Saturday, January 21, 2012

Scent or touch? The art of Penelope Stewart at the Edward Day Gallery

A George Cruikshank's illustration for  Tristram Shandy
One of my favorite books is Tristram Shandy, and in honour of this the current posting will  meander just a bit down Queen Street before getting to the pollinator-related material. So, imagine yourself a flighty butterfly rather than an industrious, bee-line-following worker bee, and fly with me to sip at a few forms of art...

John Greyson
My partner Leena and I just returned from a pleasant walk in the afternoon sun on Queen Street. We went to Woolfit's to look at art supplies, then dropped in to T.A.N. Coffee where we ran into filmmaker John Greyson, who teaches in York University's Film department. John was enjoying the band playing in the cafe while interviewing crew for his next production.

We also popped into the Ontario Crafts Council gallery  to look at the Losing Parkdale show. The lovely piece by Dennis Lin using wood veneers evoked the saying that "civilization is a very thin veneer over barbarism" (from The Return of Tarzan (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs). The swoops and curves of Lin's veneers reminded me how precariously our civilized veneer clings to the underlying id and ego. Indeed, Losing Parkdale is about how "civilization", in the form of condo development, is displacing a large community of artists (less civilized?) from the community in which they have lived and worked for years. To quote from the statement for the show:

"Losing Parkdale focuses on the neighborhood of Parkdale as a community of woodworking talent. The exhibition showcases a few of many hugely talented artists and craftspeople that have made their living in this part of Toronto.

Sadly, studios in Parkdale are currently being displaced for condo development, thereby reducing the pool of usable working space in the neighborhood. As this is being written John Jackson's building has just been emptied, sending 100 artists out to try and find new work spaces. Scott and Joe's building has been sold and will be empty in the near future, and will again affect another 40 businesses."

But I don't want to be too negative about veneers. No lesser a thinker than Vaclav Havel has given us another take on civilization and veneers:

the late, great, Vaclav Havel
"Many of the great problems we face today, as far as I understand them, have their origin in the fact that this global civilization, though in evidence everywhere, is no more than a thin veneer over the sum total of human awareness, if I may put it that way. This civilization is immensely fresh, young, new, and fragile, and the human spirit has accepted it with dizzying alacrity, without itself changing in any essential way. Humanity has gradually, and in very diverse ways, shaped our habits of mind, our relationship to the world, our models of behavior and the values we accept and recognize. In essence, this new, single epidermis of world civilization merely covers or conceals the immense variety of cultures, of peoples, of religious worlds, of historical traditions and historically formed attitudes, all of which in a sense lie "beneath" it. At the same time, even as the veneer of world civilization expands, this "underside" of humanity, this hidden dimension of it, demands more and more clearly to be heard and to be granted a right to life."

From barbarism and Burroughs to multiculturalism and Havel! I think Tristram Shandy would have approved of such elegant swerves, and swerve we did as we turned left into the courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, and again to the left (take that, Stephen Harper!) into the Edward Day Gallery.

We were there for the opening of Penelope Stewart's "Haptic Exchanges". Stewart has been using beeswax to make cast tiles, which she assembles in to large mosaics. The smell was wonderful, the colors ranged from palest amber through brick to gray-brown, and the surface patterns of her casts lead the eye to wander in a Shandy-an fashion.

Aganetha Dyck, Queen, 2007
"Haptic" refers to touch, and these are art pieces meant to be touched, a bit of a problem for all of us well-trained museum goers who look but never touch...

Stewart told us that in the course of making some of these very large installations (those at the Albright Knox Gallery and the Oakville Gallery filled rooms) her beeswax supplier in the Ottawa area ran out of wax. Fortunately, she had made the acquaintance of Winipeg bee artist Aganetha Dyck and learned about a Manitoba beekeeping cooperative that was able to supply the precious wax.

Barbara Evans
We had the pleasure to run into another  York U Film prof, Barbara Evans, who was gathering footage at the opening for her planned film on pollinators and artists. She has some marvelous ideas but is looking for funding, so if you are a pollinator-loving, filmophile plutocrat, contact her at once!

I urge you to drop by the Edward Day gallery and take in this show - but if you have a cold, come back another day, because you must be able to smell the work, as well as touch and see it! And read the excellent review by Murray Whyte in the Toronto Star for more information...

Why is the smell of beeswax so evocative? someone asked Mr. Shandy. As one beekeepers' website said, "because it smells like honey, duh!". And it does a bit - but only if you get unfiltered honey which still has tiny bits of wax, not the industrial ultrafiltered, sterilized grocery store stuff. It has many other scents in it, like pine trees from the propolis the bees use to glue things down. That's why beeswax absolute has been used in perfumes for centuries, and is still a very important base in fragrances with all-natural ingredients.

shaving a frame to remove the wax
Or perhaps beeswax reminds you of the wood furniture at your aunt's or grandparent's house. Beeswax wood polish has a very long history of use, but if you want to make some of your own as this recipe describes, please stop after the rendering step rather than going on and refining all the scent out of it!

Laurence Stern, by Joshua Reynolds
Of course beeswax is a good base for ointments and balms - one of the dozens of uses documented at this website. What else do you know that's used in Archery Wax, Bagpipes, Blacksmithing, Bullet Lube, Cracked Hooves, Didgeridoos, Dreadlocks, Ear Candling, Encaustic Painting, the Lost Wax process of sculpture casting (which was used for Penelope Stewart's black glass cast of a traditional skep or woven beehive), Moustache Wax, Oil Spill Control, Pool Tables, Pysanky, Whipmaking, and Wire Pulling? Laurence Sterne could have written several more volumes of Tristram's adventures from this list!

Roxanne Quimby, dog friend, Burt Shavitz
Speaking of ointments, as we were just a list or so ago, who is the richest beeswax ointment provider in the world? It's probably Roxanne Quimby of "Burt's Bees". Roxanne and Burt founded the company in backwoods Maine when Burt, the beekeeper, was living in an old turkey coop. Later, she bought him out for $130,000. She's now worth $300,000,000 and Burt's Bees is now a division of Clorox, having been solf for just under a billion dollars. Burt still lives in the turkey coop, but after complaining to Roxanne he got four million bucks and Burt's Bees got the right to continue using his rustic image on the products.

This real-life rags-to-riches story has got many twists and turns and several sides, just like a Shandy adventure, as you can read here and here and here. The last link tells how Quimby is using some of her money to buy up land in Maine, with the goal of creating a national park. It's amazing how, if you're a bee multi-millionaire, you become a magnet for opposing views. Some in the environmental movement call Burt's Bees a "sell-out", the local hunters in Maine oppose Quimby's land purchases because she's against hunting, but I know that Burt's Bees is also a significant corporate contributor to both research and public action on preserving pollinators.

As a pollinator gardener, I have an unopened packet of Burt's Bees Gardener's Hand Balm, or some such thing, that was given to me. I just went to open it to see how it smelled, but it appears to have gone into hiding, or perhaps it's with Amelie's father's gnome on his journeys around the world. Or perhaps it's lubricating the chapped hands of members of the Garden Gnomes Liberation Front as they pursue their duties.

But of course I have kept the best use of beeswax for last: candles. As the excellent Wikipedia article tells us, the first known candles were made in China of whale fat about 2,200 years ago, but by 1,700 years ago the Chinese were known to have beeswax candles. In the Middle ages most candles were made from rendered animal fat and stank, both when being made and when burning. Beeswax candles were reserved for the rich and for churches, where their perfume added to the scents of incense.

Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Hans Holbein the Elder, 1500
Beeswax candles were central to the rites of Candlemas, February 2. This celebrates the presentation of infant Jesus at the Temple, that is his pidyon haben, (Hebrew: פדיון הבן‎).  "Traditionally the Western term "Candlemas" (or Candle Mass) referred to the practice whereby a priest on 2 February blessed beeswax candles for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home." (quote from Wikipedia).

So, with the scent of blessed beeswax candles, I reluctantly leave our Shandyesque trip down Queen Street.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting article, very useful to increase my knowledge and a lot of people ..
    thank you