INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK WATSON

Montreal musician Patrick Watson (photo by Patrick Gouin)

Montreal musician Patrick Watson (photo by Patrick Gouin)

By Anita Malhotra

It’s hard to imagine a more authentic, sincere musical voice than that of Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson (also the name of his band), who will release his sixth studio album this fall.

Audiences connect with him on a highly personal level, as shown by the heartfelt comments left on his YouTube videos by fans and the warmth of audiences at his live shows.

Watson’s musical approach was influenced by growing up in the small Quebec town of Hudson, where he sang in local church choirs.

After studying music at Vanier College, he toured as himself and as a band with such artists as James Brown, John Cale, Philip Glass, The Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin and Feist. He and his band have also toured extensively internationally in their own right.

Patrick Watson's second album, Close To Paradise, won the 2007 Polaris Music Prize (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

Patrick Watson’s second album, Close To Paradise, won the 2007 Polaris Music Prize (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

Releasing his first album in 2003, Watson won the Polaris Music Prize in 2007 for his second album, Close to Paradise, and went on to release Wooden Arms (2009), Adventures in Your Own Backyard (2012) and Love Songs for Robots (2015).

Several of his songs have been featured in movies as well as in TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, The Walking Dead, and Orange is the New Black.

Watson is also a soundtrack composer and recently created the sound and music for Gymnasia, a haunting virtual reality piece co-produced by the National Film Board and Felix & Paul Studios, and directed by animators Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (aka Clyde Henry Productions).

Anita Malhotra spoke with Patrick Watson by phone on June 11, 2019 about his work on Gymnasia, his approach to music and his current projects.

AM: How did you get involved with doing the music and sound for Gymnasia?

PW: Chris and Maciek work for Clyde Henry Productions and I usually do all the music for their films. We got involved in VR because Felix & Paul Studios had asked Chris and Maciek to test out a camera of theirs – to do a little short.

We did this very humble video of me playing in my studio. In the initial test they noticed that a certain type of simplicity was really crucial. The whole thing is meant to feel like you’re sitting there, and at one point I look at you. If it’s done well, the effect of being alone with someone in VR is a strange experience, even before you start adding any kind of fancy stuff.

A lot of the other VR projects were more geared towards being kind of fancy, like you’re in a weird world on a roller coaster. Because this one was so simple, it seemed to have had a large effect on people. So that demo we made, Strangers, ended up circling the globe and became this kind of go-to video to show people the potential of VR.

Chris Lavis (L) and Maciek Szczerbowski (R) (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Chris Lavis (L) and Maciek Szczerbowski (R) (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Because of that, Felix & Paul asked us to do another one together. So Chris and Maciek decided to make something that was a bit of a childhood dream. It’s still not trying to sell the viewer with too much info. The space is really well made and you really feel like you’re sitting there. There are not too many bells and whistles.

We made a plot line that was very surreal and not trying to be a giant narration. I feel like it’s a very good approach for VR, because I feel like VR is closer to photo than film.

AM: How did you go about capturing the mood of the visuals in Gymnasia?

PW: I started with the sound. I think it’s crucially VR sound first, and music only if you need it. Because unless the music is integrated in the space, it tells your brain you’re not there.

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

VR doesn’t work the same as film, because when you watch a film you’ve already decided that you’re going to lose yourself in the environment. But with VR you’re supposed to be there.

So VR music is very tricky actually. The sound really decides the tone more than the music. My approach with music is, “This is the place that, if I put music there, it’s not going to ruin it.” It’s not how do I make it better; it’s how do I not ruin it.

So I initially approached from the sound point of view. And the sound point of view is to give it that kind of abandoned feeling without being too scary. And then the rest was what would this space actually sound like, without trying to colour it too much. That’s actually very tricky.

Ambience is very complicated in VR because when you’re in a room your ears tell you how big the room is – not your eyes. Proximity effect in VR is super sensitive.

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

AM: You wrote a beautiful choir song for Gymnasia. Can you tell me a bit about that?

PW: The song is integrated into the space. We wanted a haunting lullaby for children. That kind of stuff is easy to write because I’ve got kids. It’s an easy universe to get into. That’s why a little more of my energy was put to the spatialization, because the music was very obvious.

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

The basketballs were a bit more complex. We knew we needed music inside that, but once again I didn’t want to ruin it, so we started off with sound.

We actually put a mike in the gym and gave 20 people basketballs and played out the actual scene with the spatialization. It would sound so fake if you tried to redo it yourself any other way.

And then, from there, I just accentuated music. The music is actually integrated inside the project not as music, but more as sound design. When I threw the strings in the back to give it a little bit of a dramatic tone, it wasn’t too jarring. And all the weird synth modular stuff that I put in there is pretty wild and integrates very nicely.

AM: What is it like to work with Chris and Maciek?

PW: There’s nothing more fun than working with Chris and Maciek. They’re like a dream. Both of them are really talented in very different ways. It’s like a two-headed dragon with two totally different personalities.

Image from the virtual reality piece Gymnasia (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Still from the animated film Madame Tutli-Putli, directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

We talk a lot about the projects way before we start making them and we have a pretty respectful relationship in terms trusting each other’s instincts.

If something passes our three different kinds of filters, generally it’s got to be something very good. At the same time I know it’s their film. The director always has to be the director.

I met them after they did their first film that went to the Oscars – Madame Tutli-Putli. I begged them at that time to do their music, and then years later they finally connected with me.

AM: Do you have any other projects coming up with them?

PW: We have two more projects going on now as we speak. One is a 20-minute short and one is a full feature musical.

AM: When do you like to write your music and do you have an ideal place to write it?

Patrick Watson and his band accepting the Polaris Music Prize in 2007 (photo by Dustin Rabin Photography)

Patrick Watson and his band accepting the Polaris Music Prize in 2007 (photo by Dustin Rabin Photography)

PW: I go to work every day and write every day. When I travel, I write too, and sometimes it’s really fun being in different spots – having that luxury – because I have kids and stuff.

The only thing I worry about is to write and write well. It’s just like a muscle. It’s not a God-given gift that you’re creative. Some people naturally have more of a creative inclination than others, but the only reason they’re so gifted is that they worked like a monster on it and are constantly flexing that muscle.

Every day I’m flexing that muscle. There’s always something to write, there’s always something to learn, and there’s always work to be done. There’s no real excuse not to. I mean, there are millions of people who would love to have my job. If you’re in music or the arts, you can never take that for granted – you can never get lazy.

AM: What are your first memories of being involved in music?

PW: I grew up singing in a choir at a pretty young age. I grew up in a really small town. There were no cool bands. From a very young age I sang at funerals and weddings, and big moments in people’s lives.

I am proud to make music for these kinds of moments in people’s lives and I probably still do that, but in a habitual form.

AM: What was your connection with the audience like when you were younger?

PW: The thing about singing in a choir is they’re not your audience and you’re not on stage performing. The music is the performer and you are part of the instruments. It’s a very different perspective than someone going on stage and singing a song about themselves.

I still keep that kind of intention when I get on stage. I generally like the idea of letting music do what it does best. I find music more interesting than me, to be honest. Of course I’m part of the process, but a very humbling part.

James Brown performing in June 2005 (photo by Fabio Venni, Flickr Creative Commons)

James Brown performing in June 2005 (photo by Fabio Venni, Flickr Creative Commons)

When I watched James Brown when we toured with him, he had a very large level of humility when it came to music, and he would do giant prayers before getting on stage.

He seemed like the most pompous person in the world from his interviews, but when he got on stage he was actually very humble. He knew how to listen to the room and the music and not to himself. He was basically a slave to the room and the sound and the vibe.

AM: What were your early experiences with the piano?

PW: I started playing the piano around a year after I started singing. I would go home and play the piano all night long until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning at a very young age. I would just improvise. I loved that process.

AM: Can you describe your relationship with the piano?

PW: It was kind of interesting how I looked at the piano. I guess as a kid I thought the piano was a ghost. He would just do all the work for me and I would just hang out with him. I didn’t grow up in a city – I grew up in a pretty small town, you know. You get pretty romantic ideas in a very small town, so I didn’t know much better. I guess the piano was just like the ghost and then he wrote music for me, and I thought that was cool.

Cover of Patrick Watson's 2012 album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

Cover of Patrick Watson’s 2012 album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

People mistake these things as hobbies because they like to play the piano or they like to play an instrument. I don’t think anybody plays four or five hours in the middle of the night unless they need it to try and get through whatever they’ve got to do.

When schools teach creativity, they teach it as people drawing flowers. But creativity for me is more of a survival tool. For me, creativity is taught wrong from the get-go and not helpful for people.

Creativity is absolutely the most primal and most important survival tool you could have. I feel the people I’ve met who are really creative it’s generally a survival instinct. It’s because they couldn’t cope and they just had to build worlds to cope.

AM: You have a concert coming up in Lyon with the Orchestre National de Lyon. What music will you be doing at that concert?

PW: It’s a mixture more of the older records than the new ones because the older records really translate well to orchestra. They’re closer to classical music in the mood.

Patrick Watson and his band performing with an orchestra (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

Patrick Watson and his band performing with an orchestra (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

AM: How is playing with an orchestra different from playing just with your band?

PW: Playing with an orchestra is the best. Nothing beats it. It’s totally overwhelming. It’s also very technical difficult, but it’s amazing. In classical music the downbeats are different because the conductor goes down and everybody reacts, so there’s flab to the “one.” In pop music the “one” is very, very definite.

AM: When is your next album coming out and what is it like?

Cover of Patrick Watson's 2015 album Love Songs for Robots (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

Cover of Patrick Watson’s 2015 album Love Songs for Robots (photo courtesy of Patrick Watson)

PW: It comes out in October. To be honest, this album is very particular because it was a very particular three years.

At one point I thought there was going to be a lot of production, but when I started the record, I started to make something as bare as possible and very intimate. Just kind of really sincere. I also wanted songs so strong and well-written that the production wouldn’t save them. I could do them upside-down and they would still work.

Lyrically, the voice is very different – it’s very low, it’s not oversung. The lyrics have a much bigger place than normal than the other records.

It was just such a particular three years. My life fell apart so I had to rebuild everything over three years. So the album’s obviously a lot about that, whether I like it or not. It’s hard for it not to be when you’re going through that process.

AM: Aside from the Lyon concert, what are you doing now? Are you working on your next album?

PW: I had started to work on it, but then I got a contract. I’m doing the music for the play Elephant Man in Paris. I will be writing the music during the summer.

Patrick Watson performing at Paard van Troje in The Netherlands in June 2008 (photo by Nick Helderman, Flickr Creative Commons)

Patrick Watson performing at Paard van Troje in The Netherlands in June 2008 (photo by Nick Helderman, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: Aside from music and your family, do you have any other major interests?

PW: Reading is becoming a huge part of my life. I’ve been a terrible reader since I was a kid. It would take me a year to read a book. So I just never had that much access to literature because of that. And now I’m spending all my time catching up on everything I should have read 20 years ago.

Right now I’m reading The Lover by Marguerite Duras and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. I try to read a book a week. The last book I read was amazing – Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger and it was so good!

Patrick Watson will perform with the Orchestre National de Lyon at the Théâtre Antique de Lyon on July 8, 2019. For more information about Patrick Watson, visit patrickwatson.net.

Gymnasia can be viewed at the Phi Centre in Montreal until Sept. 15, 2019 as part of the immersive art exhibit HUM(AI)N. It can also be downloaded as an app from the Oculus Store. For more information on Gymnasia, visit nfb.ca or the Phi Centre.

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INTERVIEW WITH SANDRA BEASLEY

Washington, D.C. poet Sandra Beasley (photo by Milly West)

Washington, D.C. poet Sandra Beasley (photo by Milly West)

By Anita Malhotra

Sandra Beasley’s poetry is striking, surprising, clever and funny – and often inspires the reader to learn more.

Based in Washington, D.C., Beasley is the author of three poetry collections – Theories of Falling (2008), I Was the Jukebox (2010) and Count the Waves (2015).

Her poetry has been published in dozens of magazines and journals, including Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird and Oxford American and she has won numerous awards, most notably the New Issues Poetry Prize and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. 

In spring 2019, she held the John Montague International Poetry Fellowship sponsored by Ireland’s Munster Literature Centre and University College Cork. 

Beasley, who holds an MFA in creative writing from American University, is also a non-fiction author and book editor.

Beasley's 2015 book of poems, "Count the Waves" (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley’s 2015 book of poems, “Count the Waves” (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Her memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life was released in 2011, and she is the editor of Vinegar and CharVerse from the Southern Foodways Alliance (2018), an anthology of poems about Southern food. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Tampa’s low-residency MFA program.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Beasley, who was at her home in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2019.

AM: What are your earliest memories of being drawn to the written word?

SB: Probably the simple request to be excused from dinner early at my grandmother’s house.

I would usually beg to get away from the adult conversation and they’d send me downstairs. And downstairs usually meant picking up one of the books, or one of the Reader’s Digests off the table, and reading.

Sandra Beasley as a young girl celebrating her birthday (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Sandra Beasley as a young girl celebrating her birthday (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

For many years my favorite first poet was Emily Dickinson, in part because there was a brown softcover reader of Emily Dickinson’s poems – I think it was one of my uncle’s college textbooks. That was the first one I would go to when I got away from the dinner table.

The book of Emily Dickinson Poems that Sandra Beasley read as a child (photo by Sandra Beasley)

The book of Emily Dickinson Poems that Sandra Beasley read as a child (photo by Sandra Beasley)

AM: How about writing your own poetry. Did you start early?

SB: I was really fortunate in that my school system in Virginia was very supportive and nourishing of the arts, including being able to participate in in-school poetry workshops – gosh, going all the way back to elementary school.

So being able to get out of class once a week, which automatically made it a fun, good thing, and meeting up with a woman named Rose MacMurray. She led us through all kinds of creative exercises and really made it feel possible to be a poet in the world.

AM: Did you have any fears of revealing yourself through your poetry when you were younger?

Sandra Beasley showing an early love of reading (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Sandra Beasley showing an early love of reading (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

SB: I have always written poems that have used persona, and have used fictional premises, and have been set in places I’ve never been.

One of my first published poems was about a wife who seemed to be experiencing some kind of abuse, and – depending how you looked at it – either a goat or a unicorn that she kept in the barn.

I’ve come to accept over the years that invariably what I’m thinking and feeling kind of rises to the surface of my poems, even if I’m writing about something very far from my own existence.

So I think it’s really important that we give people space to express themselves, and also respect a distance from assuming we know someone just because we’ve seen their poems on the page.

AM: Many of your poems relate to the natural world or historical figures. Were these early interests of yours?

SB: I was always an avid student, and particularly drawn to the sciences. I went to a high school geared specifically towards science and technology.

The immersion into facts and images required to write about science or about natural history is fun, and it also gives me confidence that the poem is doing something important in the world.  To me, a poem has really succeeded if it not only provides pleasure during the experience of reading the poem, but if it sparks curiosity.

Sandra Beasley working on her poetry in 2014 (photo by Joel Caplan)

Sandra Beasley working on her poetry in 2014 (photo by Joel Caplan)

AM: You do a lot of research for your poems. Can you tell me a bit about that?

SB: In terms of the physical process, our house is full of books. I’m married to a visual artist who also loves books. Our house is full of maps, full of paintings, a lot of art on the walls.

There are a lot of visual stimuli. I think the only danger is, like many poets, I love to procrastinate, and I would rather spend more time thinking about the poem I’m going to write versus actually hunkering down and doing the hard work of writing.

So I have to be careful that my instinct to research doesn’t become just a rabbit hole of procrastination.

Beasley's first book of poetry, "Theories of Falling," published in 2008 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley’s first book of poetry, “Theories of Falling,” published in 2008 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

AM: You did an MFA in creative writing at American University. How did that tie into your path to becoming a poet?

SB: When people talk about the MFA experience, there’s a lot of romanticism around getting the full ride and moving somewhere for the program, and surrounding yourself with writers and only writers.

That was not the case with me. My reality was I wanted and needed to be close to my family, so I stayed pretty much in the area in which I’d grown up.And I didn’t get a full ride, so I had to work full-time while I was there.

I live in D.C., which in many ways is a creative community, but if you’re striking up a conversation in a bar, it’s probably not going to be with another writer – it’s probably going to be with a lawyer.

I think it prepared me really well for a writing life that continued after the MFA – a writing life where no one was standing around with a deadline, looking forward to reading my poem for a workshop. Because it was already integrated into where I was living and the larger community, I think it helped me keep up that momentum.

Beasley in 2011 reading for the Poetry Society of South Carolina (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley in 2011 reading for the Poetry Society of South Carolina (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

AM: You’ve published three books of poetry. Can you tell me briefly about each one?

SB: Theories of Falling represents the culmination of my decision to become a poet. There are definitely poems there that draw from the well of biography and first-hand experience, perhaps more than any other collection.

Beasley's second book of poetry, "I Was the Jukebox," published in 2010 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley’s second book of poetry, “I Was the Jukebox,” published in 2010 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

I Was the Jukebox was in some ways a reaction against that. I was also starting to realize that I would be writing non-fiction as well.

And since I was going to be getting that space to talk about things like food allergies or my family, I really wanted that book to be about play and wonder, about inhabiting experiences not my own. A lot of mythology, a lot of music. I was writing the poems often at the rate of a poem a day for these intense, one-month bursts.

Count the Waves was thinking much more consciously about pattern and structure. And that’s reflected in a few different ways. Using the sestina – that received form – as much I do. Working through the Traveler’s Vade Mecum series, which was related to a solicitation for an anthology edited by Helen Klein Ross. What was really meant to be a one-off prompt just lit a flame, and I kept writing them.

It’s also the collection that eases into thinking about love on the scale of a longer lasting commitment. I got married the year before that book came out, and so I was really thinking about life shifts.

AM: One of the things I love about your poetry is the different points of view that you adopt – even of inanimate objects or mythological characters. What led you to take this approach?

SB: One thing that comes to mind is those periods when I tried to write a poem a day – largely in concert with the NaPoWriMo [National Poetry Writing Month] poets.

Beasley reading from "Theories of Falling" at the 2019 Cork International Poetry Festival (photo courtesy of the Munster Literature Centre)

Beasley reading from “Theories of Falling” at the 2019 Cork International Poetry Festival (photo courtesy of the Munster Literature Centre)

When you’re writing a poem a day, you get sick of your voice and your point of view very quickly.

So that was a way of really prompting myself to stretch, and not recycle the same vocabulary, and not recite the same set of concerns with every poem.

I was talking about writers block with some middle-schoolers this past week. We discussed the music that we play and I said, “What if, instead of trying to write a poem inspired by your reaction to the music, what if you thought about a musical instrument that’s being used to make that music – and what would its reaction be to what you’re listening to?” And they kind of lit up.

Beasley teaching at the 2016 Sanibel Island Writers Conference (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley teaching at the 2016 Sanibel Island Writers Conference (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Some of that’s goofy, like, “What does it feel like to be hit, if you’re a drum” or “If you’re a flute, what if the person playing you has bad breath?” But with silliness comes joy, and that’s ideally what gets us choosing to spend our time writing poems – the chance to be surprised and excited.

AM: What is the role of sound in your poetry? Do you read your poems out loud when you’re writing them?

SB: Reading out loud is a huge part of my drafting process, and it’s something that I really emphasize with students as well.

Even though I don’t usually use end rhyme, I trained in traditions that use end rhyme. I think the ear often seeks a certain amount of closure that’s offered by hearing rhyme, so that manifests as internal rhyme and consonance and assonance.

Anyone who has been in a close reading or a session of poems with me knows that I really, really emphasize the aural texture of the poem.

AM: What are your ideal conditions in which to write poetry?

SB: I think that one reason people gravitate to writing residencies is that it allows them to reset their daily schedules and find for them what is actually the most fruitful, natural writing time. In the absence of other responsibilities, I love to be writing in a quiet space near an open window or sky view, between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m.

Sandra Beasley in 2004 in a Washington, D.C. coffeeshop (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Sandra Beasley in 2004 in a Washington, D.C. coffeeshop (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Now that can be hard to do if it’s at the end of a long day, or if the next day is going to be long and I get anxious about being rested for it. So as much as I like to romanticize that as my ideal writing time, the reality is the poem’s got to get written whenever I can get it written.

AM: What are some of the high points and low points of being a poet?

SB: I truly enjoy the act of reading and that audience connection. When you’ve got a poem that’s successful and you get to have that experience of sharing it with someone in real time, and hearing them react to it, it’s incredible.

Beasley reading at Saturnalia 2018 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley reading at Saturnalia 2018 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

That said, when I’m making a turn in the style of poems I’m writing, that is a scary time because all those people who loved and reacted to the poems I’ve been sharing up until that point are going to start having different reactions.

I’m proud of the fact that all three of my books are different from each other. But what that means is that right when everyone’s like “You must be so excited about how this book did” is usually when I’m starting to get all the rejections for the poems that will become the next book.

One thing I learned from my college days was that the people who made it as poets weren’t the people who were the most naturally gifted. I went to school with people who had a more immediate touch for what made a poem work. But the people who make it as poets are the people who are just stubborn. Perseverance is nine-tenths of it.

Sandra Beasley (photo by Matthew Worden)

Sandra Beasley (photo by Matthew Worden)

AM: Is it difficult for you to write poetry that might reveal things about yourself and the people close to you?

SB: I definitely have had personal dramas that have come about because someone who learned through a poem how I felt about something, but people have largely been generous in giving me permission to write.

When I was in high school, I was supposed to sing in that year’s talent show. And instead, I walked out on stage and I read three poems. I was very proud of myself, and people were cheering in the audience.

But one person who was not cheering was my poor mother, who had gone there expecting to hear her daughter sing, and instead got confronted with a poem that was largely about frustrations in the mother-daughter relationship. And even though I know I needed to do that, there’s a part of me that still looks back in time and winces, and just wants to hug my mother and apologize.

AM: What are you currently working on?

SB: I have a fourth collection of poems that’s close to complete. They are getting into the details of American history, particularly from my inheritance – my Virginia-raised identity and also living in Washington, D.C. for a number of years.

I have one sestina, but what I have the most of, on a formal level, is prose-poems. There are also a lot of poems about food traditions, and that’s in part coming out of my experience editing Vinegar and Char. When you put together an anthology of everyone else’s food poems, you’re invariably going to write your own.

Beasley reading at Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida in 2016 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley reading at Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida in 2016 (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

AM: How do you see the role of poetry in North American society now?

SB: I think that at the end of the day we all individually connect with a single poem in a single moment for any number of reasons. We turn to poems to celebrate, to grieve, to seduce, to express anger. Not all poems have to serve all purposes.

I do think that we’re in an amazing time where poetry’s concision and its ability to play with form means that it can cut through a lot of the noise that is going on with, frankly, awful trends in social attitudes and political decisions.

A really great poem can cut through all of that and can spread. It can get shared among 200 people in the course of one day. It’s hard for a novel to do that.

Ross Gay has a beautiful poem – “A Small Needful Fact” – that periodically makes the rounds. It’s about the death of Eric Garner, who’s an African American who died under unjust circumstances, in part due to brute police force.

Beasley reading at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

Beasley reading at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival (photo courtesy of Sandra Beasley)

By the end of the poem, Ross Gay has taken has taken the simple fact that Eric Garner, who died struggling for breath, spent earlier years of his life cultivating trees and saplings to make the air better so that we could all breathe.

That’s what a poem can do. It can cut through all of the disagreement and the politicking over a set of facts and say, “Look – if this doesn’t wring your heart, you don’t understand what’s going on here.”

For more information on Sandra Beasley and her work, please visit sandrabeasley.com or her blog, Chicks Dig Poetry.

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INTERVIEW WITH ALISON SNOWDEN AND DAVID FINE

David Fine and Alison Snowden at their Vancouver home (photo © Chad Galloway)

David Fine and Alison Snowden at their Vancouver home (photo © Chad Galloway)

By Anita Malhotra

Vancouver-based animators, directors and writers Alison Snowden and David Fine received some very good news recently – an Oscar nomination for their most recent animated short film, Animal Behaviour.

The film, produced and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada, is a humorous look at what happens when a new animal joins a canine-led therapy session for five animals (a leech, praying mantis, pig, cat and bird), who are struggling with their natural instincts.

Still from "Animal Behaviour" by Alison Snowden and David Fine (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Still from “Animal Behaviour” by Alison Snowden and David Fine (photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada)

Snowden and Fine, a husband-and-wife team, have been working together since they met in the early ‘80s at England’s National Film and Television School.

Their films include the Oscar-winning short animation Bob’s Birthday (1994) and the Oscar-nominated shorts Second Class Mail and George and Rosemary.

Alison Snowden and David Fine at the National Film Board studio in Vancouver (photo by Katja De Bock)

Alison Snowden and David Fine at the National Film Board studio in Vancouver (photo by Katja De Bock)

They also created the animated TV series Bob and Margaret (1998-2001), for which they served as executive producers, writers, and in Snowden’s case, voice actor. Other TV series they created were Ricky Sprocket: Showbiz Boy and Shaun the Sheep.

Anita Malhotra spoke to Snowden and Fine, who were at their Vancouver home, by phone on Feb. 8, 2019, two weeks before Oscar night on Feb. 24, 2019.

AM: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination and the other awards you’ve won so far for Animal Behaviour. I understand you’ve just come back from Los Angeles. What were you doing there?

AS: They have a luncheon for the Oscar nominees. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere and they take a big group photo of this year’s nominees, and it was really lovely. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH CAMILLE SEAMAN

Self-portrait by photographer Camille Seaman (© Camille Seaman)

Self-portrait by photographer Camille Seaman (© Camille Seaman)

By Anita Malhotra

Photographer Camille Seaman is best known for her stunning photos of polar ice and habitats as well as for her dramatic photographs taken while storm-chasing. Her unique style is informed by her Native American heritage and its emphasis on connection with and respect for nature.

A TED Senior Fellow since 2011 and a frequent public speaker, Seaman has received several awards, including a 2006 National Geographic Award and a 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.

Three books of her work have been published, and her photos have appeared in National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek and Time Magazine, among others. 

Seaman recently moved from California to Ireland, where she is working on her first novel. Anita Malhotra spoke with her by phone on Dec. 3, 2018, a few days before she left for Antarctica on her latest photographic project.

The Last Iceberg Series III: Blue Underside Revealed II, Svalbard, July 5, 2010 (photo © Camille Seaman)

The Last Iceberg Series III: Blue Underside Revealed II, Svalbard, July 5, 2010 (photo © Camille Seaman)

AM: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up and your childhood?

CS: I grew up on Long Island. My family on my father’s side are indigenous to Long Island. We’ve been there for thousands of years – part of the Shinnecock tribe. And my mother is black and Italian, so she came from New York City out to the island and met my dad and they got married.

Camille Seaman at the age of 2 (photo courtesy of Camille Seaman)

Camille Seaman at the age of 2 (photo courtesy of Camille Seaman)

I was raised in a mixed ethnic family, but in many native families we don’t judge people by their religion or their skin. We judge them by how they treat us. If I told you about all the cultural mixes of my cousins it would spin your head.

While my parents were still married, my father’s family had the main say in how we were raised, which was very much in Shinnecock tradition.  We grew up in the woods, we grew up fishing, we grew up planting fish-heads in the garden so that the vegetables would be fertilized. I didn’t realize that that was different from how other kids were being raised on the island until I was much older.

AM: How did you first get interested in photography?

Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH CRISTINA COSTANTINI AND DARREN FOSTER

Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini, co-directors and producers (with Jeffrey Plunkett) of the award-winning documentary "Science Fair," at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (photo by Francisco Sanchez)

Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini, co-directors and producers (with Jeffrey Plunkett) of the award-winning documentary “Science Fair,” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (photo by Francisco Sanchez)

By Anita Malhotra

Award-winning investigative journalists Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster have been getting a lot of positive buzz about their first feature film collaboration, Science Fair.

Full of humor and deftly crafted, the inspiring film follows nine extraordinary teenagers vying against 1,700 others to win coveted prizes at one of the world’s largest international science fairs.

The film has played to almost unanimous acclaim, winning audience awards at several film festivals, including Sundance and South by Southwest (SXSW). In April 2018, Science Fair was acquired by National Geographic, who are distributing it in cinemas and schools and plan to broadcast it in 2019.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Costantini and Foster, who are based in Los Angeles, on Nov. 6, 2018, a few days before Science Fair began its Nov. 9-18 run at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema.

AM: Can you each tell me a bit about your career before Science Fair?

DF: Both of us were journalists before we became filmmakers. I did a lot of TV docs. The opioid crisis, immigration and the drug war were probably my primary areas of focus over the last 10 years or so.

So it was a bit of a departure for me to do something like Science Fair, but it was a much needed and very happy departure. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been partnered with Cristina on a previous project.

CC: Darren and I worked on a project about fentanyl together, which is a deadly opiate that has made both the U.S. and Canada’s opiate epidemic much more deadly. That was, like it sounds, a very sad story.

Cristina Costantini's previous work included award-winning investigative documentaries (photo courtesy of National Geographic)

Cristina Costantini’s previous work included award-winning investigative documentaries (photo courtesy of National Geographic)

And I had done also a lot of reporting on immigration and sex trafficking and prisons and detention centers. So, like Darren, I was ready for a break. And it was actually during the fentanyl documentary that we started talking about this idea of doing a science fair documentary.

I was a science fair kid when I was in high school, and it totally changed my life, and it validated me during the dark years of high school. I learned just so much from it and I’m really in love with this world.

We started talking about how fun it would be to go to the fair and scout the characters and tell the story. So we went to the 2016 fair, and that’s where we met many of the kids that are in the movie.

Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH HANS HEMMERT

By Anita Malhotra

German conceptual artist Hans Hemmert at his home in Berlin on Sept. 7, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

German conceptual artist Hans Hemmert at his home in Berlin on Sept. 7, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Berlin-based artist Hans Hemmert is best known for his groundbreaking conceptual artwork, most notably his performative balloon sculptures. His work has been exhibited at the MoMA in New York, the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea (CGAC) in Spain and Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art, among others.

"o.T. - "Yellow sculpture fitting to beer crate" (1998), balloon/air/artist/ beer crate, Cibachrome, 100 x 75 cm, © Hans Hemmert and VG Bild Kunst

“o.T. – “Yellow sculpture fitting to beer crate” (1998), balloon/air/artist/ beer crate, Cibachrome, 100 x 75 cm, © Hans Hemmert and VG Bild Kunst

It can also be found in many art collections around the world, including those of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art Helsinki, Malmö Konsthall, Berlin Landesmuseum, German Bundestag, and the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.

Hemmert is also a member of the collective “inges idee” (Hans Hemmert, Axel Lieber, Thomas A. Schmidt and Georg Zey), whose more than 50 striking public sculptures can be found in Europe, Asia and North America.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Hans Hemmert at his home in Berlin on Sept. 7, 2018.

AM: Where did you grow up?

HH: I grew up in Bavaria – in the countryside.

AM: What were your first experiences with art?

"Unterwegs" ("On the Road"), 1996, balloon/air/artist/car; lightbox slide, 100 x 160 cm, © Hans Hemmert and VG Bild Kunst

“Unterwegs” (“On the Road”), 1996, balloon/air/artist/car; lightbox slide, 100 x 160 cm, © Hans Hemmert and VG Bild Kunst

HH: At school I liked to work with my hands building small models made of paper, or working with clay. And this developed in my youth.

I knew that I wanted to do something with my hands – not with texts and words, but with pictures and three-dimensional objects. I started studying philosophy in ’81, but then it became clear that I wanted to enter arts school.

Hans Hemmert at the age of 6 in Bavaria (photo courtesy of Hans Hemmert)

Hans Hemmert at the age of 6 in Bavaria (photo courtesy of Hans Hemmert)

AM: What interested you about philosophy?

HH: The interest came from the religious education I had in Bavaria. My family was very religious – Catholic. I was even in a seminary from age 10 to 17.

There I got a lot of religious and philosophical input, because we were reading the old Greek and Latin philosophers.

I started studying philosophy but realized that I’m not a scientist but an artist. Then I got a place in the art school in Berlin and studied sculpture for five years.

Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH FRED PENNER

Fred Penner at Cooper's Gastropub in Ottawa, where he was interviewed for Artsmania on May 11, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Fred Penner at Cooper’s Gastropub in Ottawa, where he was interviewed for Artsmania on May 11, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

By Anita Malhotra

Award-winning children’s entertainer Fred Penner is still going strong after a 45-year career entertaining and educating not only children, but also their parents and grandparents, many of whom were part of his audience when they were young.

Born in Winnipeg in 1946, Penner worked as a singer/songwriter, youth worker, children’s entertainer and stage actor before releasing his first album, The Cat Came Back, in 1979.

In the mid-‘80s, he was invited by CBC television to create his own children’s TV show, Fred Penner’s Place. The popular show ran from 1985 to 1997 in Canada and from 1989 to 1992 in the U.S. on Nickelodeon.

Fred Penner performing on Sept. 16, 2017 at CityFolk festival in Ottawa (photo by Michael Anderson Photography, courtesy of Fred Penner)

Fred Penner performing on Sept. 16, 2017 at CityFolk festival in Ottawa (photo by Michael Anderson Photography, courtesy of Fred Penner)

Penner has released 13 albums, four of them garnering Juno Awards. A passionate advocate for children, he has won four Parent’s Choice awards and has been a spokesperson for organizations like UNICEF, UNESCO and World Vision. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1991.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Penner in Ottawa on May 11, 2018, on the first day of his five-day run at the Ottawa Children’s Festival.

AM: How did your shows go today at the Ottawa Children’s Festival?

FP: They went well. The 11 o’clock was sold out and the 1 o’clock was a smaller house but with some lovely connections There was a family from upstate New York, and they had contacted me a while ago saying that their daughter was a huge fan and would love to have an opportunity to meet me, so I gave her one of my Fred Penner T-shirts and we had a lovely connection.

The cover of Penner's 2017 CD, "Hear the Music," which won a 2018 Juno Award for Children's Album of the Year

The cover of Penner’s 2017 CD, “Hear the Music,” which won a 2018 Juno Award for Children’s Album of the Year

That’s always the delight of my performing, no matter where it is. It’s not just singing a couple of songs and then people singing along, but that shared moment after when I’m signing autographs and doing pictures. People want to go a little deeper and then tell me some of their stories.

AM: What kind of material are you playing at the festival?

FP: It’s an hour performance, so about 15 songs. The majority are original tunes – many from the new CD that I produced last September called Hear the Music. And there are the standards that the audience is expecting. A song called “The Cat Came Back” and “Sandwiches” are the number one and two requests. And then I intersperse that with some hand games and sign language things.

Penner being congratulated by then Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn after being named to the Order of Canada in 1991 (photo courtesy of Fred Penner)

Penner being congratulated by then Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn after being named to the Order of Canada in 1991 (photo courtesy of Fred Penner)

AM: I imagine it’s not the easiest thing to entertain children because of their attention span.

FP: I don’t think of it in terms of attention span, I think about it in terms of listening to them and engaging with them. I think of my performances as a musical dialogue, so I’m singing universal topic songs about animals or food or families or co-operation.

I’ll put out these songs that the parents can connect to, grandparents connect to, children can connect to. And after the performances, the caregivers and the child will continue the triangle of communication.

AM: Can you give me an example of that?

FP: There’s a song called “You can do it if you try.” I wrote it years ago based on a Japanese children’s company that was playing in Vancouver at the kid’s fest there. Parents have come to me and said that they use that song when their children have felt insecure or feeling they’re not able to do a certain thing. And the parents will say, “Remember what Fred says. You can do it if you try.” Knowing that the parents are taking some of these songs and the concepts and bringing them into their own lives is really quite overwhelming.

AM: When you perform live, is your audience mainly children?

FP: No, it’s 50/50 at least and often more adults than kids. The first album, The Cat Came Back, was out in 1979. That decade – the ‘80s into the ‘90s – was the heyday for what we were doing – with Sharon, Lois & Bram and Raffi and the core of those performers. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH CALLEN SCHAUB

Callen Schaub with one of the paintings in his show "The Arena" at The Sussex Contemporary gallery in Ottawa (photo by Collateral Photography - Spencer Robertson)

Callen Schaub with one of the paintings in his show “The Arena” at The Sussex Contemporary gallery in Ottawa (photo by Collateral Photography – Spencer Robertson)

By Anita Malhotra

Twenty-seven-year-old artist Callen Schaub’s abstract paintings are bold, colourful and appealing but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Namely the process, which consists of  spreading paint on a canvas using innovative equipment he has designed and built himself.

The act of creating these paintings is an integral part of his work, and Schaub, who is based in Toronto, has performed his work live at galleries in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa as well as on Instagram, where he has more than 70,000 followers. A graduate of OCAD University who ran his own gallery for four years, Schaub has also had his work exhibited in Toronto, including at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and in Miami at Art Basel.

Throughout April, Schaub has been Artist in Residence at The Sussex Contemporary gallery in Ottawa, where his exhibit “The Arena” opens on Saturday, April 21. Anita Malhotra spoke with him at The Sussex Contemporary on April 17.

One of the spin paintings Schaub created during his residency at The Sussex Contemporary gallery (photo by Collateral Photography - Spencer Robertson)

One of the spin paintings Schaub created during his residency at The Sussex Contemporary gallery (photo by Collateral Photography – Spencer Robertson)

AM: Can you describe your show at The Sussex Contemporary?

CS: The show is called The Arena. It’s a residency in which I’m spending a month here, turning the gallery into a studio. That’s a very special kind of opportunity for me because my process is at the crux of my artistic practice, and the content of my work is the process.

My studio’s right near the window so people can come in off the street and ask questions, even post gallery hours. Different demographics that might not usually engage with the gallery feel more inclined to because it makes it a little bit more accessible by saying, “This is my process. There’s not a secret to it.” It takes away the barrier, or the sterile nature of the white space of a gallery, and brings the mess and the colour and rawness of the process in.

Callem Schaub painting live in at The Sussex Contemporary gallery on April 15, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Callem Schaub painting live in at The Sussex Contemporary gallery on April 15, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: What kinds of reactions have you been getting?

CS: A lot of people pulling out their phones and wanting to record. It’s very Snapchattable, so that’s fun. The one-on-one interactions with people have been extremely positive, which is a relief because I spend a lot of my time as an artist in this new-age technology, online, with videos and reading comments, and there is a lot of trolling and negativity that people behind the mask of technology feel like they have a right to say. So here – in real life – it’s been extremely positive.

A spin painting by Callen Schaub (photo by Collateral Photography - Spencer Robertson)

A spin painting by Callen Schaub (photo by Collateral Photography – Spencer Robertson)

AM: Can you describe your work?

CS: My paintings are abstract spin paintings. They’re done with an acrylic paint. I use different innovative tools I’ve created by hand – most notably my spin machine, which is a bicycle that I have cannibalized. I pedal the crank, and the chain goes to what would be the wheel, but instead it’s the canvas, and the canvas spins around.

When I’m explaining it to people for the first time I just say, “I splash paint on there” but I’ve been doing it for nine years, so there’s actually a lot of control in the way that I apply the paint to the canvas. I’ve also developed a swinging trough. It’s like a painting trapeze that deploys over the top of the horizontal surface of the rotating canvas. The image that is created is a relationship between the centrifugal motion of the canvas and the pendulum of the swing, and illustrated through colour.

Callen Schaub with one of his paintings at the Art Basel Fair in Miami (photo by Callen Schaub)

Callen Schaub with one of his paintings at the Art Basel Fair in Miami (photo by Callen Schaub)

AM: How did you first arrive at the idea of having your paintings spin while you created them?

CS: In my second year of arts university under the teaching of Dan Solomon, he gave the class the assignment to do whatever we liked. That was really exciting for me because I wanted to look around and see what my peers were creating.

So I’m observing as my classmates approach their canvas in a traditional manner vis-à-vis using a paintbrush, a palette, having their canvas on the easel. I saw that as an opportunity to do something different. I ran down to the potter’s department, got a potter’s wheel, brought it back to the classroom, strapped the canvas onto the potter’s wheel,­ and started pouring paint kind of haphazardly. And everyone is like, “What’s going on?” It was a performance piece – engaging my classmates and my teachers to say, “Hey, let’s think about this differently.”

The repurposed bicycle crank used by Callen Schaub to spin his paintings (photo by Collateral Photography - Spencer Robertson)

The repurposed bicycle crank used by Callen Schaub to spin his paintings (photo by Collateral Photography – Spencer Robertson)

And then it quickly developed and I was surprised by the results. I did 10 pieces, I had a little show in a café, and I sold a few pieces. I continued to paint with that simple set-up for a year and a half and then my friend had this bicycle that got smashed by a car. I chopped it up and re-welded it into the orientation which it has now.

That’s not my greatest triumph because there are other spin painters out there, so in terms of process, I’m really quite proud of the swinging trough and the relationship between the swinging trough and the rotating canvas. I think that’s a new idea.

Schaub painting live at The Sussex Contemporary gallery on April 15, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Schaub painting live at The Sussex Contemporary gallery on April 15, 2018 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: What role does chance play in your work?

CS: I think the pursuit of perfection is still there, and the way that I get there is unconventional. Instead of trying to control everything I create the parameters for chaos to occur and within those parameters I’m hands-off. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH HANK WILLIS THOMAS

Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas (photo by Andrea Blanch courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas (photo by Andrea Blanch courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

By Anita Malhotra

New York based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas is best known for his groundbreaking and provocative works that encourage viewers to think about race, identity, history, advertising, sports and other subjects from a different, often uncomfortable, perspective.

His photographs, sculptures, installations and videos have been exhibited extensively in the U.S. and internationally. They are also in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, among others.

Hank Willis Thomas’ 2017 sculpture “Hand of God” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Ben Brown Fine Arts)

Hank Willis Thomas’ 2017 sculpture “Hand of God” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Ben Brown Fine Arts)

Thomas’ works include Priceless, a scathing commentary on commercialization; the Branded series, about the commodification of African Americans; and two Unbranded series, which strip away the logos and slogans from advertisements portraying black men and white women respectively.

Thomas has also been involved in several collaborative projects, including Question Bridge, which aims to represent and redefine black male identity in America and The Truth Booth, a portable installation collecting video testimonials of people’s opinions on the truth.

In December, Thomas won the 2017 Aimia | AGO Photography Prize, a $50,000 prize awarded by public vote based on works exhibited by four shortlisted artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Thomas, who was at his New York studio, on Dec. 13, 2017.

Thomas’ bronze sculpture “Raise Up,” part of the work exhibited for the 2017 Aimia | AGO Photography Prize (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Thomas’ bronze sculpture “Raise Up,” part of the work exhibited for the 2017 Aimia | AGO Photography Prize (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

AM: What will the Aimia Photography Prize mean for you and your career?

HWT: Well, for me it’s a big deal, partially because it’s the first prize I’ve won as an artist independently from an arts organization in over 10 years. I’ve had a lot of success with my collaborative projects but this was a chance to highlight my solo work. Seeing how the work – which is pushing the boundaries of what photography means in the 21st century – was received and accepted well by the public is a major sense of accomplishment for me.

Hank Willis Thomas in 2017 (photo by Levi Mandel courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Ben Brown Fine Arts)

Hank Willis Thomas in 2017 (photo by Levi Mandel courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Ben Brown Fine Arts)

AM: Can you describe the work you currently have on display at the AGO?

HWT: I have images from different bodies of work. I have a lenticular print that is a text-based piece. Rather than the photographer using a camera, I think of the viewers as a camera because it changes as you move around it. It says, “History is past, past is present.”

“Scarred Chest” (2004) by Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery

“Scarred Chest” (2004) by Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery

I also have a series of retro-reflective prints, which are using archival photographs screen-printed onto a material that illuminates when there’s direct light on them – so when a flash photograph is taken of them. And there are also some sculptures that were based off of photographs that I found in archives in apartheid-era South Africa.

AM: When did you first get interested in photography?

HWT: I think I’ve always been interested in photography. I was always fascinated with the family albums and photographs. But my mother is also a photographer and photo historian and I think I was following in her footsteps most of the time.

AM: Did you take photographs when you were younger?

HWT: Always. As early as I can remember there have been cameras in my life – and both sides of it.

AM: What did you take photographs of?

HWT: Pretty much anything and everything. With a point-and-shoot camera there are maybe some limitations, but license plates to sunsets, family members, shadows, many of the other things young photographers focus on – light and texture.

Hank Willis Thomas in 1997 while pursuing photography at New York University (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas)

Hank Willis Thomas in 1997 while pursuing photography at New York University (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas)

AM: When did you first become aware of social justice issues – especially those related to African Americans?

HWT: I would say my entire life. My mother being a photographer and photo historian and a person who worked at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a curator, issues of universal struggles for human rights and equal rights were all over my house. And from the earliest ages I was at least listening to conversations about these different struggles, if not actually looking at work by artists dealing with them.

“The Long March” (2013), a video installation at the Birmingham (Alabama) Shuttlesworth International Airport by Ryan Alexiev, Jessica Ingram and Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Cause Collective)

“The Long March” (2013), a video installation at the Birmingham (Alabama) Shuttlesworth International Airport by Ryan Alexiev, Jessica Ingram and Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Cause Collective)

AM: When did you decide that you would become an artist?

HWT: I would say I started really thinking of myself as an artist at the age of 28. By that time, I had finished grad school and I had a Masters in Photography and a Masters in Visual and Critical Studies. I really hadn’t thought about myself as being an artist as much as I thought of myself as someone who was trying to avoid being in the real world.

Thomas' work "Zero Hour" at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia in 2017 (photo by JR P, Flickr Creative Commons)

Thomas’ work “Zero Hour” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia in 2017 (photo by JR P, Flickr Creative Commons)

I was using photography as a place to explore the world and I thought of myself more as a searcher and explorer. Because I never learned to paint or draw, I thought that I couldn’t be an artist. But then I realized that I’d been doing that all along and that being an artist is not a profession but just a way of life.

AM: Why did you choose the particular studies that you did?

HWT: Africana studies and photography were my undergrad degrees. I always joke that my mother kind of chose them for me. I didn’t realize that I was following in her footsteps in much of the work. But I think there was just a great example set and I followed unwittingly.

Deborah Willis (Thomas' mother) and Hank Willis Thomas speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges at the Orpheum Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana (photo by Stacie McChesney/TED, Flickr Creative Commons)

Deborah Willis (Thomas’ mother) and Hank Willis Thomas speak at TEDWomen 2017 — Bridges at the Orpheum Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana (photo by Stacie McChesney/TED, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: You’ve said that your adult artwork started with the murder of your cousin. Can you tell me about the work that came out of that experience?

HWT: That happened in 2000 when I was in grad school. In going through the process of mourning and loss, I realized that I wasn’t alone. And recognizing if you’re not rich and famous the only real evidence of your life are the people who you impacted. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can have a tombstone, but most people who die don’t even have that.

“Priceless” (2004), by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

“Priceless” (2004), by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

So I asked people who were affected by his life or death to pose for portraits for me. I did a project called Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake. I also revisited pictures I had taken at his funeral, using the language of advertising like the Mastercard “Priceless” campaign of the time, and talked about how even in mourning we’re still being marketed to.

“Branded Head” (2003) by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

“Branded Head” (2003) by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

AM: Much of your work has been related to advertising images. How did your interest in that begin?

HWT: I believe the ‘80s was really a watershed decade for commerce becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Most of what we did and saw was branded, with the explosion of transnational corporations like Nike and MTV. So advertising was definitely my second language. I had been speaking it, like most people, for a long time, but I had realized that I wanted to use it rather than just listen.

AM: In Branded, you used it by applying images of branding onto bodies. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

HWT: I wanted to use the language of advertising to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about such as slavery and the way in which commodity culture shapes our notion of ourselves and value of other people.

AM: What was the reaction to Branded when you first exhibited it?

HWT: Usually there’s never one reaction. Some people found it interesting; some people didn’t care. But overall what I’m most impressed with is the fact that the work has continued to be relevant and gain relevance now 14, 15 years later. Every artist hopes that the work they do will be relevant beyond the moment that they make it in. And I think that’s what’s really exciting to me about that work.

“The Liberation of T.O.” (2003/2005) from Thomas’ series “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

“The Liberation of T.O.” (2003/2005) from Thomas’ series “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

AM: For Unbranded, you took away the context from advertising images, just leaving the images. What did you learn from that?

HWT: I did two Unbranded series. One was called Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968 to 2008. The other one was Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915 to 2015.

Each of these series, where I removed advertising information from ad images, were focusing on specific demographic groups that ads were targeted to. Black people as a demographic weren’t a market that people were interested in back in the ‘60s.

Typically, if you saw a person of African descent, they were a servant. But with the emergence of a black middle class, and as a result of the Civil Rights movement, you started to see more and more brown-skinned people in advertising. And I wanted to track this kind of corporate notion of blackness over 40 years.

“Come out of the Bone Age, Darling” (1955/2015) from Thomas’ series “Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

“Come out of the Bone Age, Darling” (1955/2015) from Thomas’ series “Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

And then in Unbranded: A Century of White Women, I took a period where most women in the United States weren’t legally empowered to vote and I tracked from 1915 to 2015, when the first viable female candidate for presidency was announced. So the project really becomes this timeline of American history through the lens of this notion of a white, female identity from a period where it was very uniform and very controlled.

The Truth Booth in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2013 (photo by Jim Ricks courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Cause Collective)

The Truth Booth in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2013 (photo by Jim Ricks courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Cause Collective)

AM: You started a project in 2011 called The Truth Booth. Why did you start that project?

HWT: It’s important to mention it’s a collaboration with Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks and Will Sylvester. It’s really about perspectives – how different people can have a different perspective on the same object or issue. The truth is something very contentious that people fight and kill each other over and debate. And The Truth Booth became a platform for it – a forum to invite all versions of the truth.

AM: What were some of the things that you heard from The Truth Booth?

HWT: Over 10,000 people went in The Truth Booth and the beauty is seeing the wisdom that different people share and recognizing how our prejudices based on someone’s look or their age or their geographics limit our ability to hear them.

AM: Your work Question Bridge aims to fight stereotypes of African American men. What are the biggest challenges around fighting stereotypes?

HWT: Question Bridge is a collaboration with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The biggest challenge is that we’re told at a very young age not to judge a book by its cover, and then taught by society always to put on a good cover and to judge everyone else by the cover that they put on.

An audience viewing the video installation “Question Bridge” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

An audience viewing the video installation “Question Bridge” (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

The challenge is recognizing the hypocrisy in this and that two people can be from the same family and have very diverse cultural experiences and views on life. Therefore, how likely is it that people from socially fabricated groups of millions of people have more in common than they do with anyone else? Question Bridge is really trying to show that there’s as much diversity in any given demographic as there is outside of it.

Crossroads (2012) by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

Crossroads (2012) by Hank Willis Thomas (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery)

AM: And that is why you say that race is a myth.

HWT: Well, yes, it was created to keep certain people in control and certain people under the thumb of that control.

AM: As an African-American artist, what kinds of preconceptions do you face?

HWT: I think there’s a preconception that I think about race a lot. Probably true, because it’s not real, and it shapes my life. So how can I not think about it a lot? But I’ve learned enough to not presume that people are presuming things about me or about my work, meaning there are many times where I’ve been misjudged or prejudged, but there are many times where I’ve misjudged and prejudged viewers – African American and non African American.

Installation view of Hank Willis Thomas’ sculpture “Liberty” (2015) in City Hall Park in New York City (photo by Jason Wyche courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Public Art Fund)

Installation view of Hank Willis Thomas’ sculpture “Liberty” (2015) in City Hall Park in New York City (photo by Jason Wyche courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and the Public Art Fund)

AM: It takes courage to put out some of the work that you’ve created. Do you ever feel nervous about how your work might be received – that it’s too provocative?

HWT: Well, I think provocative is good as long as it’s not destructive. I think I don’t ever make things with the agenda of being harmful or destructive, but you never know if somebody might perceive something that is made in one spirit in a very different way.

One view of Thomas’ neon sculpture “Love Overrules” in San Francisco, California (photo by Mariah Tiffany courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Sites Unseen)

One view of Thomas’ neon sculpture “Love Overrules” in San Francisco, California (photo by Mariah Tiffany courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Sites Unseen)

AM: You have two recently installed public sculptures, All Power to All People (an Afro pick) and Love Over Rules. Can you tell me a bit about them?

HWT: Public space is more and more contended about what kind of objects, who we celebrate, and what we celebrate. So I decided that I wanted to make statements, and one of the statements my cousin made that had a profound effect on me was, “Love overrules.” I thought of that being read multiple ways, both as “overrules” and “over rules” and the different ways you can interpret a single statement. So the neon flicker is between saying “Love Overrules” and “Love Rules” and “Love Over Rules.” In public space, where most of it is dominated by ads and commerce, putting things out that make different kinds of statements is important.

Hank Willis Thomas’ 2017 public sculpture “All Power to All People” in Philadelphia (photo by Steve Weinik courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Philadelphia Mural Arts)

Hank Willis Thomas’ 2017 public sculpture “All Power to All People” in Philadelphia (photo by Steve Weinik courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Philadelphia Mural Arts)

With Afro pick, I was inspired by artists like Claes Oldenburg, who would notoriously put different everyday objects – whether they be a spoon or clothespin or a symbol – into the public space as a sculpture. I decided that Afro pick would be an important thing to add to that lexicon.

AM: What are some of your upcoming projects?

Thomas speaking at Design Miami on the topic "Concept, Abstraction and Blackness" with Torkwase Dyson and Dozie Kanu (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Design Miami)

Thomas speaking at Design Miami on the topic “Concept, Abstraction and Blackness” with Torkwase Dyson and Dozie Kanu (photo courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Design Miami)

HWT: There’s an equal justice initiative, which is in Alabama. It’s led by Bryan Stevenson. He’s opening a national lynching memorial. So I’ll be having a sculpture on display in that park and we’ll be working on public sculptures at Brooklyn Bridge in New York as well as exhibitions at museums in Oregon as well as Delaware and Florida and Chicago in 2018.

AM: Do you feel that this is a good time to be an artist?

HWT: Is there ever a bad time or is there ever a good time? All we really have is now, but now is then, and then is now. So that’s what I’m trying to encourage myself to think about – that we sometimes think about our moment as if it’s the first or the last – but it’s part of a much larger continuum.

For more information on Hank Willis Thomas, please visit hankwillisthomas.com.

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INTERVIEW WITH ANNE DUDLEY

By Anita Malhotra

Award-winning British composer, arranger, producer and performer Anne Dudley (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Award-winning British composer, arranger, producer and performer Anne Dudley (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

In a career spanning more than four decades, UK composer, arranger, producer and performer Anne Dudley has accumulated an impressive number of awards for her evocative music, including an Academy Award, a Grammy, and the 2017 Ivor Novello Award for outstanding contribution to British music.

Classically trained at the Royal College of Music and Kings College, she also had an early passion for jazz and popular music. This led to session keyboard work and arranging music for dozens of artists including ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Pet Shop Boys, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Seal and Elton John.

In 1983, she co-founded the influential British synth-pop band Art of Noise, which pioneered the use of sampling and released several international hits, including the Grammy-award-winning “Peter Gunn.”

Anne Dudley and J. J. Jeczalik of the Art of Noise with Tom Jones (centre), who recorded the hit single "Kiss" with the band in 1987 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley and J. J. Jeczalik of the Art of Noise with Tom Jones (centre), who recorded the hit single “Kiss” with the band in 1987 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Dudley is also a critically acclaimed soundtrack composer. She won an Oscar for her soundtrack for The Full Monty (1997) and has written scores for more than 40 other movies and TV series, including The Crying Game (1992), Pushing Tin (1999), Tristan & Isolde (2006), Les Misérables (2012), Elle (2016) and the BBC TV series Poldark.

An album of Anne Dudley's music from the BBC TV series Poldark (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

An album of Anne Dudley’s music from the BBC TV series Poldark (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Dudley has recorded several albums of her own work, including the critically acclaimed Ancient & Modern (1995) and most recently Anne Dudley Plays the Art of Noise.

She was recently commissioned to write a suite for violin and orchestra based on the 2013 award-winning children’s book The Man with the Violin.

Written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Dusan Petricic, the book was inspired by a 2007 experiment initiated by The Washington Post in which concert violinist Joshua Bell busked incognito in a Washington, D.C. subway station and was virtually ignored.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Dudley, who was at her UK home, on Dec. 11, 2017 in advance of the Canadian premiere of a multi-media production of The Man with the Violin at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Dec. 20, 2017.

World premiere of the multi-media work The Man with the Violin, featuring music by Anne Dudley, at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2017 (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

World premiere of the multi-media work The Man with the Violin, featuring music by Anne Dudley, at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 12, 2017 (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

AM: How did you get involved in creating the music for The Man with the Violin?

AD: I met Joshua Bell a few years ago when I wrote some children’s pieces with the cellist Steven Isserlis. We did some musical fairy tales for a chamber group and Joshua and Steven have often played these pieces. So I met Joshua when he was rehearsing the first of these pieces, which is called the Little Red Violin. I think he probably suggested that I might a suitable person to do this piece.

Virtuoso violinist and conductor Joshua Bell (photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre)

Virtuoso violinist and conductor Joshua Bell (photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre)

AM: Did you know about the actual story behind The Man with the Violin?

AD: I knew vaguely about it. This particular incident seems to be well-known all over the world. So I did know the story but I didn’t know a book had been made about it.

AM: How did the process of working on the piece unfold?

AD: It was interesting because the book is mostly pictures – very little dialogue, very little narration. If you were to just read it from end to end it would probably only take about a minute. I had to devise a way of expanding this to be a piece that lasts about 12, 13 minutes. So it was a process of a collaboration between me and the animators to discuss how to put scenes into the book.

As soon as the animators began to start on the pictures, there was plenty of material to be working with. But when I first started off, they hadn’t started and we were both sort of starting from nothing. So it was a process of collaboration. They showed me what they were doing and then I’d play them a bit of what I was doing, and then it went back and forth.

Working image from the multi-media production of The Man with the Violin featuring animation by Normal Studio of Dusan Petricic's illustrations from the 2013 book (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

Working image from the multi-media production of The Man with the Violin featuring animation by Normal Studio of Dusan Petricic’s illustrations from the 2013 book (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

AM: How did you determine the style of the music?

AD: I wanted it to be approachable for a family audience but I also wanted it to have a degree of virtuosity because Joshua is an amazing violinist and I wanted to do something that would show off his particular talents. He has a particularly beautiful, lyrical style – a lovely tone, an absolutely massive, gorgeous sound.

Violinist and conductor Joshua Bell (photo by Chris Lee)

Violinist and conductor Joshua Bell (photo by Chris Lee)

The whole piece is about music being transformative and being beautiful. So it had to be beautiful – and I hope some of it is. And then you have the contrast with the world of the train and the underground. So parts of it are quite dissonant and quite rhythmic and quite loud.

AM: Could you describe the set-up of your home studio and how you work with visuals when writing for film or television?

AD: Usually when I’m writing film music or TV music I get the picture first and the picture dictates the structure of the music. It was a bit different on this piece. I have set-up where I have a Pro Tools rig, which is playing the picture.

And I am quite a traditionalist really, and I’m also a piano player, so I like to compose at the piano, and the piano becomes my orchestra. I do a degree of orchestration just working at my desk and working in my head, but I do like to use the piano as part of my composing process.

Anne Dudley recording her album "A Different Light," which was released in 2001 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley recording her album “A Different Light,” which was released in 2001 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

AM: Your work has always been innovative. What are the new elements in this piece?

AD: I’ve never written a piece for solo violin and orchestra, but also the particular combination of the animation with the storytelling is so lovely because the animators are really clever. The animation is running live but the orchestra’s not playing to a click-track. So every performance will be slightly different.

Working image from the multi-media production of The Man with the Violin (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

Working image from the multi-media production of The Man with the Violin (photo courtesy of Normal Studio)

But the animators have devised a method of working whereby if the music is going slightly faster or slightly slower than before, they have a little bit of leeway. So it’s the perfect combination of the excitement of a live performance without a click track and a film performance.

AM: Did you go to the world premiere of the piece in Washington earlier this year?

AD: Yes, I did. It was great. I really enjoyed it – fantastic. Great orchestra, Joshua was wonderful, it was lovely.

Anne Dudley's 2001 album "A Different Light" (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley’s 2001 album “A Different Light” (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

AM: What do you see as the message of the piece?

AD: It’s that we need to take time to listen. This piece revolves around the child who’s listening, and his mother, who’s not listening. She’s not listening to anything. She’s not even listening to him. So their relationship has become slightly dysfunctional because clearly she’s off in her own world and she’s not really relating to him. And when they listen together, something special happens.

I hope people don’t lose this wonderful experience of listening together. I see so many people and they’ve got their earphones in and they’re listening to their own music. And that’s great, that’s fine. But there is a sort of collective experience that we have going to a concert or playing music together or actually being with other people and encountering a work of art as a group is something really special.

Anne Dudley reunited with two other Art of Music founding members, J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan, in a performance at Liverpool Sound City Music Festival on May 25, 2017 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley reunited with two other Art of Music founding members, J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan, in a performance at Liverpool Sound City Music Festival on May 25, 2017 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

AM: What were your own first memories of music?

AD: My family aren’t musicians but we always had a lot of records and they played a lot of records. One of the earliest memories I have is hearing Danny Kaye singing the “Ugly Duckling.” It’s a classic, really, and there’s an absolutely beautiful moment in it where the Ugly Duckling becomes a swan. And this is reflected so wonderfully in the music.

Anne Dudley (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

And I remember being totally transported by this moment, where the whole arrangement of the music changes. That’s a piece that I haven’t heard for years and years and years, but I know if I was to hear it I would know every bit of it because it really became a piece that I would obsess about and want to hear it all the time. I must have been about 5 or 6 at the time.

AM: When you were younger, did you have the ability to imagine an orchestration?

AD: Yes, I think I’ve always been entranced by an orchestra. I can’t remember the first time I saw an orchestra, but when I was learning the piano, if I was to be playing a Mozart sonata, I would be thinking about if I were to arrange this for an orchestra, who would play this line – would it be woodwind, would it be strings? And still today, if I hear something, and I think “ Wow! That’s fantastic orchestration,” I’ll make an attempt to find the score and see exactly how it’s done. I think it’s something you learn all the time – all your life.

AM: How did music become your career?

AD: I always knew that I had to be a musician. There wasn’t really any choice. I never had any Plan B. But I didn’t know quite what sort of music or what sort of musician I would be because I’m not a virtuoso pianist in any way. In fact, I used to play the clarinet. That was really my first study. And I didn’t study composition at college. I just sort of drifted into it, really, by doing arrangements and orchestrations for people. But music was always going to be my career. There wasn’t any doubt about that.

The 1987 Art of Noise album "In No Sense? Nonsense!" (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

The 1987 Art of Noise album “In No Sense? Nonsense!” (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

AM: You studied classical music, but your first work was in popular music. How did you make that transition?

AD: From quite a young age I was also interested in jazz and I used to listen to great jazz pianists – Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson. I couldn’t play jazz at all at first but I really wanted to, so I went off and I had some jazz piano lessons.

A really good teacher taught me how jazz is constructed and how it’s related to classical music. So when I was about 14, 15, 16, I began to play in little jazz bands and pop bands. Even while I was at college I was doing that to earn money, and you meet people. I met Trevor Horn at a very early stage. I was about 20 playing in a band, and he was also playing in the band, and he was trying to get into music production, and I was trying to get into session keyboard playing and arranging, and he gave me my first job. And things grew from there really.

AM: How did your work with the Art of Noise influence the work that you did later on?

AD: Art of Noise was a band that was obsessed with technology. We loved technology and we tried to do as much with the technology as the technology could stand. We had one of these early sampling instruments, which is called the Fairlight, and we would sample things like people talking and doors slamming, and play with different pitches.

It was quite experimental. It was always quite a surprise to me that it was ever remotely successful because it was never really meant to be. It was meant to be quite avant-garde and off-the-wall.

Looking at it from the perspective of nowadays, I’ve always been interested in sound, and working in film music you have to be very aware that the music is only one part of the sound – there’s a whole sound design going on as well. So I feel that that’s something that may have started with my work with the Art of Noise. A consciousness of how music is part of a whole sound picture.

The soundtrack album featuring Anne Dudley's music for the 2006 romantic drama "Tristan & Isolde" (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

The soundtrack album featuring Anne Dudley’s music for the 2006 romantic drama “Tristan & Isolde” (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

But also, in my film music I still like – if it’s appropriate – to incorporate electronic as well as live stuff. And you know, it was spirited. It had a great spirit of creativity about it. It was good fun and I suppose I’ve always aimed to have quite good fun at things that I do.

AM: You have composed dozens of soundtracks for films and TV series. How do you get the inspiration to compose when you have a deadline?

AM: Well, actually I prefer to have a deadline. If I’ve got all the time in the world I procrastinate a bit. I think the inspiration comes from playing the piano, really. And improvising – from finding a chord sequence that you like, from finding the notes that fit together in a nice way, and building it from there.

AM: You’ve collaborated over the years with many people. What is the key to a successful collaboration?

AD: It’s hard to put any hard and fast rules to it. It depends on the person. I’ve had directors who are incredibly demanding and other people would find them very difficult. But I have respect for people if I think they’re right. I don’t mind how difficult they are because that will inspire better things from me. I think I’ve been very lucky in that most of the time I’ve collaborated with people who are brilliant. And the best thing is if they are brilliant geniuses, then they can raise the standard of your own work. So I’m on the lookout for genius people.

AM: What are some of the highlights of your career?

AD: I suppose it was quite fun to be in a pop group in the ‘80s. Pop in the ‘80s was such a big part of people’s lives, and in Britain there’s this program called Top of the Pops, which was the most important pop program. And I, as a kid, Thursday night you had to watch Top of the Pops. And then one week we were on it! And I never forgot that.

AM: What is your daily routine like?

AD: I try and work regular hours. I work from about 9 til 5 or 6. If I’m really busy I will then go and work in the evenings as well, but I don’t really like to do that. One day I might be in the studio recording, then I might be spending several days orchestrating something because that’s a very time-consuming process.

Anne Dudley on the River Thames conducting one of her compositions at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in June 2012 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley on the River Thames conducting one of her compositions at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London in June 2012 (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Or I might be writing something or I might be meeting somebody and talking about what we’re doing. Or I might be in the studio mixing something. It does depend, but I like to have some sort of pattern so that something gets done every day.

Today we’re mixing a TV film that I’ve just done, and we’re wrestling with power cuts, actually. We had just had a very large fall of snow over the weekend and being Britain, of course, we can’t cope with snow. We’ve had about six inches of snow and we’ve had one or two strange power cuts today, which is a nightmare. We were actually mixing and we had a power cut and it sort of just ripped the power out of the computer and it had to be rebooted.

Anne Dudley conducting at Royal Albert Hall (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

Anne Dudley conducting at Royal Albert Hall (photo courtesy of Anne Dudley)

AM: What will you be working on in the coming year?

AD: There will be another Poldark. Also, I’m producing an album for the lead actress in Poldark, called Eleanor Tomlinson. She’s a singer and I’m producing an album for her. I’ll be playing piano and doing arrangements for it. And I’ve also got a solo piano album called Anne Dudley Plays the Art of Noise, which I did for a Japanese label because the Art of Noise is big in Japan. I’ve used the piano in quite an experimental way. I’ve used prepared piano and I’ve sampled it and I’ve used it as a percussion instrument – playing a rhythmic pattern on the lid and on the soundboard. That’s something that I’ll be continuing with and finishing in the new year.

The Man with the Violin will receive its Canadian premiere in a holiday concert at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Dec. 20, 2017. For more information about Anne Dudley and her work, please visit annedudley.co.uk

 

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INTERVIEW WITH SASS JORDAN

Canadian singer Sass Jordan (photo courtesy of Sass Jordan)

Canadian singer Sass Jordan (photo courtesy of Sass Jordan)

By Anita Malhotra

Toronto-based rock singer Sass Jordan’s earthy vocals and powerful lyrics have rocked North American ears ever since she released her debut album Tell Somebody in 1988.

Recipient of a 1989 Juno award for Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year, she went on the record several successful albums, among them Racine (1992), which produced four Canadian hit singles, and the critically-acclaimed Rats (1994).

Jordan has also worked as a theatre and television actress and was a judge on Canadian Idol for the six-year run of the show. This year, she celebrated the 25th anniversary of Racine by releasing Racine Revisited, a reimagined re-recording of her 1992 album Racine.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Jordan, who was at her home in Toronto, on Oct. 27, 2017 following her tour of the Netherlands and Germany and in advance of her Nov. 7 show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Sass Jordan (photo courtesy of Sass Jordan)

Sass Jordan (photo courtesy of Sass Jordan)

AM: How has your tour been going?

SJ: I always get thrown by the word tour because in my world, tour means you go out for a couple of months and you don’t even come home at all during that time. Actually, I did do two weeks in the Netherlands and Germany, but I’ve been doing what you could call one-offs. All of that to say, it’s going fantastically.

Sass Jordan performing in Arnhem, the Netherlands on Sept. 15, 2017 (photo by Gernot Mangold)

Sass Jordan performing in Arnhem, the Netherlands on Sept. 15, 2017 (photo by Gernot Mangold)

I’m doing a different type of show starting in November where I’m going to be doing the Racine Revisited album front to back semi-acoustically, but in a format of storytelling. It’s like I’m telling the stories with the soundtrack of the music. So I’ll play a couple of songs, then I’ll tell a story or two, then I’ll play a couple more songs, tell a story. There’s two 45-minute sets of that, which I’m super excited about.

AM: So the stories will be about your life at the time when you recorded the music?

SJ: More about the writing of the songs, which of course includes my life. Just telling the story of the writing of the song and how that song came about. And hopefully the rest of the band will have little stories about what they were doing in ‘92, along with people who are at the show. I’m hoping they’ll want to be involved in the stories as well, or ask questions. I want it to be interactive – as if we’ve all gone out for dinner together and we’ve all had a glass of wine, and now we’re sitting around after dinner just telling stories with music. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH MARIE CHOUINARD

By Anita Malhotra

Marie Chouinard (photo by Richard-Max Tremblay)

Marie Chouinard (photo by Richard-Max Tremblay)

Renowned Montreal-based choreographer and dancer Marie Chouinard is known for her groundbreaking dance works and exploration of the human body. Starting in 1978, she built her reputation with highly personal, experimental solo works, some of which attracted controversy. She formed her own dance company, La Compagnie Marie Chouinard, in 1990, and her more than 50 dance creations have been performed to acclaim in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.

James Viveiros and Kirsten Andersen in Chouinard's 2005 work "bODY_rEMIX / gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS" (photo by Marie Chouinard)

James Viveiros and Kirsten Andersen in Chouinard’s 2005 work “bODY_rEMIX / gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS” (photo by Marie Chouinard)

Chouinard has received many national and international awards, including the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Order of Canada. She was recently appointed Director of the Venice Biennale’s dance section for 2017-2020. She is also active in other media such as film, multimedia, drawing and poetry, and has even created an iPhone app.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Marie Chouinard, who was at her home in Montreal, on July 10, 2017 about upcoming performances in Ottawa of two of her recent works: Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights and In Museum V2.

AM: How did your dance piece Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights come about? What was the impetus behind that work?

Chouinard's 2016 work "Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights" (photo by Nicolas Ruel)

Chouinard’s 2016 work “Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights” (photo by Nicolas Ruel)

MC: First of all the impetus for me is always creation. I love to create. This is a passion and a joy, and my job is to create. Why did I create this specific piece? I was invited by the organization of the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch to create a piece and perform it in their festival. There was this immensely big event organized in Holland around the death of this man 500 years ago. I love Bosch, I love this painter, and I immediately said, “Yes, I will do that.”

Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch painted "The Garden of Earthly Delights," sometime between 1490 and 1510 (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dutch/Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch painted “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” sometime between 1490 and 1510 (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)

AM: How did you go about translating the three parts of the painting into dance?

Marie Chouinard's "Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights" (photo by Sylvie-Ann Paré)

Marie Chouinard’s “Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights” (photo by Sylvie-Ann Paré)

MC: The three panels of the triptych are full of bodies – full of people moving to different positions. There are hundreds of bodies everywhere in those paintings. So for me it was like seeing a snapshot of a moment in an immense dance of so many people everywhere. It was a joyous exploration to try to put all the bodies of the dancers into these positions and then say, “Okay, what might have been the movement before that and what might have been the movement after that position?” It started like that. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH LEVI PONCE

Levi Ponce (photo by Jim Newberry)

Levi Ponce (photo by Jim Newberry)

By Anita Malhotra

Los Angeles artist Levi Ponce is best known for his large-scale public murals, which he began creating in 2011 to beautify his neglected childhood neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. His work inspired other muralists to do the same, establishing an area in Pacoima that’s become known as the the “Mural Mile.”

Ponce’s personal and commercial artwork can also be found in Venice Beach, throughout the U.S., and in Mexico and Turkey. He has been recognized for his efforts with awards from Los Angeles City Council and members of the California State Assembly and Congress.

"Logic and Imagination," a mural portraying Einstein by Levi Ponce painted in December 2013 (photo by Chloe Cumbow)

“Logic and Imagination,” a mural portraying Einstein by Levi Ponce painted in December 2013 (photo by Chloe Cumbow)

Also an animator and digital compositor, Ponce has worked on such films as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Interstellar. He currently works at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Ponce, who was at his Los Angeles home, by phone on March 11, 2017.

Levi Ponce with his mural "Dorothy" (photo by Javier Martinez)

Levi Ponce with his mural “Dorothy” (photo by Javier Martinez)

AM: What was your first exposure to art as a child?

LP: I’ve always been around art. My dad’s a sign painter, so ever since I was a child I went all over town, up and down Los Angeles, painting signs with him. Painting signs exposed me not only to my father’s art of sign painting and murals and graphics but also to the art around the city and the art on the walls – be it graffiti or other muralists like Kent Twitchell.

Levi Ponce as a child (photo by Hector Ponce)

Levi Ponce as a child (photo by Hector Ponce)

AM: Can you tell me a bit about your family and growing up in Pacoima?

LP: My dad’s an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. He’s a U.S. citizen now. My mom’s an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. She’s a U.S. citizen now. And they met here in the States in the early ‘80s. I came around in 1987, and they’ve been together since. We grew up in Pacoima – my mom was a seamstress. She worked at a sweatshop, now she cuts hair. My dad’s a sign painter to this day. And I have a brother, I have a sister, I’m the oldest of three.

Levi Ponce with his mural "Dia de Pacoima" ("Girl with a Hoop Earring"), painted in 2017 (photo courtesy of Levi Ponce)

Levi Ponce with his mural “Dia de Pacoima” (“Girl with a Hoop Earring”), painted in 2017 (photo courtesy of Levi Ponce)

AM: What inspired you to start painting murals in Pacoima?

LP: Working with my father, when we would paint we would go all over L.A. and I would see that Los Angeles had art everywhere. Downtown L.A. has art, Hollywood, the Westside, everywhere you went you saw art. Whether it was highbrow, lowbrow, there was art on the streets.

And when we came home up here to the San Fernando Valley, which is literally removed from Los Angeles, there wasn’t really any art on the walls. There was graffiti, there were some school murals, but it wasn’t what you saw in Los Angeles. So when I started painting murals there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it in Pacoima because that’s where it needed it. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH LISA SCHULTE

Lisa Schulte with her neon sculpture "Conversation" at her Los Angeles studio on Feb. 17, 2017 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Lisa Schulte with her neon sculpture “Conversation” at her Los Angeles studio on Feb. 17, 2017 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

By Anita Malhotra

Neon artist Lisa Schulte has been creating neon for events and films in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, earning her the moniker “The Neon Queen.” 

Hired to create a futuristic city for a special event at the Pacific Design Center for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she went on to fashion neon pieces for many Hollywood films, including many in the Batman series, as well as for countless music videos, TV shows, fashion shows and special events.

"Dreams of my Father," a new work by Lisa Schulte on display at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California until April 16, 2017 (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

“Dreams of my Father,” a new work by Lisa Schulte on display at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California until April 16, 2017 (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

Her company Nights of Neon specializes in custom manufacturing of new neon works and has produced over 10,000 custom-built pieces of neon available to rent, one of the largest collections in the world.

Ten years ago, Schulte began creating her own personal artistic works in neon, pushing the boundaries of the medium by working in unconventional ways, including with natural materials.

Her most recent works, in a new style featuring an explosive synthesis of bright colors, shapes and text, are currently on display at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Schulte at her studio and showroom in Van Nuys, Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2017.

AM: How did you first get interested in art and in neon in particular?

Lisa Schulte with her work "Untitled Wood Series #7" (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

Lisa Schulte with her work “Untitled Wood Series #7” (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

LS: I was always interested in art when I was growing up but I came from a family that didn’t think that you could actually pursue a career in the field of the arts, so I was not encouraged to do it. Now my father is very proud of me that I did not listen to him and continued to pursue art.

I always had a fascination with light from my earlier days. I was a lightboard operator in nightclubs and I designed and controlled the lighting system for the dance floor.

So at that early age of about 19 I became very fascinated with light and started to focus in on one particular light source, neon. Even though neon’s been around for hundreds of years in one form or another, it wasn’t really being used outside of signage. So to bring it into a nightclub atmosphere and get creative with it was the beginning of my experience with light.

"Line from Nowhere" by Lisa Schulte (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

“Line from Nowhere” by Lisa Schulte (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

AM: Where was that?

LS: It was in San Diego, California.

AM: You had an injury to your eye when you were a child. Did that influence your interest in working with light?

LS: I think it was a very unconscious thing. I was shot in the eye with a BB gun by my brother. At the time they didn’t have very good advancements in eye surgery so they put patches over both my eyes for several months in fear that the BB was still located inside my eye and may travel to the brain and give me a blood clot. I lived in darkness for three to four months and also with the fear of possibly never being able to see out of that eye again.

The moment of being able to see again and without having to wear patches and the moment of light hitting you when you’ve lived in complete darkness was such a powerful and joyous feeling I think it did have something to do with me going into the nightclub and deciding, “This is what I want to do – I want to control those lights.”

Lisa Schulte in a section of the 17,000 square foot showroom of her company Nights of Neon (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

Lisa Schulte in a section of the 17,000 square foot showroom of her company Nights of Neon (photo courtesy of Lisa Schulte)

I still have a lot of problems with my eye. I have to have laser surgeries all the time to relieve the pressure, so it is such a joy 50 year later to see light. I’ve created my own world of light around me. And shaping and bending light is a pretty powerful feeling. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH MARK SELIGER

By Anita Malhotra

New York photographer Mark Seliger (photo by Nathan Podshadley)

New York photographer Mark Seliger (photo by Nathan Podshadley)

Acclaimed portrait photographer Mark Seliger has photographed an impressive list of celebrities and public figures that includes Mick Jagger, Serena Williams, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. 

Starting his career with Rolling Stone in 1987, he served as the magazine’s chief photographer from 1992 to 2002. He then moved to Condé Nast publications, where he has shot covers for the magazines Vanity Fair, Elle, Italian Vogue and GQ, among others.

Mark Seliger has also released 11 books of personal work, the most recent of which is On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories. With a foreword by Janet Mock, the book features compelling black-and-white photographs of transgender men and women pictured on the iconic Manhattan street that has symbolized gay pride since the ‘70s. 

The photos from the book were the subject of an exhibition in New York City last fall and are now being shown again, this time in Los Angeles at the Von Lintel Gallery. Anita Malhotra spoke with Mark Seliger, who was at his studio in New York City,  by telephone on Feb. 1, 2017.

D’Jamel Young and Leiomy Maldonado featured on the cover of Mark Seliger's most recent book, "Christopher Street: Transgender Stories" (photo ©Mark Seliger)

D’Jamel Young and Leiomy Maldonado featured on the cover of Mark Seliger’s most recent book, “Christopher Street: Transgender Stories” (photo ©Mark Seliger)

AM: How did your project Christopher Street first come about?

MS: I live in the neighborhood, on Charles Street, and I’ve always enjoyed the theater of that block. It’s almost like an Ellis Island for anybody who is in a place in their world where they’re exploring. It’s just very open. And over the last couple of years I’ve really noticed that that area has started to homogenize and gentrify.

So it started off as me shooting portraits of some of the neighborhood color and circus and fun, and re-introducing myself and asking people on the street if I could photograph them. And after about a dozen portraits, it became apparent that we were working on a more in-depth story specifically focused on transgender.

A portrait of Soya by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

A portrait of Soya by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

AM: Was there something in particular about the transgender subjects that interested you?

MS: It was very intuitive the way that it worked out. I think that makes the best kind of project, where you just spend time in one place and then you see what it becomes.

The most active and the most visually interesting moment on the street was a mixture of the normal theatrics of the area and a lot of very early morning people working the streets and on the streets. But also it’s obviously the hub of gay pride, and Christopher Street has a historical placement as well with the LGBT community and with Stonewall, so it really is a destination.

Amos Mac photographed by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

Amos Mac photographed by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

Fifty percent of my focus is always a process. So we were shooting with one kind of camera that I tested out and figured out that was what I wanted to do, and sticking with an environmental background on just one street. And then choosing black-and-white and just focusing on that.

AM: What camera were you using?

MS: A Hasselblad. It’s an analog, square-format camera I’ve had for many years.

AM: Was there a particular process you used to print the photos?

MS: We were printing on silver gelatin, so darkroom. Everything was done through an analog process.

NiTee Spady in a portrait by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

NiTee Spady in a portrait by Mark Seliger (photo ©Mark Seliger)

AM: In your work for magazines, I believe you usually come up with a concept or an idea for a photo. How did you go about conceiving these portraits?

MS: The portraits are really done from the street. One of the alluring aspects for me was just go on the street and meet people and take their picture. Some of them didn’t last more than six to ten frames, and sometimes we shot two or three rolls on somebody. Continue reading

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