Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The mayor, a teddy bear, and thousands of dead bees

BY PAUL GESSELL

hatton_Circle 3_2014_48 x 48_mixed media on panel
Circle 3. Honey bees (Apis mellifera), resin on panel, 2014. (48″ diameter)

 

What kind of art interests Mayor Jim Watson?
Well, he owns paintings by such Ottawa area artists as Andrew King, Philip Craig, the late Robert Hyndman, and Bhat Boy. The works of Craig and Hyndman are tame and traditional – art that you definitely could give Grandma. King and Bhat Boy tend to be more quirky and often whimsical, but still safe enough for Stephen Harper.

Watson and I accidentally met up recently at the Ottawa Art Gallery Annex in City Hall where we had both come to view an exhibition called Ottawa Selects: Selections from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.

The OAG asked each of nine prominent people, both present and past Ottawa residents, to choose a work from the Firestone Collection for the exhibition. The 1,600 works in the Firestone Collection are managed by the OAG and contain Canadian art from 1900 to 1980. The selections for the Annex show tell much about the people making the choices.

artful blogger surrey
Philip Surrey (1910 – 1990), Tourist Bus, 1972, oil on canvas, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, © Estate of Philip Surrey / SODRAC (2015)

Mayor Watson chose a representational scene by the late Montreal artist Philip Surrey called Tourist Bus, showing a bus, some cars and several pedestrians in a parking lot in Montreal (Westmount, actually) overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

Watson says he chose that paining, in part, because he was born in Montreal; the tourist bus reminded him of his past days as president of the Canadian Tourism Commission and he found the scene somewhat whimsical.

Rita Letendre (b. 1928), Incandescence, 1968 oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.7 cm Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, FAC 1266, © OAG

Frankly, the painting is just slightly on the cozy side of bland, blandness being a characteristic the mayor seems to nurture.

Nearby on the wall is a very bold, large abstract called Incandesence by Rita Letendre. The black and red painting is as defiant as an oversized exclamation mark. Author Charlotte Gray explained her reasons for choosing that painting in a poetical mini-essay.

“Hard lines, brilliant colour, the whoosh of that sharp dark cleft exploding upwards,” the essay begins. “So much energy, so much control! This painting reminds me of the violent scarlet glint of a setting sun on Ottawa’s glass towers.”

Astronaut Steve MacLean was also more daring than most of the other art-selectors. He chose a very stylized 1969 landscape by Claude Picher called Icebreaking – St. Lawrence River. The scene is rendered in a series of rough geometric shapes that exude frostiness. Coincidentally, Icebreaking is one of my favourite Firestone paintings.

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Claude Picher (1927 – 1998), Débâcle de la glace – Rivière St. Laurent | Icebreaking – St-Lawrence River, c.|v. 1969, oil on canvas | huile sur toile, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art | Collection Firestone d’art canadien

 

“The ice attracts me, especially if you look at it from a few metres back — you can almost hear the grinding and groaning of what the ice is like,” says MacLean.

Other selections include three abstract drawings by Lawren S. Harris chosen by architect Douglas Cardinal; a Philip Surrey scene inside a Murray’s restaurant in Montreal chosen by Steve Mitton, chef and owner of (no relation) the Ottawa restaurant Murray Street KWC; a Marcelle Ferron abstract chosen by Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Mission; an impressionistic winter scene at Williams Lake, B.C. by Molly Bobak chosen by broadcaster Trish Owens; a vibrant Edmund Alleyn abstract chosen by sports entrepreneur Jeff Hunt; and two small landscapes of the Ukrainian countryside by Edwin Holgate chosen by actor Anne-Marie Cadieux.

The Home Front
It is easy to overlook the brown teddy bear. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. But there it is, in a glass case also containing the military dress jacket and cap of Private Lawrence Rogers of Valcartier, Que.

Rogers was killed in the First World War Oct. 30, 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. Inside one of his pockets, fellow soldiers found the small teddy bear Rogers’ 10-year-old daughter Aileen had sent him to keep him safe. Comrades mailed the teddy bear back to the family.

The teddy bear, with its poignant pedigree, is now part of a new permanent, two-room exhibit at the Canadian War Museum called Home Front, 1917. It’s all about the struggles of soldiers’ families and Canadian society in general during The Great War. The first room focuses on soldiers’ relatives back home. The second room is all about the divisive issue of conscription. These rooms are a stark contrast to the other First World War exhibits mainly focusing on the battlefield.

The first room is the most moving. Besides the teddy bear, consider this artifact: The telegram sent Sarah Bartlett of Victoria announcing her husband, Private Ernest Bartlett, had been killed in action Aug. 8, 1918.

Century-old propaganda abounds in the second room. One reproduction of an election poster for the Unionist Party shows a Canadian woman wearing a dressing gown and pointing a gun at a group of German soldiers just on the other side of a window in her home. The poster was meant to be something of a metaphor referring to the fact that the wives, mothers and daughters of soldiers were given the vote – a “weapon” – they were supposed to use at the ballot box to support the war effort.

The very rich, detailed Home Front exhibition is permanent, unlike many of the other shows by the museum marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Cluster (Flower of Life) Honey bees (Apis mellifera), resin, Petri dishes, 2015. (36″ x 41″ x 12″) Circle 8. Honey bees (Apis mellifera), resin on panel, 2015. (48″ diameter)

The Buzz Around Sarah Hatton
Outaouais artist Sarah Hatton used to be best known for portrait-like paintings of children and impressionistic outdoor scenes. But lately this artist and bee-keeper has been creating a buzz with geometric patterns composed of the corpses of dead bees. The works zero in on environmental problems.

“The link between neonicotinoid pesticides and the worldwide decline of bee populations is a crisis that cannot be ignored,” Hatton says on her website. “I have arranged thousands of dead honeybees in mathematical patterns symbolically linked to monoculture crops, such as the Fibonacci spiral found in the seed head of the sunflower. The viewer experiences the vertigo of this lifeless swarm, a dizzying optical illusion that echoes the bees’ loss of ability to navigate due to the toxins locked within the very source of their sustenance.”

Circle 6. Honey bees (Apis mellifera), resin on panel, 2014. (48″ diameter)

An exhibition of three previously shown bee works and seven new ones will be held at Visual Voice Art Gallery, 372 Ste. Catherine St. W. in Montreal from March 12 to May 2.

“The newer pieces are larger and more intricate than the original trio, with each piece involving the positioning and hand-gluing of many thousands of bees, one at a time,” says Hatton.

Hatton’s bee works have been turning heads on both sides of the Atlantic. Only a select few have the opportunity to taste her homemade honey.