Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Beauty in Both Sides

Even though we’re in middle of a winter storm, there’s no reason we can’t turn our thoughts to vibrant colors and thriving flowers.

It’s precisely this appreciation for all—even dissimilar or contradictory—aspects of life that artist Richard Bolingbroke wants people to appreciate. And it’s what the British-born, San Francisco-based artist shares through his artwork.

An exhibition of Bolingbroke’s vibrant watercolors is on display at Obrich Botanical Gardens Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through January 4. The show, Rituals and Meditations, marks the last stop on a three-year cycle that’s taken the paintings to Milwaukee and several southeastern states.

Bolingbroke taught himself watercolor painting by working on still lifes in his San Francisco studio. But after some time painting flowers, he tired of exclusively happy and beautiful subject matter. “I was only seeing half of what life is representing,” he explains.

He began incorporating other objects and imagery into his compositions. Of particular interest to him were bones and skulls—items that inevitably evoke thoughts of death and decay.

“I’m exploring the sides of life we don’t normally look at,” he says. “It’s not about death, it’s about the processes of life.”

Bolingbroke finds such imagery richer with artistic possibilities. And he thinks they’re just as aesthetic as flowers. “Beauty is not just in life but in death,” he says. “All processes of life have inherent beauty in them.”

Through his artwork, Bolingbroke hopes to change the way people see the world around them. He wants them to learn to find beauty in all facets of life and points out that recognizing one naturally leads to appreciation of another.

“We wouldn’t enjoy summer so much if we didn’t have winter,” he says.

Bolingbroke may be living in San Francisco, but that sentiment is spoken like a true Madisonian.

Photos are courtesy of Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

January Artists: Buggin' Out

It’s beautiful with an edge, the artwork made collaboratively by Jennifer Angus and John Hitchcock for SuperBug, a new exhibition opening January 23 at James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

The work combines hand-drawn images of insects by Angus, an associate professor in design studies at UW–Madison, with screen-printed layers of patterns derived from virus and bacteria by Hitchcock, an associate professor of art at UW–Madison.

Together, the artists explore the patterns—both visual and biological—of “superbug” bacteria. Their intricate, layered work is aesthetically appealing but also hints at a darker side by raising questions about health and disease in the twenty-first century.

Angus took some time before the exhibition’s opening to talk about the project.

How did this exhibition come about?

John Hitchcock and I started as assistant professors at the UW in the same year—2001. We met before school even started at a new faculty gathering. We became friends right away since we are both artists and both were new to Madison. Coincidentally it happened that we both teach screen printing. John teaches screen and relief printing in the art department and I teach what is essentially the same process in the design studies department, although most of what I print on is fabric.

In that first year John and I decided to have our classes do a collaborative project. It was successful and we did it for two more years. Our students demanded that if they had to work collaboratively then so should we! So we did! We did the same project as the students and found that we enjoyed working together. We have similar interests in the environment, pattern and minority cultures. It was easy for us to come up with ideas we wanted to discuss and make work about.

What is it about “superbug” bacteria that intrigues you?

For some time John has been interested in the connection between disease and the fact that disenfranchised people seem to get sicker more often. His experience is firsthand having grown up in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma next to the U.S. field artillery military base Fort Sill. In contrast I have a more literal interest in “bugs,” more properly known as insects, as they are the main material in my installation work. As a result we often use the literal image of an insect to refer to the transmitter of diseases.

We are interested in that transmission and how subtle yet deadly it can be. I grew up in Toronto, Canada. When SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit Toronto and Hong Kong simultaneously, my family’s daily lives were affected. Never has the world known such a potent disease. People standing in an elevator for less than one minute were infected and died. It is truly frightening. Warnings of an impending flu pandemic have been coming for years and it’s only a matter of time before it hits.

Superbugs are of course the scourge of hospitals. I think we are again drawn to the drama of their name, SUPER bugs, and their silent, deadly nature.

What draws you to subject matter such as insects?

I teach textile design at the UW yet I have been working with insects for the past ten years. I spent several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s in the area known as the Golden Triangle (where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, formerly Burma, meet) researching tribal dress. At that time I discovered a particular garment known as a “singing shawl,” worn by young women of the Karen tribe that is embellished with metallic beetle wings in place of beads or sequins. It was very exciting to find something utilized that was so naturally beautiful and readily available. Since then I have found other groups that use whole beetles or the wings applied to garments, headdresses and baskets.

Today I am amazed at the beauty, adaptability and the incredible camouflage of insects. The bottom line is that insects are a very potent material. We all have a reaction to insects because we all have experience with them. They have the power to provoke a reaction!

What ideas are you seeking to present in the show and what do you hope visitors walk away with?

Quite simply the enemy is rapidly gaining on us and our lines of defense are rapidly breaking down. The simplest act may have deadly consequences that will have a domino effect.

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

The rhyme suggests innocence lost not unlike “Ring around the Rosey,” which refers to The Black Death plague of 1347. Beyond insects John and I always use pattern as a background or backdrop. We take the images of deadly virus and form them into to beautiful lacy designs. The use of pattern is strategic because it also alludes to the history, recurrence (e.g. Black Death, flu pandemic 1918) and transmission of disease. Disease itself is often spread from person to person thus repeating the deadly chain of events again and again.

SuperBug runs Jannuary 23 to March 8 at the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. An opening reception will be held January 23, 5:30–7:30 p.m., with an artists’ talk starting at 6:30 p.m.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The January issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• A write-up on the Dane County Cultural Affair’s Commission’s 2009 art calendar—along with a photo of a gorgeous landscape painting.
• A piece by editor Brennan Nardi on Craig Wilson, a local photographer known for his aerial portraits taken with cameras attached to flying kites.
• A House of the Month feature on a downtown couple with an excellent—and eclectic—art collection.
• A profile on Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn of Walmartopia fame who are returning to the Madison stage in January.
• A poem by Madison poet laureate Fabu on President Barack Obama (listen to her poetry podcast).
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts, exhibitions and festivals taking place in January.

Tomorrow is also the launch of Spectrum, a special magazine celebrating diversity in Madison. And there’s lots of arts and entertainment to be found in it, including:
• Profiles on Club TNT, African Storytelling on Wheels, The Figureheads, Multico, ROARrrr, Dane Dances and La Movida.
• A piece on Native American dancer Art Shegonee and photographer Tom Jones.
• A look at young artists shaping the future of creativity in the city.
Madison Magazine and WISC-TV editorial director Neil Heinen’s tribute to jazz superstar Richard Davis.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Keeping Tradition Alive

The great thing about holiday traditions is the familiarity; the comfort of knowing you’ll be able to enjoy something again and again.

Certainly, A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker are two traditions honored and beloved in Madison and many other places across the country. And Children’s Theater of Madison and Madison Ballet have the unique task every year of giving audiences the play and ballet they look forward to while also keeping the works fresh and exciting.

CTM’s producing artistic director Roseann Sheridan and Madison Ballet’s artistic director W. Earle Smith recently took some time out to share the latest on their holiday productions—what’s new, what’s improved and what they’ll never change.

Roseann Sheridan

Why do you do this production every year?

A Christmas Carol is a true classic and including the show amongst the holiday offerings for any city demonstrates the cultural vitality of the city. The trio of offerings that Madison provides: the theatrical production of A Christmas Carol, the ballet production of The Nutcracker and the symphony production of the Holiday Spectacular truly speaks to the vibrancy of Madison and the value the community places on the arts.

This is the “signature piece” of CTM. To me, that means it represents our core values: building community, artistic excellence and nurturing an appreciation of theatre in young people. The center of the story is Ebenezer Scrooge who learns to embrace the child within himself and along with that the spirit of joy, exuberance and generosity.

This production has become a tradition for CTM and for our community. For thirty-three years, this company has presented this play, and each year dozens of children, youth and adults participate in the production. In addition, the play allows for actors from eight to eighty to be onstage, and so it supports our commitment to mentorship and to accessibility.

Most of all, the show has all of the elements we love: a great story, family-friendly, a large community involvement onstage and off, and timeless themes of the value of family, friendship, kindness toward all people and a celebration of youth.

How do you keep things fresh and interesting—both for your organization and for audiences?

For the organization, each production is a unique combination of people who create a special family for the time they are together. New actors bring new energies and ideas. Returning actors bring a familiarity with the story and the process; a certain level of comfort and ease. The story itself offers new insights each year, and there are always different choices we can make with characters, special effects, costumes and more. No two years are alike, no two productions are alike—each presents its own set of challenges, its own opportunity to try something new, to better the product or the approach from before. For the audience, each year has something new to offer; in addition to new actors in some roles there are also some new elements like a dance or some added songs.

What’s new this year?

This year, the fun addition is that of local celebrities in cameo roles such as Mayor Dave on opening night, Al Toon and various radio and TV personalities … They will be a party guests in one of the scenes. At various times the other characters onstage interact with them and include them in the festive “parlor games” typical of Victorian England. They will have a couple of lines and also the chance to ad lib—and the other actors onstage will play off of what the guest says. It’s a simple but very fun addition to the show, and one that will retain the integrity of the play as well as give the audience a chance to see a familiar face in a different role! They will be taken backstage at intermission, we’ll have a costume for them to wear, and they’ll have another character onstage who will “escort” them through the scene. There’s enough room for surprises without it getting out of control. And I think the audience will really enjoy the spontaneity of the scene.

Also, there are some new actors in various roles. And the music and singing is stronger than before. Some kids have grown up a bit and are playing older character roles. And there are some new adults in roles such as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, Scrooge’s younger selves and others. It’s a very strong cast led by veteran Robert Spencer as Scrooge and featuring many of the best actors in Madison: Bill Bolz, Donovan Armbruster, Carl Cawthorne, Georgina McKee, Scott Haden and more. These are actors who are well known to Madison audiences from their years of performing with local theaters here from the Rep to the Bartell companies. And of course, there are all of the kids in the show—twenty-three of them—and the energy and enthusiasm and TALENT they bring.

What will you never change about the production?

What will never change is the story, the timeless tale of Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly curmudgeon to a generous jolly fellow who learns to care for others as well as himself. The other thing that will never change is there will always be GHOSTS! You can’t tell the story without some ghosts! And a bit of spookiness along with it, of course. And, of course, Tiny Tim. The story has to reflect the contrast between the young boy and the old man. For CTM—and I think for all theaters—the inclusion of children in the show is very important. They represent so much and their presence, I think, is critical to the story. I firmly believe that no matter how many times you see the show, the story is what makes you lean forward and wonder “what’s going to happen next.” It’s a great story.

What do you hope audiences come away with this year?

I hope they come away with a feeling of great satisfaction of time well spent together and that they are wonderfully entertained. I hope they feel that they were swept into the world of the play and they get to forget about anything troubling or complicated about today for those two hours they are together in the beautiful Capitol Theater. This is not a play that asks you to think; it’s a play that is accessible to everyone, entertaining and, yes, even magical. I also truly hope the audience comes away with a sense of pride of what this theater—CTM—represents in the community and has succeeded in achieving: quality work by talented local performers, both seasoned and novices; time-proven ability to overcome artistic and financial challenges; and a commitment to being an integral part of Madison’s artistic community. There is much to be said about supporting the artistic work of our local companies, and this production brings it all together through the people onstage, the audience watching and the remarkably high production values. The scale of the show fits the grandeur of the space. And the quality of the acting fits the quality of the story. I know people will be engaged from start to finish, and that they will walk away smiling and feeling uplifted.

W. Earle Smith

Why do you do this production every year?

The Nutcracker is the number-one selling holiday production in the country. The imagery, the music—it’s everywhere and instantly recognizable. That’s what this time of year is all about—icons and traditions that feel familiar. It’s a classic tale, so it’s perfect for families, but it’s elevated to an artistic level that attracts the dance audience as well. It is something for everyone.

How do you keep things fresh and interesting—both for your organization and for audiences?

To a point, The Nutcracker is so popular because it doesn’t change tremendously year to year. Our audiences keep coming back for the familiarity. That being said, I have worked to challenge myself artistically though each of my ten years with Madison Ballet. The dancers change and mature each year and individually they bring something very personal to the stage that I try and capture.

What’s new this year?

The Nutcracker looks all new this year. I’ve made big changes to the story and the choreography. The version of the story that we’ve told in the past implies that Clara’s adventures are a coming-of-age tale. This year we won’t imply that, we will show it. There will be a point when Clara becomes a young woman, and her romance with the Nutcracker is played up, too. This is a luxury of Madison Ballet’s company being in its second year. The choreography has benefited in the same way. Portions of the second act that were typically performed by four or five dancers have become solo roles. I’ve also made changes to “Snow” and “Flowers” that will make the talent of our company dancers impossible to ignore.

What will you never change about the production?

The magic. There is an audible gasp when the curtain rises on the show, and that is my intention. I work to create a vivid world on stage that audience members, young and old, can lose themselves in and embrace the opportunity to dream.

What do you hope audiences come away with this year?

A sense of joy. We are facing challenging circumstances in our economy. Many of us have never experienced anything like this before. Madison Ballet certainly feels it as a nonprofit arts organization. But through it all, we deserve to find reasons to laugh or smile and celebrate time with our family and friends. I hope people leave the theater thankful that they were able to cherish some of those moments with us.

A Christmas Carol runs December 12–21 at Overture Center. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15–$32. ctmtheater.org

The Nutcracker runs December 19–21 at Overture Center. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., plus a Christmas Eve show at 1 p.m. Tickets are $13–$60. madisonballet.org

Photos are courtesy of Children’s Theater of Madison and Madison Ballet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Element of Surprise

Shocking events happen around us every day. Violence, noise, fighting, confusion. These overwhelming forces are such normal parts of modern life that we can become desensitized to them, hardly even notice their presence.

That’s why it amazes me that we can still be started by something as seemingly benign as a two-dimensional image.

Barbara Probst’s photographs aren’t in-your-face graphic. Rather, by setting two images side-by-side, she requires the viewer to compare and contrast them. It’s the differences and connections we notice that evoke an “aha” experience—that wonderful moment that can’t be achieved simply by seeing something shocking or controversial.

Probst, a New York- and Munich-based photographer, has a new exhibition, Exposures, on display at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art December 6 through March 8.

In the series, which Probst began in 2000, she groups together photos showing a single action but taken simultaneously from different points of view. She captures her images through a system of radio controls, synchronized cable releases and other photographers at times.

The varying viewpoints illustrate not only the many ways a single moment can be depicted but also how it can be experienced. And noticing that the seemingly dissimilar images are actually of the same event—and one distinct moment in time—is a surprising realization.

In Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m., for example, a color photograph shows a woman striding through a beautiful mountain setting. But the accompanying black-and-white image reveals that the same woman is actually on the roof of a New York skyscraper in front of an alpine backdrop.

Others works don’t startle as much as show how drastically viewpoint informs the feel of a work. Seeing a woman and two girls walk across a street in Exposure #11a: N.Y.C., Duane & Church Streets, 6.10.02, 3:07 p.m. from an aerial view seems more objective than its sister image, a tender close-up of one of the girls grasping her guardian’s hand as they cross the intersection.

And Exposure #40: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:42 p.m. evokes (in me, at least) a sense of nervousness due to Probst’s choices of viewpoints. One image is an upside-down photo of a young woman skipping. The other exposes how close she is to the ledge of a skyscraper. They’re interesting photos on their own. But together, the disorientation of the first image coupled with the new information the second provides makes me think the woman is going to topple over the side of the building.

Other viewers may have different reactions to Probst’s work. But it’s definitely worth checking out the exhibition to see what surprises are in store for you.

EVENT: On Friday, Barbara Probst will discuss the Exposures exhibition and describe her artistic process at 6:30 p.m. at MMoCA. The event is free for MMoCA members and $5 for nonmembers.

Images—Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m.; Exposure #11a: N.Y.C., Duane & Church Streets, 6.10.02, 3:07 p.m.; and Exposure #40: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:42 p.m.—are courtesy of MMoCA.