Week of wordsmiths: Van Luven, Sonik, Cram & Boychuk

The last week of May is looking busy for Department of Writing faculty and alumni. Maybe it’s that classic summer-reading push, or maybe they just have a bit more time now that the busy semester is over.

Associate Dean of Fine Arts Lynne Van Luven will be appearing At The Mike on May 29, talking about life writing in a session called “Writing Our Past and Future.” The latest installment of this popular author series run by publishers Brindle & Glass also features writers May Q. Wong (A Cowherd in Paradise: From China to Canada) and Lily Hoy Price (I Am Full Moon: Stories of a Ninth Daughter) offering a special tribute to Asian Heritage Month. Van Luven will be talking about the life stories in her latest co-edited book, In The Flesh: Twenty Writers Explore the Body. It kicks off at 7pm May 29 at Cadboro Bay Books, 3840B Cadboro Bay Road.

Before you go, however, take a listen to Van Luven’s fascinating and frequently funny extended conversation with Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Rogers spoke with Van Luven about her essay “Life with My Girls”—based on her essay about breasts in In The Flesh—and their conversation covers everything from growing up on a Saskatchewan farm to her unease with puberty, the cultural significance of breasts and, on a greater level, how people live (and deal with) their discomfort with their own bodies.

That same night, Writing alum Buffy Cram will be featured at an event south of the border in Seattle (although it’s more east of Victoria), as she reads from her debut collection Radio Belly: Stories (Douglas and MacIntyre). Described as a “formidable debut of nine surreally funny, politically astute and emotionally gripping stories,” Cram’s Radio Belly follows up the attention she got with her short story “Large Garbage” in the 2010 speculative fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards. She’ll be joined by Anakana Schofield (Malarky). That’s at 7pm at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, 1521 10th Avenue—and, curiously enough, they’re offering a “willy-wamer” or “mustachio” bookmarks as prizes for the night. (What, books are too passé these days?)

Buffy Cram

But if you can’t make it down to the Emerald City, you can still Cram in some Buffy action when she offers a three-session “Introduction to Short Fiction” workshop at the local Vancouver Island School of Art. Designed as a basic intro course for beginner writers, Cram’s write-up for the course sounds charming: “Do you have sentences/images/characters occur to you at inopportune times such as while you’re in the shower or driving to work or in the middle of a conversation? It may surprise you to know that you are already well on your way to becoming a writer.” (Whew, that clears up a lot!)

Over three weekends, Cram’s course covers everything from inspiration to the study and practice of plot and story-structure, character creation, scene, setting, and voice. It runs June 9, 16 and 23 at VISA on Quadra Street and costs just $125. You know what they say, “Those who can, do and teach.” (Or something like that!)

The very busy Department of Writing instructor Madeline Sonik has another book launch coming up on May 30. This time, it’s a collection of poetry called The Book of Changes (Inanna Publications), based on the “contemplation and inspiration of the abstruse symbols encountered in the ancient oracular Chinese text, the I Ching (Book of Changes).” With 64 poems corresponding to each of the I Ching’s hexagrams, from the book’s description, it sounds like a powerful concept: “Sonik compensates for the lack of feminine presence in the I Ching by projecting into the hexagrams a personal experience of womanhood, where autobiographical elements are at liberty to dialogue with proverbial wisdom. Through this conversation, readers will discover a deeper understanding of what it means to be both human and female.”

An eclectic, award-winning writer and anthologist whose fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in literary journals internationally, Sonik’s previous title—the personal essay collection Afflictions & Departures—was a finalist for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. This is her sixth book and second poetry collection, following up 2008’s Stone Sightings. Join her for the launch from 7pm Wednesday, May 30th, at go-to literary hot-spot du jour, The Well, 821 Fort Street.

Peter Boychuk

Finally, very recent Writing MFA and playwright Peter Boychuk will see the first fully professional mounting of his first full-length play when Shelter from the Storm opens on May 31 at Vancouver’s fabled Firehall Arts Centre. Presented by Touchstone Theatre, Boychuk’s play tells the story of a Tofino-based draft dodger who gives shelter to a traumatized young American soldier that is deserting his post in Iraq.

Produced as part of Touchstone Theatre and Playwright Theatre Centre’s Flying Start program, which gives a stage to new professional playwrights, Flying Start also produced fellow MFA Sally StubbsHerr Beckmann’s People back in 2010. An earlier version of Boychuk’s Shelter script won second place in the Uprising National Playwriting Competition, and his Justin Trudeau play Fortunate Son appeared at the 2011 Victoria Fringe Festival.

Shelter from the Storm runs to June 9, is directed by Katrina Dunn and stars Peter Hall, Kyle Jesperson, and Lindsay Winch. Dramaturgy by Martin Kinch. Set design by Pam Johnson, lighting design by Adrian Muir, costume design by Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh, and sound design by Jeff McMahan. There is a free preview on Thursday, May 31, and a talk-back after the performance on Tuesday, June 5. Tickets can be purchased by calling
604-689-0926 or by visiting the Firehall website.

(And the Georgia Straight is also giving away tickets to see Shelter from the Storm from June 1 to 9, which you can enter to win here.)

Two Visual Arts alumni mount Victoria exhibits

If it’s Thursday, it must be opening night at a local art gallery—and this week, two Visual Arts alumni each have openings here in Victoria.

First up is Rick Leong, who is opening his first Canadian solo exhibition this week at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s LAB GalleryThe Phenomenology of Dusk is, as Leong himself describes it, “the study of the phenomena that is illuminated by a waning light in the gathering darkness, encouraging the imagination to form the visible from the invisible.”

Rick Leong, “Hypnagogia” (2012, mixed media on panel). Photo: Raymond St. Arnaud

According to AGGV curator Nicole Stanbridge, “His large-scale paintings create haunting and lush landscapes that hover in the intangible realm of dusk. Influenced by both Chinese and Canadian landscape painting traditions, the themes articulated in Leong’s work begin in the natural world—forests, mountains, meadows and night skies—and become immersive spaces built from imagination and memory. In keeping with Chinese landscape tradition these scenes are more than mere representations of nature. They are at once tangible and ethereal in their articulation of the psychological experience of dusk. The imagery in his work leads us through a poetic narrative that speaks of utopic landscapes; an idealized and constructed view of nature that has been prominent throughout the history of Canadian landscape painting.”

Leong’s The Phenomenology of Dusk is a new series that evolved during a January 2012 artist residency in Barcelona, Spain.  As he told local Times Colonist arts writer Amy Smart in a May 17 article, “As a landscape painter, I’m always looking. It’s part of my language, part of my vocabulary. Wherever I am, I’m paying particular attention to the landscape for those sorts of opportunities to expand my vocabulary and inject something new into my language.”

Leong received his BFA from UVic back in 2003, yet despite this being his first Canadian solo exhibition, he earned national attention as one of the finalists in the 2008 RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and his work is already in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Leong will also give an artist’s talk at the opening, from 7:30-9:00pm on Thursday, May 17. The exhibit itself runs to August 6.

Next up is 2011 MFA grad and local artist Emilio Portal, whose new installation islands opened at Open Space on May 14.

Emilio Portal with the start of his “islands” at Open Space (Photo: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist)

As Open Space’s exhibit description notes, “Inspired by colonial and indigenous histories connected to the site of Victoria, islands is an on-going performance that honours the Lekwungen peoples of Vancouver Island. Through a series of creative acts, Portal performs a respect to the land, and the remnants of history that lies underneath. As this performance unfolds we become witnesses to the creation of an interstitial space of transformation and ceremony. Portal’s islands float into existence to become a new ground, a new ground on which we can respond to the land in deep and meaningful ways.”

In a Times Colonist preview article titled “More to Pile of Wood than Meets the Eye” (also by busy arts reporter Amy Smart), Portal posed with a stack of 204 milled cedar planks, explaining, “This pile of wood was everything to the people here. It built their houses, the boats, the clothing, the nets for fishing . . . . This cedar needs to be revered, even honoured for its service to humanity, to the world.”

Local arts journalist Kate Cino has done a feature on Portal’s exhibit on her Art Openings website. And given the evolving nature of the exhibit, Portal will be having a “show closing” celebration instead of a formal opening, running from 7-9:00pm on June 26.

21st century arts grads

No stranger to controversy: Margaret Wente

An interesting brouhaha has erupted on the Globe and Mail‘s website, following Margaret Wente’s May 15 column “Educated for unemployment.” The award-winning columnist is no stranger to controversy and regularly opines about the state of education, health care, business and social issues—but it’s her only slightly tongue-in-cheek letter to the Class of 2012 that has raised the ire of many. Here’s an excerpt:

“Congratulations! You’ve made it. After four years of post-secondary education, you now have a piece of paper suitable for framing, plus $27,889 in debt (give or take). You’ll land a job, eventually. But your paycheque may not go far, especially after the $373 you’ll be deducting every month for the next 10 years to pay back your student loans.

“I hate to say this, but if your degree is in sociology, psych, art history or much else on the soft side, you are a dime a dozen. Have you heard of supply and demand? Sorry! You’re on the wrong side of the equation . . . . Most of our universities—the ‘soft’ side, at any rate—are proudly disconnected from the job market. Our faculties of liberal arts and humanities believe that issues such as ‘relevance’ and ’employability’ are, quite frankly, crass. The purpose of a university education is to cultivate critical thinking, not to churn out robotic, compliant workers for the postindustrial capitalist state.”

(There’s more, of course, including some skewering of journalism schools that refuse to acknowledge the shifting media landscape, but be sure to read her entire column before letting fingers fly with your own comments.)

As of this post, some 656 people have registered comments on the story—some supporting her view, others challenging it—and the May 16 Globe carried two notable letters to the editor about it under the heading, “21st-century arts grads”. The first is from Mark Blagrave, Dean of Huron University College’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science, who writes,
“I wish I had thought to invite Margaret Wente to a session we held this month at Huron University College. Two dozen business and not-for-profit leaders in London, Ont., met with faculty members from Huron to map the competencies needed for real-life, on-the job situations onto classroom activities and assignments at our liberal arts university. 
“It turned out that critical thinking, problem solving, research skills, empathy, intercultural understanding, a sense of audience, an understanding of policy and decision-making, collaboration and excellent communication skillsall come in pretty handy in any job you can think of. Far from shrinking from challenges of ‘relevance’ and ’employability,’ Canada’s small liberal arts institutions continue to prepare, and to re-examine how they prepare, graduates for life and leadership and jobs in the 21st century.” 

The second is from UVic’s own Jamie Cassels, professor of law and former Vice-President Academic and Provost, and Tony Eder, director of the Department of Institutional Planning & Analysis:

“Margaret Wente repeats the oft-stated ‘fact’ that average student debt on graduation is over $27,000. The most authoritative analysis of student financial information is from the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium. Its most recent report shows that while 58 per cent of undergraduate students graduate with average debt from all sources of $26,680, the remaining 42 per cent graduate debt free. The report states that average debt of all graduates is about $15,500, and more than half of university students graduate with debt of less than $7,000.Incidentally, this same report also showed high levels of student satisfaction with their education.”

Most interesting, and totally unstated by Wente, is the fact that she holds an MA in English from the University of Toronto. Wonder if that one came with built-in job prospects . . .

Vikky Alexander talks architecture and nature

Vikky Alexander, snapped in Paris

The work of Visual Arts photography professor Vikky Alexander is getting some nice attention right now on the Vancouver online magazine Here and Elsewhere. (Run by Stephanie Rebick and Emmy Lee, who both work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, H&E offers an intelligent and engaging look at, as they put it, “what to see, eat, drink and do, near and far.”)

The H&E piece focuses on Alexander’s recent series of large-scale photographs, Island, which captures the collision between the lush foliage in Palm House (part of England’s famed Kew Gardens) and the wrought iron and glass building that contains it. As well as showing some of the photographs, there is also an interview with Alexander about her “ongoing fascination with our desire to experience the wonder of the natural world while simultaneously needing to control and tame it.” Rebick and Lee note that “her surprisingly enigmatic and surreal work has consistently evoked this tension between nature and culture in a range of manifestations including photography, sculpture and installation.”

Vikky Alexander, “Collision,” 2011, digital print on Epson Ultrasmooth Fine Art Paper, 40×60”, Courtesy of the Artist and Trépanier Baer Gallery

And it sounds like H&E are longtime fans: “We’ve followed Alexander’s work for years and were thrilled to have the opportunity to ask her some questions about recent developments as well as ongoing themes in her practice, and she very generously obliged.”

By way of introduction, Alexander says, “My work since 1986 has focused on the interaction/collision of architecture and nature, starting with Lake in the Woods installation (now in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery) in 1986. I have been researching environments where that happens and a logical site for that interaction is in formal gardens.”

You can read the full interview here.

An island unto itself: London’s Kew Gardens

This follows Alexander’s participation in the recent C. 1983 Pt. II at Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery, a two-part group exhibition about camera art in Vancouver during the 1980s. To quote the Gallery, C. 1983 highlighted “significant photographic practices that emerged in the vibrant artistic milieu of that period,” and included Alexander’s mid-’80s mass media-influenced Dreaming and Living series. As the Vancouver Sun described it, Alexander’s “found images from magazines and calendars are combined to produce striking images that recall bits of dreams remembered after waking up.”

The Victoria-born but Vancouver-based Alexander has been a professor here in the Visual Arts Department since 1992 and is one of Vancouver’s most acclaimed artists. Working as a photographer, sculptor, collagist and installation artist, Alexander is a leading practitioner in the field of photo-conceptualism and her work has been recognized within Canada and internationally in New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Europe and in the United States. She is represented by Calgary’s TrépanierBaer Gallery.

As her TrépanierBaer bio notes, Alexander’s work “explores the relationship between art, architecture and nature, and in particular the modernist tendency for incorporating landscapes into buildings and the notion of domestic utopia. She is interested in how nature is experienced in a consumer society, which she investigates in her photographs of artificial environments as well as her use of mass-produced decorator materials such as wood veneers, wallpaper murals of landscapes, and mirrors.”