Swords, Santos & Filipino Heritage

santos3After many years in Canada, Vancouver doctor Miguel Tecson, who was born and raised in the Philippines, felt well-adjusted to North American culture. But there was something missing.

“I felt like a marginal man,” says Tecson. “I could identify with both cultures, but I was never at ease with either one. There was a yearning for the Philippines.”

This feeling led Tecson, and his wife Julia, to begin collecting Filipino artifacts—from the Philippines, as well as China, other parts of Southeast Asia and Europe. When they began to collect pieces from their heritage, there were few Filipinos in Canada; now there are thousands, and Tecson wanted to share his collection.

“The children of Filipino immigrants are Filipino, but Canadian in their orientation,” adds Tecson. :They don’t know anything about the Philippines and we wanted to make these things available to that generation.”

The Tecsons donated their collection to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and it was organized by that institution’s anthropology students.

The collection includes silver bracelets, wood and fibre containers and several ceramic pieces, including seven giant ‘dragon’ jars. There are also two Kris swords, which are highly-ornate, gilded swords made of steel, brass, copper and ivory and with wickedly serrated edges. Two other stand-out items are ‘bululs’, images of granary gods dating from 100-800 BC.

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Prior to the arrival of the Spanish traders in 1565, indigenous people worshiped before pagan idols, usually very roughly carved in human likeness. The Spanish quickly replaced those with figures representative of Catholicism, and these images were referred to as santos (Spanish for ‘saint’). Santos were wood carvings covered with a gesso-like layer, like fine plaster, which was meant to cover the grain to make the surface smooth and white before painting. The santos in this collection were made specifically for home use—at 6:00 pm every day, families would kneel at their home altars, before the santos, and call on the saints for spiritual or material aid.

Today, santos are molded from plaster or plastic. The older wooden ones are in great demand by collectors and museums, but imitations are so easily produced that the Tecson collection contains many that are worn out or damaged, which is proof of their authenticity. The Tecson collection offers a window on an ancient culture about which we know surprisingly little.

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Blitz Magazine, July 2001

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Co-Opted: Culture Makes Off With a Masterpiece

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You’ve seen it. Everywhere. You’ve been seeing it everywhere since you were born.

And it’s probably safe to assume that, when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted The Scream, it never occurred to him that his image would become the universal, multi-purpose symbol of terror.

It also likely never occurred to him that, in the 1960s, his painting would cross the line from artwork to icon. That it would go from being a respected object of contemplation to a piece of exploitable public property—standard stock for cartoonists, art directors and advertisers. That it would illustrate editorial in magazines such as M.A.D., Ms., and Forbes. That an American bank would print it on its cheques (er, checks). That the U.S. Department of Transportation would use it to indicate hazardous materials.

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Munch could not possibly have dreamt that his image would make the career of a child actor (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). That it would become the name of a Hollywood franchise (the Scream films). That it would appear on greeting cards, shopping bags, coasters and neck ties. Beer labels, clock faces, spoon rests. T-Shirts, balloons, key chains. Gas pain medicine and toilet paper. And whoopee cushions.

scream2Munch published two different versions of his inspiration for The Scream; that he thought of it when he viewed a mummified body in a jar at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and that the image came to him in the midst of a blood-red sunset. Whichever one is true, given the life he led, the idea would wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

He was the son of an Oslo doctor and the grandson of a priest (yeah, we won’t go there). His father was obsessively religious—to the point of mania, and insanity ran right through the clan. The family was perpetually immersed in grinding poverty and Edvard, a sickly child, spent endless hours lying in his little bed while his father read to him. Which would have been fine if the material of choice hadn’t been the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Munch made it to adulthood, but his best friend was a chap called Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion”, and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. These two knee-slappers became devoted Bohemians which, for them, meant endless binge-drinking and brawling. (No sex for Edvard—the idea of it turned him off.)

But he was able to paint and, in 1892, landed a one-man show at an art gallery. In Berlin. Where his work was found to be ‘too troubling’ for happy-go-lucky Germans, and the show was shut down after one week—much to Munch’s amusement. (He did, however, become a major influence of the 20th-century German Expressionists.)

Eventually, of course, he had a nervous breakdown. But then he rallied, quit drinking and started painting portraits. He died in 1944, in Nazi-occupied Norway. By then, the Nazis had confiscated all of this work—and then they orchestrated his funeral, giving the impression that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He wasn’t, but he would have appreciated the irony.

The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) (there are also several lithographs). You can see it in the exhibit Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Popular Culture, which also includes other, less-famous, pieces: The Sick Child, Death in the Sickroom, Two People (The Lonely One), Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, Anxiety, The Vampire and Into the Woods.

But you’ll see a print; all originals are firmly locked away because they are the subject of constant attempts at theft (most recently, the piece in Norway’s National Gallery was kidnapped and held for ransom during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer). Munch, no doubt, would appreciate the irony of that, too.

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Blitz Magazine, March 1998

Pulp Non-Fiction: On the History of Paper

paperBlitz Magazine, March 2001

 

 

Imagine life without paper—no post-it notes, toilet tissue, espresso-to-go, plane tickets.

But it’s so commonplace, we never think about how it got here. It’s just here.

It’s been here for 2,000 years—a Chinese invention. In 105 AD, Cai Lun, an imperial inspector of workshops, returned from a papermaking research trip around China. When he presented the results to the emperor, he was dubbed the Inventor of Paper. But the oldest piece of paper extant, found in Shensi Province, dates from 140 BC, and we know that the Chinese began making paper in 200 BC.

The first paper was coarse and thick and was used to wrap parcels; a special thick, pleated paper was even used for armour. By 93 BC, it was clothing. In 110 AD, people started writing on it then, in 589 AD, they started using it for, er, personal purposes.

The word ‘paper’ comes from the word papyrus. But papyrus is different from paper. The Egyptians flattened stalks of the papyrus plant and stacked them in layers. When the stalks dried, they formed a flat material, perfect for writing on.

The Chinese used bamboo, hemp, rattan, straw or mulberry bark. They soaked pieces in water, along with lye or potash, for 70 days, then beat and boiled the mixture into pulp. They added water and a fibre-lubricating solution taken from a type of birch tree found only in Sichuan Province. The fine screen was dragged through the pulp; when pulp is collected, the fibres become attracted to each other and mesh to create a strong bond. The resultant net-like sheets were peeled off and stacked. The stack was pressed to remove excess water, then the damp sheets were stuck to a heated wall to dry.

Today, paper-making is a high-speed, high-tech form of this method, and wood chips are the base ingredient. The chips are steamed and stripped of lignin (the natural glue that holds fibres together). The fibres are cleaned and mixed with water, pumps spray pulp and water onto fast-moving screens, the water drains away, and the fibres join together. Vacuum pumps drain the water; large rollers squeeze the fibre, heated rollers dry it further. Starch or clay is added for an improved surface; a calender acts like an iron to polish it. These 100 metre-long papermaking machines have more computer controls than a 747. The romance is gone.

But you can now see the ancient method, in action, at Vancouver’s Science World, which hosts China! 7000 Years of Innovation, a celebration of Chinese inventions that changed the world.

 

 

Frederick Varley: Visions of Paradise

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Group of Seven founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, who lived in Vancouver from 1926 to 1936, saw British Columbia as Paradise on Earth.

In BC, the Post-Impressionist was inspired to apply colour, composition and Buddhist theory to landscapes and individuals in new, wondrous forms. BC was Varley’s muse; once he left, he never again experienced such exciting and sustained creativity.

Varley was a romantic and sensualist who loved the ideal of the freedom found in nature, and the spiritual and physical beauty of women. Though not a devotee of any one religious or philosophical code, a curiosity in mysticism and Asian philosophies evolved from his anxiety toward modern life—he regarded Eastern notions as an antidote to the Western focus on mechanization and moral conservatism. During his time in Vancouver, he believed that objects and individuals emanated an aura and he developed a theory attributing specific psychological means to each colour, casting his paintings around one or two specific hues.

An Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1912, Varley began his career in Toronto as a commercial designer, working with most of his future Group colleagues. After completing his commission as a war artist, he returned to the Group and, upon its triumph, became known as one of Canada’s leading portrait and landscape artists. But his restless nature, and his desire to escape debtors and crossed friendships, prevailed. He moved to Vancouver in search of a new life and fresh ideas.

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He became a teacher at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art (now Emily Carr University), where he was adored by his students. But when the Depression hit, he received the highest pay cut. He indignantly resigned and, with Jock Macdonald, opened the BC College of Arts, taking half the student body with him.

Although the school was regarded as being at the forefront of progressive art and his creativity was prodigious, Varley was forever in debt. His family had been twice evicted; they had no furniture, no food. Varley, who had fallen in love with one of his students, left his wife and four children and moved to North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. Then the school went out of business, it was time to get outa’ Dodge and he moved to Ottawa.

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When he died near Toronto in 1969, Varley left behind 500 oils, watercolours and sketches—a stunning body of work, and now a cherished part of Canada’s national heritage.

Blitz Magazine, November 1999

The Divine Comedy: Buster Keaton & Francisco Goya

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his f...

English: Film comedian Buster Keaton has his foot caught in the frog adjacent to Western Ave., on the Calico and Ghost Town Railroad at Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park in 1956. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. B...

English: Photograph of Buster Keaton seated. Buster Keaton, full-length portrait, seated, in costume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, What Could These Guys Possibly Have in Common?

Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is noted for work that captured the horrors of war and, in its articulation of humour and tragedy, work that had an enormous impact on modern consciousness. He also satirized the folly of Spanish society, using double meanings to shed light on social hierarchies, royal personalities, relationships between the sexes, and a continued belief in superstition despite the rise of rational thought that dawned with the Enlightenment.

American filmmaker Buster Keaton (1895-1966) is famed as one of history’s great comics, enjoying a successful 60-year show business career. Keaton employed physical comedy to reveal a modern world that is unstable and ruled by the rhythms of the machine age. In his films (One Week, Cops, Sherlock J., The General) chaos and calamity reigned, with ordinary people moving from one disaster to the next, defying the laws of physics and surviving unscathed.

South African artist William Kentridge (1955- ) has earned an international reputation for his exceptional animated films, prints and sculptures. Often depicting a world in chaos, his work employs subtle humour and personal gesture to reflect on the psychic landscape of post-apartheid South Africa. In his animated short films, we see real life becoming tragically absurd.

goyaThe common denominator between these artists is found in The Divine Comedy, an exhibition that the Art Gallery of Gallery of Western Australia organized to explore the relationship between comedy and violence, laughter and tears. Through the work of these artists, we can see the shifting relationship between aesthetics, politics and humour.

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showi...

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, showing Spanish resisters being executed by Napoleon’s troops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Through a range of images from 18th century etchings to contemporary video, the exhibition weaves together the work of three artists who lived through times of extraordinary social change, when forces of modernization obliterated stale old ways and left artists grappling with the loss of social and moral certainties. It provides a timely look at how black comedy, absurdity and satire are used to express our relationship in a tumultuous world.

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Blitz Magazine, January 2004

 

 

Little Big Top

circus4Blitz Magazine, October 2000

For ages, circuses were the prime—or only—form of entertainment for entire communities, particularly those in rural areas. In Ancient Rome, chariot races took place in oval arenas (anything to do with horses takes place in oval or circular structures; ‘circus’ is a Latin word stemming from the Greek ‘krikos’, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘ring’). In Medieval times, clowns, musicians, trick riders and acrobats began to travel with the horse acts; also at this time, tents were erected over the ovals.

North America’s first circus was started by a Philadelphia man in 1793. Three years later, the first elephant was brought to America and the collection and exhibition of exotic animals became popular. This practice is, of course, now considered to be cruel and déclassé (and has been eclipsed by sophisticated acts such as Canada’s Cirque du Soleil).

The Golden Age of circuses began in the 1870s, by which time they included brass bands, fancy costumes and eye-catching graphics for advertising purposes. Lavish parades announced each troupe’s arrival, with the circus rolling into town in ornately decorated wagons and gilded cages. Circuses were mobile communities, including performers, trainers, production people, barbers, costumers, teachers, doctors. They lived and worked in their colourful caravans—often, entire families stayed with the same circus for generations.

The Golden Age came to an end in the late 1920s. A short time later, circus historian Gordon Potter hired Michigan miniaturist Bert Backstein to construct a miniature model of a circus as it really was. Half a century later, Backstein’s son completed the collection (now known as the Potter Backstein Collection and owned by Vancouver businessman Bob Moore).

The collection’s components are slightly larger than the standard one-inch-to-one-foot scale, and consist of 250 wagons, a 400-piece menagerie of painted ceramic and wooden animals, and 125 carved and painted circus performers, band members and workers. Half of the wagons are miniature replicas of actual Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus wagons from the Golden Age; others are replicas of wagons from the renowned Hagenbeck Wallace Circus (1907-1938).

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Scandistyle Examined

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

Many designers might cringe at the mention of Ikea in conversation about design.

‘Fact is that Ikea introduced, to the North American mass market, an entire concept of interior decorating—a concept that was not invented by Ikea, but made affordable and easily available by Ikea. Spare, simple designs, uncomplicated materials, and splashes of colour among natural tones: this, to those who haven’t studied art history, is Scandinavian design.

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The concept of Scandinavian design refers to a particularly simplified subdivision of modern design. Characteristic features emphasize practicality, freedom from pretension and controlled use of materials. Lightness and clarity are common denominators. Timelessness and a thorough familiarity with materials bind the creations with modernism.

Design experts will tell you that Scandinavian design is a way of life, at once urban and close to nature. Many Scandinavians spend a good chunk of their lives close to woods and water, hiking in the wilderness or at summer cottages. This sounds a lot like life in Canada, except that, the experts say, Scandinavians spend nine months indoors—presumably, their winters are colder. It is said that, in the Scandinavian world, home and public interiors play a larger role, and that design is a question of survival—the farther north one goes, the harsher the conditions and the scarcer the materials. Long distances enhance the importance of using local materials, local technologies and local energy. ‘Sound familiar? Then why doesn’t Canadian design look the same as Scandinavian design?

Perhaps it’s a difference in attitude. In the Scandinavian countries, design has always been approached as competitively as sports. Nuances arise from each country’s culture, industry, politics, education and economy. Several generations of architects and designers have regarded themselves as part of a political movement. There is huge public support for design, and it’s the subject of investment by Scandinavian governments, all of which have produced national programs to support and develop design.

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Young Nordic Design: Generation X surveys the achievements and experiments of 50 young designers and design teams from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and includes 60 works presented in furniture, industrial, textile, graphic and fashion design. Unusual pieces include Cyberia, a jacket that includes a built-in location system, a communication system, electrical heating, a first-aid kit, a hypothermia bag, ice picks and a water-heating pocket. There’s a coffee mug whose handle is also a spout, a portable sofa, a lamp whose shade collapses when it’s turned off, an elegant cabinet handle whose actual purpose is to prevent shoplifting, a chandelier made for swinging from, a blade-like, high-speed kayak made of molded carbon fibre, and a road-racing bicycle made of carbon fibre.