sock puppets could be found huddled around the hot glue gun meticulously affixing moustaches and eyebrows to their new companions. Kids that I thought were too young to appreciate the slightly-more-conceptual shadow puppets were eager to create representations of Labrador animals (Sasquatches and worms included). One group of seventh graders seemed particularly keen, so we decided to spend a bit more time with them and work towards putting on a shadow puppetry show at the end of the week.

One of many shadow puppetry classes.
To that end, we invited an elder to come in to the school and tell the class a traditional story. He told a story that had been told to him by his mother, “Wolverine Invited the Birds to the Drum Dance,” first in Innu, then in English. We then interpreted the story for presentation: who are the characters? What happens first? Second? Third? The students each chose a character to create, and in no time we had a whole flock of shadow puppets. We set up the screen and the projector in the classroom and I attempted to act as director. The rehearsals were rough and wild, but it was all process over product. Whatever happened when it came time to do the show, well, que sera sera.

Elder Penote Antuan tells a story to the class.
Mike Stevens, the fourth artist to join our merry band, arrived Monday night. Mike is the founder of ArtsCan Circle, and he is a musical phenomena with the harmonica. I had the chance to watch Magoo and Mike play music with kids thoughout the week, and I was blown away by the way they could totally capture the childrens’ attention and inspire them with music.

Magoo and Mike rock out with the kids in music class.
The week went on, and class after class partook in our frenzy of puppet-making. Friday finally arrived and I was wondering if any of the kids would actually show up to do the show; teachers had warned me not to get my hopes up. But sure enough, almost all of them were there, and we quickly got set up in the music room.

“Puppeteers, places please!”

The audience started arriving before the students had too much time to get nervous. Then the lights turned off, and we began the show.

The view from backstage.
The musicians provided some accompaniment, and three student narrators took turns at the microphone to tell the story.  It was a beautiful thing to stand backstage and watch the singular focus of the fledgling puppeteers as they performed, all eyes cast on the screen, listening for their cues… it was a magical moment when it all came together, and you could see the pride on their faces when it was all over.

The title of the show in Innu.
Visiting Sheshatshiu was a life-changing experience. I know how much art has meant in my life, and it is such a pleasure to share it with children, especially in a community where the joy and hope that art can bring is so needed. It was an emotionally challenging week, but I was rewarded a hundred fold with smiles and laughter, rampant affection, and the gratification of seeing students succeed in putting on a show that tells a story from their own culture. I will never forget this experience, and I’m already looking forward to my next trip with ArtsCan Circle in January, this time to the community of Natuashish, Labrador.

A very, very happy young audience!
If you, too, want to be an agent for change, you can donate to ArtsCan Circle. Click here to find out how.

10 November 2010

Survivor

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."
--Charles Darwin

We depend on our well for our in-house water so, to help conserve this precious ground water as much as possible, we've been collecting rainwater in barrels for use outdoors. We have three of these big blue guys and three smaller Rubbermaid bins (designed for ordinary garbage use) paired up with them, plus one rogue bin near the barn (rough estimate: about a thousand litres, combined). 

That's a lot of water, but we had three vegetable gardens, nearly 30 baby trees, and many flower gardens that needed regular drinks, so when the summer got dry (with weeks between rainfalls), we had to prioritize: gardens first, flowers and trees second. At one desperate and troubling point we were drawing water from our well (via the bathtub) to water the veggies.

But we survived the brief droughts --as did the vegetables, trees, and flowers. However, a nasty byproduct of so much standing water is the proliferation of mosquitoes. They love it and they laid their eggs in our barrels every chance they got, producing grotesque squirming larvae which grew up into blood-sucking whiners. What to do?

Rather than resort to a potentially unhealthy chemical solution, I remembered what my good friend, Mike Teng, suggested: feeder fish. These little guys are cheap (a couple of bucks for a dozen fish) and are usually used either as food for bigger animals or as starter pets for kids. So I went to the pet shop and brought home a dozen and put in two fish per barrel.

The fish were happy and I was happy: for a couple of bucks I solved (part of) our mosquito problem with fish that were earning their keep by eating all the mosquito larvae while living luxuriously in giant barrels.

Then they started dying.

Every couple of days there was another dead fish. Was the rain water too acidic? Were birds pooping in the barrels? We still don't know. By the time we got down to three or four, I went to the pet shop again and got another dozen. I bought fish food to supplement their diet in case the mosquitoes took a break from propagating (fat chance!).

Still more deaths...until one last fish remained:


We kept referring to him (her?) as Survivor Fish. Since there was overlap between fish batches from the shops, I'm not certain if he's from the first group or the second, but I am certain he outlasted them all.

As October progressed, frost came more frequently in the mornings. Then ice. How could Survivor Fish survive the top 3-4cm of water in the rain barrel freezing solid? Well, cold water contains more oxygen and algae has been growing in the barrel for some time, so the conditions were still good for our little hero. 

But the days are getting colder and I wanted to reward him with more than a dis-honourable and icy burial at the bottom of a rain barrel. 

I decided to take him indoors. 

I knew I would have to re-introduce him to warmer temperatures gradually, so my first step was to take him out of the big blue barrel (the one by our garage) and keep him in a metal bucket in the garage where it wouldn't freeze. He survived the night, so I took him outside and let him bask in the sunshine until just before sunset:


Then I took him inside to the Gallery where it's still pretty chilly:


He seems to be quite happy with the transition (note the algae from the barrel in the bucket) and has now been indoors for two days. I have no idea what the odds are of him surviving the winter, but he's beaten some hefty odds already, so I wouldn't put it past him.

This little guy is definitely a Big Fish in my books:



UPDATE (13 Nov.):
Survivor Fish didn't last a week indoors. Four days after I brought him inside I found him floating in his bucket; he couldn't adapt, after all. So long, little buddy.

02 October 2010

Stickfest



"Should you sit around waiting until something’s become a tradition, or shouldn’t you rather roll up your sleeves and get to work developing one?”
– Rainer Werner Fassbinder


In 1988 the citizens of Epping Forest, a small town in the UK’s Essex County, held their first celebration in honour of the common stick. With the slogan “Rectus Extra Vester Porta” (right outside your door) and beloved mascot Hickory Dick (designed by Niall Eccles), the festival was a sensational hit, attracting media attention across England. Eventually, more English towns caught Stick Fever and it soon became known as the International Festival of the Stick, with festivals throughout the UK numbering in the dozens. The rest of Europe soon followed, bringing appreciation of the lowly stick to more and more people each year, and by 1996, more than thirty-five countries were hosting stick festivals.



But not really.


We made it up.

We decided that the International Festival of the Stick would be an inclusive, community-oriented event that everybody could afford to attend, the price of admission being one stick. As an early-bird promo, when people visited us, we put a stick under their windshields that had written on it "This stick is your admission to Stickfest 2010 at Small Pond Arts”. Likewise, these stick invitations were left in mailboxes, at local cafés, etc.  Our initial idea was that whoever brought that stick to the festival got a treat, but then we decided to just give treats to everybody. When someone arrived without a stick, that was okay; we gave them a stick.




Krista spent a week trimming branches from the fallen Hesperus to make the River Styx out of sticks.


Another outdoor stick-based installation was Caitlin Dalby’s beautiful giant nest. This was made back in May and is a permanent installation on our artists’ trail in the woods. People love climbing into it and having their picture taken.



The centerpiece of Stickfest was The Museum of the Stick in our barn where we featured all kinds of sticky items:


I made three drawings --using lipstick-- of musician Tony Levin playing the Chapman Stick.



Local illustrator Carl Wiens contributed an illustration of The Amazing Stick, encapsulating the versatility of sticks since their very beginnings.



My sister, Lena, had made some delicious mini sticky buns for all to enjoy:



Also in the food part of the display were a beef stick, Fun Dip with its famous hard candy Lik-A-Stix, and Hickory Sticks in all their salty goodness.

In a series of three shadow boxes were displayed a lipstick, a deodorant stick, glow sticks, incense sticks, matchsticks, chopsticks, a memory stick, a ChapStick, and a glue stick.

Krista’s Punch puppet is holding a slap stick, there’s a joystick, a traditional East Coast ugly stick, a pogo stick, a candlestick, and a beautiful talking stick carved by Belleville artist Peter Paylor.



Other museum items included a pair of drumsticks (the musical kind, not the part of a fowl’s leg…or the ice cream confection), another beautiful carved stick by Peter (this time a salmon carved into a piece from one of our own trees that fell over this summer), stickers, a walking stick, a didgeridoo from Australia, a yard stick, a rain stick, and an Olympic hockey stick.



Then there’s my favourite part of the museum: the Mascot Gallery. Children from all over created extremely imaginative interpretations of Hickory Dick.  I really wanted to have a children’s component to the museum and I was so happy to receive and install so many amazing pieces of art.



We also set up a painting station where visitors could decorate their own sticks, all the while listening to sticky music on the stereo (including Gregory Hoskins and the Stickpeople, musicians playing the Chapman Stick (including Tony Levin), and, of course, Styx). Some of these painted sticks were later incorporated into the River Styx.


When the crowd was at a critical mass, we began the entertainment portion with readings. I was up first with a reading of The Trees by Neil Peart, Krista read her poem Sugar Maple, and finally, Colin Frizzell read a brilliant piece which he wrote specifically for this Stickfest, called The Glory of the Stick.


In the bottom right of the photo above is Dianne Lee, who created Stick Cozies, complete with instructions, for people to keep their sticks, well, cozy.

After a while, folks gathered around the fire pit (fortunately no sticks were burned that day) and partook of carrot and celery sticks. Some people even took to whittling sticks and knitting.



Some people even learned to walk on big sticks.


We were really impressed that our community so willingly took to Stickfest and came out in such great numbers.  We’re already looking forward to Stickfest 2011 – aren’t you?

13 September 2010

Playing with Shadows


Some time last year, a seed of an idea started to grow.  From that small idea grew the shadow puppetry play Doubt Seed that we performed a few weeks ago at Small Pond Arts.


Doubt Seed is the fourth shadow puppetry collaboration between me and artists Guy Doucette and Craig Morrison. Our previous shadow plays were Wolf/Flow (a dark retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood), Leap Year Pudding, which involved more than 60 high school students, and Dreams A Go-Go, which we performed at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche and featured projections on a three-story building while puppeteers performed in the windows.

L to R: Mo Morrison-Brandeis, Craig Morrison, Guy Doucette, Sandra Henderson, Krista Dalby
For Doubt Seed we were fortunate enough to be joined by puppeteers Sandra Henderson and Mo Morrison-Brandeis, and benefited from the help of a number of volunteers who pitched in at the 11th hour to make it happen.

Volunteers hard at work in the puppet sweatshop
Make no mistake: puppetry is serious business. If watching theatre requires a leap of the imagination, then puppetry is the long jump of the theatre world. It is in this leap that the magic of puppetry occurs, where our hearts can be broken by the careful manipulation of sticks or fabric, where we can cheer for a heroic piece of cardboard, and where we can speak truthfully about things we couldn’t say otherwise.

Craig does some early morning puppet-cutting by the firepit
Shadow puppetry is a form of theatre that many people may be unfamiliar with other than in its most rudimentary form. It has a long, dignified and sacred history stretching back thousands of years and has been practiced all over the world. Shadow puppetry has been a particularly important form of theatre in Asia. In India shadow puppetry is performed in temples depicting scenes of the gods; puppets are crafted in reverent seclusion, sometimes incorporating the puppeteers’ own hair; puppets can remain in use for 100 years or more, and when they are retired, they are given a water burial, left to float away in the currents of a river. Serious business, indeed.

While puppetry in general seems to be in the midst of a renaissance, shadow puppetry has made recent appearances in a number of high-profile Canadian productions including Robert LePage’s opera The Nightingale and the concerts of singer-songwriter Feist. In a world of high-tech gadgetry, shadow puppetry is refreshingly low-tech, and has a sensuality that can only be achieved by raw human effort.

A scene from the show: Mr. Spinks, the elderly librarian, tries to prevent the local dogs from making unsightly deposits on the library's lawn
When Guy told me about a story he’d been writing called Doubt Seed, the story appealed to me right away and I got to work writing the script. Its rural setting and the story of a newcomer coming to town was one that I could identify with, having recently moved to Prince Edward County. My collaborators and I all have an appreciation for the macabre, and this story definitely had some darker elements. But like all of the plays that I have written, I felt there was ultimately a positive message to be told in Doubt Seed: the importance of building a strong community and sticking together to overcome our troubles.

Wes (Guy Doucette) meets the Old Peddlar Woman
In Doubt Seed the citizens of Wildgate learn to work together – and so it is with us artists. We have creativity in abundance and we have a powerful collective voice. We have the ability to bring people together, to make them laugh and cry and think. The week before we started building the show, a bulldozer had started demolishing a historic Picton landmark, a beautiful brick church on Main Street, much to the shock and dismay of local citizens. As artists we chose to reference this senseless destruction of local history in our play. Pictured here is a bulldozer/venus flytrap which apparently sprang from a doubt seed and is now eating the church for lunch. 
In Doubt Seed, history makes a nice light snack...
And in reality, a historic Picton landmark is torn down, August 2010
Shadow puppetry is the prehistoric cousin of both film and animation, and can use a range of filmic techniques such as close-ups, wide shots, panning, cross-fading and so forth. Storyboarding is an important part of our development process.

Every good puppeteer needs to know how to chill out backstage for extended periods of time.  Here, I demonstrate my advanced technique.
We wanted to ensure that we were not just illustrating the monologue of the main character, but carefully crafting our images to create a unique and visually strong piece of theatre. Early on in the process we made choices about the aesthetic, and divided up the tasks to capitalize on our individual strengths. Craig is a master of character design, and we decided that he would create all of the characters. When we had our first meeting at Small Pond in the spring, we decided that he would base the character designs on us! Thusly appearing in the play are me and Milé as the café owners Georgette and Gilles, Craig as the butcher, Craig’s wife Elizabeth as Anastasia, Guy’s dad Gary as the mayor, etc.
Elizabeth and Craig show off their portrait puppets, designed by Craig
The consistency of design served us well. Guy designed all the backgrounds and played our narrator, Wes, out in front of the screen. I designed a few things, as well as puppeteering, but most of my energy went into coordinating people, publicity, food, music, etc. We did 2 performances at Small Pond in August 2010, one night behind the barn and - when thunderclouds loomed - one night inside the barn. We couldn’t have been prouder of the finished show, it is some of our best work to date. Our evenings of shadow puppetry also featured the lovely and talented Anna Sudac, whose music perfectly complemented our show.

The mighty talented Anna Sudac
The best part of the whole experience was just living and working together on the farm during the creation and presentation of the show; sharing meals elbow to elbow at the dining room table, cutting puppets until our fingers were numb, bonding over late nights of bug-infested rehearsal, sitting around the campfire into the wee hours, and even midnight howling in the silo (you've got to try it!) - this is exactly what Small Pond is for: creation and artistic camaraderie.  As the first theatrical production at Small Pond, we're pleased as Punch at how it all came together.  Thanks to all the wonderful artists and volunteers, and to our audiences whose applause warmed our hearts.

Anna warms up the audience as the sun goes down