360° of Franc van Oort (Pt. 1)

For the two years I attended trade school at Algonquin College, Perth became my second home. Between classes I photographed the countryside, explored abandoned buildings, foraged in antique shops and became a regular visitor to Riverguild’s mezzanine, concocting a mental list of the works I would buy from artist Franc van Oort when I’d finished spending money on my greedy old house.

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I left a message for writer and journalist Phil Jenkins saying that I wanted to meet him and purchase a copy of An Acre of Time about the history of LeBreton Flats. We met in a cafe in Chelsea, Quebec and after an hour or so of deep conversation he handed me his book. I admired the cover then flipped through the pages. Inside were black and white drawings of botanical subject matter. In the acknowledgements he thanked Franc van Oort for his artistic contributions.

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The National Gallery of Canada holds the third-largest collection of M.C. Eschers in the world. Last year’s exhibition, The Mathemagicianfeatured 54 pieces from this collection, a survey of the various themes found in his work.

As the final days of the exhibition approached the galleries were crowded three bodies deep. My children quickly dispersed to chart their own navigable route through the milieu. I made my way to the end deciding to work backwards, beginning with Escher’s most abstract and theoretical works, worlds of interlocking repetitive shapes where the mathematical and scientific creations took front and centre, towards the magical realism of houses, interiors, people, spheres, self-portraits and finally, the ancient European villages balanced on perilous, linear cliffs.

I was on speaking terms with his most famous pieces like Hand with Reflecting Sphere (1935), Waterfall (1961) and Drawing Hands (1948), moderately familiar with his shape-shifting tessellations and a complete stranger to his landscapes of Southern Italy.

But I stood before a dozen or so of these landscapes for the longest time, struck by their urgent familiarity. How, I puzzled, could I know something that I’d never seen before? It took me two days to realize my unheimliche was on account of Franc.

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I’d heard that M.C. Escher‘s son, George, had moved from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia and was living not forty minutes from me in Kanata. I took to the internet searching for some first-person insight into his father’s work. I came across this YouTube video from the Brooke Valley school just west of Perth. The school had staged a play on Escher’s life and invited George for a post-performance Q&A.

I watched the video and was distracted by the charming tessellated floor so suited to the occasion. It reminded me of my own hand-painted kitchen floor.

Franc van Oort

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I read Phil’s book and sent an email to Franc asking if I could pay him a studio visit.

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Franc was born into a long line of artists, which included a master printer, a political cartoonist and his father, an author and illustrator of well-known children’s books. Growing up in Holland he had an early connection to M.C. Escher; as a child he lived just up the road from the Escher family.

My dad would have known, but he never told me. I would have gone and knocked on his door. But then he never would have let me in. He was an intensely private man. He was busy working like my dad.

Franc visited a retrospective of M.C. Escher at The Hague in 1968 and was influenced by what he saw. So when I stared at the landscapes at the National Gallery I was seeing less of Escher and more of the echoes of Franc’s artistic origins.

And to neatly close the circle, he happens to be friends with George Escher and that lovely painted floor in the video? That is the floor of Franc’s barn.

We stopped talking long enough to search through the blueprint- style drawers which held the numbered copies of more than 300 original etchings. I changed my mind half a dozen times before settling on the piece I would buy, an image I’d clung to since I first saw it hanging in the gallery: the Lucca Diptych (2007).

Franc van Oort
What would Freud have to say about my choosing an image of a circular piazza?

I photographed Franc in the prototype of his life-size camera obscura, he handed me a signed copy of his book At Home and Away, and off I went. It doesn’t take much to find the few degrees that separate any of us.

See: 360° of Franc van Oort (Part 2)

Further reading:

Franc van Oort, Artist & Printmaker

fieldwork Project

The Mathemagician, M.C. Escher at the National Gallery of Canada

M.C. Escher – The Official Website

 

360° of Franc van Oort (Pt. 2)

Note: There is now a Part 1 which can be found here.

Don’t go looking for Part 1 of this piece because it has yet to be written. I am exercising my right to choose the cadence and order of storytelling; here the order is immaterial except for the lack of a formal introduction of artist Franc van Oort, and an explanation of our Six Degrees of (Circuitous) Separation.

The good news is this is a self-explanatory pictorial essay about the life-size camera obscura, Eyebox, van Oort has installed outside of Perth, Ontario as part of the open-air fieldwork collection of multi-media land art. Months ago, I had the good fortune to check out the prototype in his studio and I’ve been waiting for a blanket of snow – and preferably a bright sunny day – to check out the real thing. With our mild and grey fall and winter weather a timely visit was bumped. And bumped. And bumped again. Sun or no sun, I could wait no longer.

Yesterday, my heart leapt when I spotted the colourful box at the far end of the wintry field. It is brilliant.

camera obscura (Latin for dark room) is an optical device that was the precursor of modern photography. It is made from a box or a blacked-out room with a small hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and creates an upside-down image on the back of the box or room. Although it is inverted,  colour and perspective are maintained. Inserting a simple lens into the hole creates a sharper image. The projected image can be traced onto paper (the equivalent of a modern light projector) or photographic paper or plates can be installed to produce photographic prints.

Here, the lens of the camera obscura cleverly doubles as the lens of the feminine sky-blue eye.

Van Oort’s Eyebox is the roomy size of a small shed. It is meticulously designed, built and embellished and contains an unexpected surprise. A black plywood wheel the size of a large pizza pan is fixed to a post and inscribed with white directional arrows. He has mounted the shed on a rotational device akin to a turntable found in old locomotive roundhouses. If you stand adjacent to the wheel and crank, the camera obscura lurches forward and begins to turn.  If you photograph the continuous projections, it’s possible to end up with a 360° degree view of the surrounding landscape.

Click here to see how it was made.

Fieldwork Franc Van Oort
Come in and close the door
BrookeValleyFieldworks-7
A close up of the view through the lens.

Because of the falling snow, the accumulation on the ground and the grey sky, the images are nearly bereft of colour. In spring, summer and fall, the results would be strikingly different. I experimented with placing my son in front of the projections and embedding him in the landscape. I shot still lifes and then shot the same scenes in motion for an abstract effect.

Eyebox is incomparably the highlight of the 2015 fieldwork installation. Five new works will be added on May 7th, 2016, the launch of the new season.

Directions to fieldwork Collective:

From Ottawa: Take Hwy 7 west to Perth. Continue west past Perth for another 15 minutes or so. There are 2 entrances to Old Brooke Rd. Pass the first one (the east entrance, that is just past Wemyss).  Drive past McGowan’s Lake Campground and lake (small lake on the left/south side of the hwy). Just after this lake, turn left at the west (second) entrance to Old Brooke Rd. Drive along Old Brooke Rd. Fieldwork is just past (ie. just east) of 2501 Old Brooke Rd. on the opposite side of the road (north side).

Additional info:

Franc Van Oort, Artist & Printmaker

Riverguild Fine Crafts, Artist Cooperative, Perth, ON

Fieldwork Collective

Abelardo Morell, Camera Obscura Photographer

Fogo Island: Strange and Familiar

I don’t have a travel bucket list so much as I have a magnetic triangulation: Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, the Canadian Arctic in general, and the province of Newfoundland. I am drawn to each for their natural and human histories, their isolation, and unique beauty. Mother Nature still rules these places, although the hand of man has tried hard to make it seem otherwise.

Not long after Newfoundland began to impress itself upon me through its stories – a chain reaction of one interconnection after another – the epic tale of Fogo Island and Zita Cobb emerged.

Cobb was born and raised on Fogo Island, but her family was forced off by the progressive economic collapse brought on by commercial overfishing. In 1975, her father, a fisherman like most other local men, locked up the house, nailed the front gate shut, and moved his family to the mainland to begin anew.

Her personal narrative reads like The Odyssey. For thirty years she was away, first studying business, then progressing up the high-tech hierarchy. She cashed out during the boom, sailed the world for four years, and made her way home to Fogo with an idea for “growing another leg on the [local] economy.” That idea became a vision: a smartly-designed, sustainable, 29-room luxury inn, which would tread lightly on the landscape, reflect local culture and values, and bring jobs and money to the local economy. In 2012, the Fogo Island Inn, designed by architect Todd Saunders, opened under the auspices of the Shorefast Foundation, a registered charity seeded by Cobb whose “model is based on social engagement, strategic investment in community capital, and inclusive local economies.”1

I was impressed.

In September, I drove to Montreal to hear her speak at The Women’s Canadian Club of Montreal. When we met after the talk I was verklempt. Why wouldn’t I be? The inn and related community/cultural/economic development directly correlate to the ideas I explore at Habicurious. I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Cobb is clearly no dabbler. She has made an heroic financial and personal commitment to her community. She has taken on a highly complex and very public venture (“The ancestors are watching us,” she says), with, I’m guessing, no option for anything but success. As expected, she was a smart, funny and engaging presenter, but she was done too soon. I have many, many questions.

While it’s easy to find people who will talk about design, sustainability and the predictable challenges of traditional development, it is trickier to find those with enough skin in the game and wisdom to discuss the human component and other intangibles of building (or rebuilding) community. I want to talk about the importance of place, our relationship to home, the necessity for growth and change, the unique challenges of rural places, the perils of our own foibles and humanity, the nature of risk, balancing the past with the present and future, the development and preservation of arts and culture, and the challenge of working in the place one calls home.

I was agog at the potential knowledge and wisdom available from the Fogo Island ventures and at Cobb’s remarkable courage in seeing them to fruition.

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Quite by chance, on my Air Canada flight home from Vancouver this week, I caught Strange and Familiar: Architecture on Fogo Island, which has been making the film festival rounds in 2015. The film focuses on Todd Saunders and the design/build of the Fogo Island Inn as well as Cobb’s concerns, amongst other things, for the flattening of culture worldwide (“How would you know you’re in China? How would you know you’re in Fogo?“) and the importance of maintaining a unique place for local culture in the holistic view (“We’re knitting ourselves into the bigger world.“) Here’s the preview:

Additional info:

Fogo Island Inn

Saunders Architecture

Fogo Island videos on YouTube (200+)

National Film Board of Canada (NFB) – The Fogo Process (28 short films on Fogo Island, 1967/1968

 


  1. http://shorefast.org/about-us/overview/ 

On the Waterfront

While on the Canada Line from Vancouver to Richmond, B.C. I spied a sculpture on the skyline. One right and a quick left from our hotel and an old-school waterfront appeared, featuring a walking path and imaginative art installations.

The photographic conditions were spectacular: warm, morning light, a fierce hoar frost embalming the rocks and vegetation, and not a breath of wind. I shot on two settings: aperture priority and pre-programmed landscape, accounting for the variance in the shades of water and sky. The photos practically took themselves and required almost no post-production.

I had 45 short minutes to shoot before our shuttle’s departure, and a bucket full of good luck. Here’s what happiness looks like.

 

Walking with Our Sisters

Over 1,181 native women and girls in Canada have been reported missing or have been murdered in the last 30 years. Many vanished without a trace, with inadequate inquiry into their disappearance or murders paid by the media, the general public, politicians and even law enforcement. This is a travesty of justice. ~ Walking With Our Sisters website
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Almost two thousand pairs of moccasin vamps, or uppers, lay evenly spaced, side by side and end to end, on the floor of the Carleton University Art Gallery, a breathtaking mosaic of traditional beadwork, sewing, painting, embroidery and other creative embellishment. A red fabric path, underlaid by cedar boughs, guides participants around and through the landscape of colour.

Each adult pair of vamps represents one missing or murdered Indigenous woman. More than one hundred smaller vamps – child-sized – are dedicated to the thousands who never came home from residential schools. These unfinished moccasins symbolize the lives cut short by violence and draw attention to the injustice, acknowledge the grief and torment of suffering families, invite community-based dialogue, and honour the memories of the lost women and children.

Metis artist Christi Belcourt describes Walking With Our Sisters as a “…memorial, commemoration, and ceremony.”

Everything follows traditional protocol. What we’re doing here is not an exhibit – although I might use that word… It’s ceremony from the very start to the very end of every display. That’s what’s required in order to properly acknowledge and honour the womens’ lives. We can’t do it by gawking, we can’t do it by seeing pictures, we can’t do this by staring from an outsider’s perspective. We must do it by bringing their lives – the acknowledgement of the value of their lives – within us, and within our hearts…1

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Still, the blood flows.

Last week StatsCan released its first complete Aboriginal identity data on victims and people accused of homicide in Canada. 2014 marks the first year the survey has had complete police-reported data. As well, police-reported data on the Aboriginal identity of female homicide victims is now available from 1980 to 2013.

Out of 513 reported homicide victims in 2014, almost a quarter (23%) were reported by police as Aboriginal, a group that accounts for just 5% of the Canadian population.

The overrepresentation of Aboriginal people as homicide victims was greatest in Manitoba, where the rate was nine times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal people (13.29 per 100,000 versus 1.41). This was followed by Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta, where the rates were six times higher, and Saskatchewan where the rate was five times higher.2

A single death, goes the quote, is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

These statistics are quantifiable, two-dimensional numbers on a page that fail to convey the three-dimensional people who no longer wake up in the morning, laugh with their children, engage with their elders, or wrap their arms around the people they love.

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In June I attended the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) closing ceremonies in Ottawa. For three days I absorbed the speeches and testimony on the legacy of Canadian residential schools, my first significant exposure to the subject. I sat and I wandered, wondering if I belonged there, wrestling to accept that my duty – reinforced by the speakers – was to bear witness, a new idea to me. I walked the preview of Walking With Our Sisters and fell apart.

At least, then, I wasn’t surprised when I waited in line at the art gallery for the full installation, removing my shoes and preparing to smudge, that my chest began to heave, and the flood gates opened wide. Beautiful Barbara from Kitigan Zibi led me upstairs to the quiet room, offered tissues, tea and wise words, and sat close until I was ready to begin anew. She offered a final perspective: “While it is perfectly appropriate to feel sad,” she said, “it is important to recognize, and take away, the beauty of the work.”

While the beading and decorative work ranges from simple to complex, raw to sublime, each vamp carries its individual weight in the energetic expression of the whole. I wonder about the decisions made around placement: Do the pairs change position with each display or do they remain static in relation to one another? Unlike most art installations, there is no single section that shines brighter than another, a tribute to its careful curation. My son moves at his own speed, and I take my time, frequently doubling back, crouching to meditate on certain groups. It takes several journeys on the circular path to begin to fit the pieces together.

It is weeks before I grasp Barbara’s words. How brilliant to broach the horrors of violence through the antidote of beauty! Beauty enables reframing: powerful artist/creators breathe life into flat statistics, elevate them to personhood, and embed them into our active memory. Beauty restores dignity and human agency, moving away from the cult of victimhood, closing the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Beauty makes manifest the intangibles of knowledge, wisdom, strength, spirit and resiliency and revives the human heart. Poetic, too, that the medium enables us to walk, however briefly, in another person’s shoes.

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Walking With Our Sisters opened in Edmonton in 2013 and is touring Canada and select U.S. cities through 2019. It is presently en route to North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

Additional information:

Walking With Our Sisters website

Christi Belcourt

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women

 


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehyOa05ecNA&feature=youtu.be 

  2. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/151125/dq151125a-eng.htm 

Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities