Friday, April 30, 2010

On Assignment in 1979

I was working in the NSCAD photo department cage one day in July 1979 when somebody, I don’t recall who, asked me if I wanted to pick up a little freelance photo job. “Sure!” I said. Perhaps it was David Mackenzie, he told me to go up to Garry Kennedy’s office and see him.

I had never really spoken with Garry at that time and was a little nervous. Later as president of the student union I got to know him well and recall many board of governors lunch meetings in his office with George Publicover and Lonny Lonsdale, but in 1979 Garry was sort of a towering figure who I’d never dream of just walking up to and chatting with at an opening.

With this in mind I climbed the winding staircase to the third floor offices and presented myself to Linda Cameron, Garry’s secretary. Linda sent me straight in. Garry had a corner office on the top floor of the Duke Street building with a view of the harbour. The office was a little cluttered, but tastefully decorated with a beautiful Arthur Lismer panorama painting of Chebucto Head, a small terra cotta horse on a side table, lithographs from the NSCAD Litho Workshop and a few of Garry’s pieces. The centerpiece of the room was an antique table, around which Garry held his meetings. His personal desk was a small writing table beneath the Lismer painting and I believe there was a couch in the room.

Garry asked if I’d like a cup of coffee, a gesture I appreciated very much. Linda brought in a carafe and we got down to business. Garry had a curious manner about him, which I thought at first, was disdain for undergraduate students, but discovered later to be natural shyness and reticence. I use to study Garry at board of governor meetings. Watch his handsome, sharply featured face and bushy, somewhat sinister, pointy black eyebrows responding affirmatively or negatively to points being made by board members. I noticed he would squirm visibly, as if his chair was burning beneath him, when contrary points were raised, particularly from faculty reps expressing their views about a faculty union.

That was a few years later, but in his office that day Garry had a job for me and I was hoping to do it well. Garry explained that a Toronto writer was doing a piece about the art college for the Globe and Mail and wondered if I would take a series of pictures around the school to be published with the article. It was a great little job and I think NSCAD paid me 100$ for what amounted to a days work. Garry had a tight deadline, as I suppose the story was already written, so I got to work right away.

I produced ten black and white prints of scenes from around the school, three of which appeared in the article. As a point of interest, I am the painter mixing paint at the bottom of the page. I got lots of action shots, like the woman at the loom and the guy firing ceramics, but when I got to the painting studio it was empty. The painters must have been down at the Ocean Beverage Room, so I put the camera on the tripod and photographed myself pretending to mix paint in a coffee can, a typical NSCAD painting student.

I dropped the pictures off with Linda and went on about my work. Two weeks later Garry sent a memo to my student mailbox, with thanks, advising me the piece would be published on August 11th. I recall buying the paper at Sieverts Tobacco on Barrington Street with my usual pouch of drum tobacco and Export cigarette papers. I took the paper back to NSCAD, but as it was a Saturday in the summer semester, there was no one around to show it to.

NSCAD, The Snap Crackle and Art of Ideas, Globe and Mail, Aug, 11, 1979

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The corner of Villeneuve O. and St. Laurent, the site of my Montreal studio after the fire, 2002 (picture, April 2003)

9 Villeneuve O. Montreal, my studio from 1989 to 1991

From 1989 to 1991 I lived and worked at 9 Villeneuve O. in Montreal, on the corner of St. Laurent. I shared the flat with Linda Kostiuk a youth care worker in the Westmount social welfare system. We lived on the third floor and had a balcon on Villeneuve O, which had a view from the Mountain down to the Stade Olympic. It was a great flat, very cheep, owned by the proprietors of Les Tissue Joy on the ground floor on St Laurent. I recall one day Linda and I went down to the shop to renew our rent with the owner, a wonderful old orthodox Jewish lady, who’s name I forget. Linda and I attended her at the appointed time and I can see her two sons, both middle aged guys hanging around the stacks of fabric listening to our meeting. Madame began the conference with a long preamble with how tough times were and how sorry she was to have to raise our rent. Then she dropped the bomb. Said she’d have to raise our rent 10 dollars a month. She studied Linda and I for a reaction. Her sons winked and smiled at us. Linda put on a good show for the old lady. “Not ten dollars, how could you ask for so much?” “I’m sorry Linda,” she said, “ but it’s ten dollars.” She smiled confidently in her beautiful bouffant orthodox wig as Linda and I sign the lease.

It was a great time to live in Montreal. Everyone was broke and scrambling- as I suppose it always is in Montreal- but I will write more on that in the future, or in the past, as the sequence of a blog goes. But to get to the point of this entry, 9 Villeneuve and Les Tissue Joy burned down in 2002. Here are some pictures of that location. I don’t have an image of the building as it was in 1989, but if one comes to me I will post it.   

9 Villeneuve O. at St. Laurent, the new building in 2009. Interestingly the door for 9 Villeneuve is in the same place as the old structure.

Here I am a ghost in a vanished structure, 9 Villeneuve O., 1990

Monday, April 12, 2010

At NSCAD 1976, pt.1

I started studying at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1976. I was admitted into the Design Division. It was the usual course for a prospective student from Halifax. Working class Maritimers generally went into graphic design, while the more sociably mobile and lubricated kids from Ontario, the U-States and other far-flung places were admitted into the Studio Division.

What I recall most about the Design Building is the smell of ink and solvents coming from the press in the basement. I have the impression that the Heidelberg press was originally in the Bell Building and later moved to the basement of the Design Building. Or was it the other way round? Frank Fox would know. In any case, I have great memories of chatting with my first drawing instructor Ziggy Hass down in the basement. Ziggy was, I think, the director of the press at the time and it was a temporary position. Ziggy had had a stroke not long before, so he had limited ability to communicate. I recall during life class he would often show me how to render the figure by guiding my hand.

We held our drawing classes on the upper floor of Simon’s Warehouse, on the wharf at Historic Properties. This space also doubled as a college dance hall and I can recall a class being given there by Robert Frank. It was likely an early Art Now session put on by Garry Kennedy. Everyone in the college was there. Robert was a very nice fellow, quick on his feet and unassuming, despite being the most famous photographer alive. Later I had the good fortune to become friends with his brilliant wife, the sculptor June Leaf.

Back in 1976 graphic design students studied all kinds of now obsolete photomechanical printing processes. For youngsters reading this they will have to imagine a time before lap top computers and digital photography, though it seems hard to believe there ever was such a time, even for me!

To put this all in perspective, when I started in design, photo typesetting was just coming in. Back then a photo typesetting operation was something like a hybrid between a Commodore 64 computer and a C41 photomat machine and viewed as a startling new innovation by students and design professionals. As with all good things, our design instructors frowned on such technology and held that any kind of text that wasn’t composed on a stick with lead type and pulled on a proofing press; or better still, drawn by hand with a ruling pen and French curves, was the product of laziness or cheating.

Down in the print shop we learned and practiced such dead and gone print technologies as making PMT’s (photomechanical transfers) with a 16 x 20 graphic camera and a vacuum table. Line shots, a process where photographs were transformed, using screens of various fineness for graphic reproduction, and doing colour separations; a process by which colour photographs were manually divided into their primary constituents for registered printing. All these processes were done in poorly vented darkrooms with exceedingly poisonous chemicals.

Along with photomechanical processes, we studied straight photography. Photography was taught at the Coburg Road campus. The Coburg Road campus was in a converted church hall from around the time of the Halifax explosion. It had been in its day, the very modern and comfortable post Argyle Street home of the Nova Scotia College of Art. But by the 1970’s it was mostly empty and dirty with a distinct smell of dry rot.

The photo department was at the top of the building. It was composed of two large rooms, the main room and the studio. The main room was a large common space that opened into the gang darkroom, the colour darkroom, the advanced darkroom and Ted White’s office. Ted White was the senior instructor and had the only office in the department. I remember he was a chain smoker and would sit in his chair giving critiques with a cigarette between his lips. He never touched the cigarette except to light it or stub it out. Otherwise he would let the cigarette ash drop into piles on his large belly, which would only fall off when he stood up to go somewhere. This was before smoking was banned in public spaces. I think everybody in photo smoked, particularly in the darkrooms where you had to be careful not to fog the paper with the flash from your lighter.

The other instructors, Alvin Comiter, Gary Wilson and David Mackenzie hung out in the cage. The cage back then is identical to the cage today, except everyone smoked in it. I remember Bob Bean was always behind the double door signing out equipment and perhaps Chris Nielson was around then too. I seem to recall Ted Wan working the cage. Most serious photo students did a stint in the cage at some time to work out their college bursaries. I was a long time cage worker in the downtown campus.

There was, as well a small library of photo books in a shelf by Ted White’s room (perhaps they belonged to him), a photo mounting table with a tacking iron, a dry mount press, a print trimmer and a heavy paper cutter for cutting mat board. But the main fixture in the room was a huge drum dryer which rendered your print either glossy or mat, depending on which side the wet print was placed on the rolling canvas belt. Emulsion side up for glossy, down for mat.

This dinosaur persisted in the photo department well into the 1980’s and only went out with the total victory of multi-grade, resin-coated paper over old-fashioned single-grade, fiber-based paper. In 1976 we mostly used Agfa Brovira paper in little red packages. I liked Brovira #3. It had a wide range and good contrast. The more advanced students swore by Ilfobrome #2 paper and exposed, then developed their negatives accordingly.

This was attributable to Alvin Comiter’s influence. The idea was to over expose the film in the camera, then under develop it in the can, to get that hot and glossy Gary Winograd/Lee Friedlander L.A. look. Alvin liked that aesthetic, as it was also his own. I had the good fortune to learn black and white printing in 1976 from Gary Wilson. He was the junior instructor in the department and I think it fell to him to teach all the new students how to print. He was a great teacher, a true craftsman and a meticulous printer.

The photo studio was next door, just down the hall. I don’t recall the room very much because it was usually dark. It had a high ceiling, a wooden floor and was well furnished with half a dozen Mole lights in various sizes on rolling stands; a professional umbrella strobe, a hydraulic studio stand for large format cameras, a three roll back drop assembly and incongruously, an ancient three colour separation camera, that looked like a closet with three door knobs, stored at the back of the room. David MacKenzie gave his classes there and we did a lot of lighting. It was a great foundation in photography.

David MacKenzie was a first rate photographer in all respects from composition to advanced studio lighting. He had the facility in the studio that Alvin Comiter did not. David was from Toronto and was something of a hot shot. He was slim and lithe and had curly black hair. He and his partner Lynn lived in a second floor apartment on the south side of Blowers Street. I remember a Photo Illustration party there where we all drank too much cheep Italian wine (Fontana da Papa) and ate strange vegetarian food cooked with exotic ingredients like couscous, green onions and ginger. I had never seen a green onion before. They didn’t sell them at the Halifax Shopping Center Sobeys.

I was fortunate to have British graphic designer, Tony Mann as my Design foundation instructor. He was a wonderful guy, full of curiosity and a natural teacher. He was the type of instructor who could give a lecture on the evolution of chair design and make it a fascinating and thought provoking experience. I remember he took us all down to Lunenburg for a day trip to meet boat builder David Stevens. David was quite old at the time, or at least seemed so to me, and something of a legend. We saw a half sized schooner he was building in his loft. He showed us the tools and materials and described how a boat was constructed from them. It was the perfect lesson in applied design.

In Design foundation we also took a course in environmental planning. I don’t recall who the instructor was. It was a very interesting class with maps and land sat imagery and one of our projects was to do a land use survey for an imaginary housing development in Lunenburg County. So, perhaps there was cross purpose for our trip to Lunenburg. I remember we had a lovely picnic on Rissers Beach that day.

It was an interesting experience for me to meet and become friendly with all the Germans who taught in graphic design, Ziggy Haas, Horst Deppe, Jurgen Hoffmann and Hanno Ehses. My idea of Germans had been formed from American war movies and sitcoms Like Hogan’s Hero’s, where Germans were presented as either sadist, as in Schindler’s List – for a more contemporary example, or funny, like Colonel Klink and Sergeant Shultz. I recall there was an undercurrent of anti-German sentiment in the design division among some of the students. Perhaps it was because the German instructors were so tough and the attrition rate in Design was the highest in the school. One small thing that struck me at the time and I still reflect on, was a simple door sign outside the Design Division offices, where the word “design” had been scratched out with the word “joy” superimposed in Letraset. The sign read Joy Division.

Every student at the school had a mailbox in the small mailroom beside the Library. It was an open window space from the library desk to the boxes, so presumably your mail would be safe. I never got any mail except notices from the office, but students from away picked up their mail there. It was my morning routine to check the box, scan the NOW Bulletin for daily events, then go into the library and have a chat with John Murchie. John Murchie was the director of the library in 1976. Despite the important title, he did a daily shift on the desk and from his seat he came in contact with every student in the school. He was a charming guy and everyone knew and liked him.

Eric at NSCAD in 1976 on the patio, Polaroid

At NSCAD 1976, pt.2

Because NSCAD had such a small student population, there was a strong sense of community and a good deal of cross over between the disciplines. One of my favorite events at the art college, was Tuesday, Lunch in the Gallery. Every Tuesday, whatever visiting artist happened to be at the school at the time, would make a public presentation in Anna Leonowens Gallery. There was an extra incentive of free donuts and coffee, which helped pull in a crowd. The donuts particularly, were big fist sized donuts from the Cake Box on Blowers Street and if you ate nothing else all day, one of these would do. In this way, by chance, I saw and heard most of the great artists of the day and struggled to absorb their take on contemporary, conceptual art practice. Later with a better grounding in art history I attended their talks in the Bell Auditorium and Garry Kennedy’s Art Now Class, but back then I was a moron and blissfully unaware of the implications of all that talk.

Also in 1976, I attended my first art opening. I don’t remember whose show, but it was in Anna Leonowens Gallery and it must have been a first class show because they were giving away free wine, beer and cheese and crackers. I recall I had my fist taste of decent white wine in 1976 at Anna Leonowens Gallery, a glass of Mouton Cadet, just an ordinary table Bordeaux, but to me it was like a whole new world had opened up.

At the same time, I started to hang out at Eye Level Gallery and took in the parallel gallery scene. I remember the gallery was two small rooms and an office in a building on the west side of Barrington Street and Marina Stewart ran the gallery. Michael Fernandes was around too, but I don’t recall much more except the place was pretty cool. Eye Level was an artist run center, in the real sense, not like the top down Artist Run Centers of today. In 1976 a parallel gallery was supposed to show the work of local artists, particularly the artists who ran the gallery, with the intention of promoting their work locally and regionally. Very much in contrast to today, where Artist Run Centers generally circulate the work of artists acknowledged to be of national significance. In fairness to the Artist Run Centers, it must be said that this evolution came about because of pressure from the Canada Council to professionalize the Canadian art environment and by extension the National Gallery’s abandoning its responsibility to show the work of contemporary Canadian artists in any meaningful way, back in the 1980’s.

But that is a digression. I was talking about NSCAD and the Halifax art scene in 1976. Beyond Eye Level, Dalhousie University Art Gallery was pretty happening. Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery was soft and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, was getting established on Coburg Road in the old, “new” Art College building, which was a modern building constructed as the main NSCAD campus attached to the old church hall structure in the late 60’s, but abandoned when NSCAD moved to Historic Properties. Bernie Riordan had come a long way since the old powder magazine in Citadel Hill and AGNS now did shows in the old NSCAD Anna Leonowens Gallery. The old “new” art college building was demolished along with the church hall structure in 2009. It was a beautiful modernist building that hardly had a life at all.

In 1976 the art college had no cafeteria. There was a small café run by a hippy guy who’s name I forget with long hair and his wife(?) in a room somewhere in the honeycomb on Granville Street where you could buy vegetarian tomato and barley soup and two kinds of sandwiches, tomato/lettuce or tuna/sprouts. This setup lasted only a few years until the large cafeteria run by Steve Lerner opened.

The college book store was similarly a small affair located in the space the Studio Department offices later moved into, near the east door of the patio. The shop was run by Marjorie Lavers and her assistant, who’s name I forget. Marjorie Lavers had been at the art college since the 1950’s. She worked for Hughes Owens on Granville Street before that and was a well know figure in the Halifax art scene during and after the war. Marjorie really loved the students, but could at times be gruff. As every student had a line of credit at the book store Marjorie knew offhand who was well provided for and who was struggling. She was the kind of woman, who would do instant mark downs and price slashes if she thought you really needed the material and you were just a little over your credit limit. Marjorie was a great lady and I remember she saved pencil boxes for me. Old fashioned pencil boxes, some made of wood, like cigar boxes and large cardboard boxes with fabulous graphics, like a Dixon Eldorado box I recall, with an image of a conquistador with his Incan guide surveying a mountain of gold.

Sometimes during the day we would go to the Ocean Beverage Room for a draught. It was just a block down Duke Street and a favorite hang out for the students, faculty and staff. I recall seeing Ernie the janitor and his staff there on more than one occasion. It was a peculiar small place. Not quiet a tavern, not quite a beverage room. It had a juke box and was decorated with fish nets, buoys, dried star fish and the like. It was a friendly place. I don’t remember if it sold hot food or the usual Halifax tavern fare of potato chips, pickled eggs and pickled hot pepperoni. The Lord Nelson Tavern, being one cut above places like the Ocean and the Hollis Street Tavern, sold cheese and crackers and Mexican chili as well. The Lighthouse was further into the Southend and too rough for the art college crowd. All these places, with the exception of the Seahorse, were knocked down in the 80’s and 90’s. The last of them, the Midtown was demolished in 2010.

If you had a little time on your hands you could take the ferry over to Dartmouth and go to People’s Lunch, a fish and Chip shop on Portland Street. It was a lunch counter type place and sold enormous five piece servings of fish and chips for two dollars and fifty cents. It was a great place to go when your bursary cheque came in, with the added attraction of a very good Salvation Army clothes shop just across the street. People’s Lunch had counter top jukebox selectors with a scratchy old copy of Desmond Dekker’s, Israelites in the collection. Nothing could be finer than enjoying fish and chips at a lunch counter in Dartmouth with the smell of the harbour in your nose, listening to reggae music.

That takes me back to art college dances at Simon’s Warehouse and the start. Reggae and ska were coming in, along with punk and the scene was changing. In 1976 I wore a beard, checked shirts, down vests, blue jeans and converse sneakers, like any west end Halifax boy. By 1978 I had totally absorbed the New York look; shaved my face, cut my hair short, dressed in black and started to move to the art college beat. I don’t recall any particular college house band in the late 70’s. The NSCAD crowd were not particularly musically gifted. It wasn’t until later that the Permutters and Pinkertones got going, but who were they compared to Roland Blinn and the Jellyfish Babies? In my time Heather Ferguson and Rita Mckeough were probably the hottest musicians to come out of NSCAD.

When I think back to NSCAD as it was 34 years ago and remember who I was back then and who I am now and all the people I met there, the living and the dead. Some long dead. What stands out for me is the innocence, not just of the kids, but also of the institution. We were all aware at the time that we were part of an experiment. Nothing about NSCAD was traditional. Even as art college students and teachers of our generation, we were finding our way. We had unprecedented freedom and opportunity for creative expression. Some were able to learn and grow in this atmosphere, but mostly kids got lost in the lack of structure and dropped out. I was lost at NSCAD for a long time, but gradually found my way out. It was for me a kind of ordeal. In the end I was one of the lucky ones who went on to have a career as a studio artist and in some way justify the NSCAD mission as it was conceived in 1976.