F is for Fremlin

What’s the name again?
Fremlin, I repeat. Like gremlin, but with an F.

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That’s how I introduce the street I live on. People seem to understand the name better when it has a reference point.

How does one know a place? I figure you pay attention. In the five years I’ve lived in Marpole, I can’t say I know it well, but I can say with confidence that I know one section of a street well.

Fremlin doesn’t have anything noteworthy from an outsiders’ point of view. Tucked east of Oak and west of Cambie, it sits like a middle child in the centre of the neighbourhood, enjoying a different rhythm. Maybe that’s why I notice it, apart from the fact that it’s home. I’m a middle child and like attracts like. Stick with me and I’ll take you for a walk.

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Fremlin runs north from Southwest Marine Drive, climbing until it reaches 59th Avenue where it forms the vertical line of a T-stop. That’s where I stop too. Fremlin has a trick up its sleeve. After disappearing for a while, it reconvenes from 54th until 43rd Avenues, but I’m not familiar with this northern leg. The heart of Marpole is so far south; I measure everything starting at the Fraser River. A city is a larger version of high school and Marpole is not one of the popular kids. Some people in other parts of Vancouver don’t even know it exists. A friend visiting me from Mount Pleasant once remarked how driving to Marpole felt like going to the suburbs. I had just left real suburbia for city life and was rather offended.

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My favourite part of Fremlin is the beginning where all the apartment buildings are. European hornbeams flank the street, forming a magnificent, dense arch with leaves rustling in the wind, playing hide and seek with the light like a coy lover. I walk under the boughs like Anne of Green Gables passing through the White Way of Delight. Countless birds flitter through the trees. I’ve seen crows, western tanagers, robins, and chickadees. They’ve made a birdwatcher out of me.

Not a single business stands on Fremlin. The street is quiet except where it meets its rowdy cousin—70th Avenue. The intersection is marked by a pedestrian activated traffic signal, the only light along its route. Honks, curses, screech of tires, and the two-toned beep of the walk signal merge into a rush hour cacophony. The road narrows from here, causing a bottleneck when cars are parked on both sides.

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But this stretch wins the prize for most beautiful when March and April arrive. The canopy of cherry blossoms extends for blocks, a long procession up a petal-sprinkled sidewalk like the nave of a cathedral dressed for a wedding. It’s impossible not to be swept away. I wonder if the people in the nearby houses wake up to each year’s bloom like a child on Christmas, the surprise never getting old even though the return is expected.

One of these people has an apple tree in her front lawn. I stopped to admire it on a summer walk and the woman told her husband to go back up the ladder to give me a bagful. She insisted. I had never received apples from someone’s tree before and I took several pictures of their red skin and leafy stems arranged in a glass bowl on my table. Unfortunately the apples looked better than they tasted but that didn’t matter.

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When you reach the house with the vegetable garden in the front yard so big it could feed the community, you’re at the base of Oak Park whose eastern edge borders Fremlin.

For the longest time I didn’t know the name of this park. It was just the big park up the hill I chose to run around when I exercised. Trees line the perimeter and I still jog there even though I’ve been the target of a couple of crow dives.

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There’s a tree that marks the end of the street, hidden in the northeast corner of the park. I always tap it with my right hand to signal the end of my run. It’s a ritual of connecting with what’s around me. No song on an iPod tells me I’m done. It’s the touch of flesh on bark, a greeting to an old friend.

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When you move to a neighbourhood, you look for signs that welcome you, that say you belong. Mine were literally spelled out. First it was a building west of Oak Street named Charlene Apartments. Then it was my dad’s name carved into the sidewalk on Fremlin Street near the park. How many people are named Larry? I chuckled aloud.

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The route down Fremlin is especially fun on a bike. Only a few stop signs to watch out for, gravity propels you back where you started. But the journey is never the same twice. Streets are like rivers. The other day, I noticed more for sale signs cropping up on lawns and wondered which people raking leaves or stroking their cat I won’t see anymore, and which new faces I’ll encounter.

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When I moved to Marpole, my brother and cousin carried my 200-pound bookcase up three flights of stairs, almost putting their backs out. My brother wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “Charlene, you’re never moving again.”

He doesn’t need to worry. I have no intention to.

 


I’m pleased to announce this piece won Vancouver Public Library‘s Marpole Writing Contest July 2018.

Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.

 

Woodward’s Windows

I’m too young to remember the big Woodward’s Department Store at the edge of Vancouver’s Gastown and Chinatown. But I see the illuminated neon “W” when I walk downtown in the evenings and textual reminders on the original building, marking what was once there.

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You can see the “W” far in the distance on the left. View from Canada Place.

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When in Europe this fall, we just missed the start of the big department stores setting up their window displays for Christmas. I’m sure Le Bon Marche in Paris, the world’s original modern department store, would have had some spectacular ones. It seems I tend to take big trips in October just as the Christmas prep is beginning, as I also recall this window from New York in its early stages.

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Woodward’s also had elaborate Christmas displays of animated figures moving behind glass. Canada Place purchased their displays when the store closed in 1993 and have made them available for Vancouverites to enjoy again or for the first time (as in my case). They were wonderful in the original sense of that word. Fun for kids and adults, noticing which figurines are moving and what they’re doing. I loved the mouse atop the Woodward’s trolley, lifting a string attached to a package. The best part? It’s free and makes for a lovely evening, strolling along Canada Place with all the lights glowing and a row of Christmas trees adding to the festiveness.

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Around the back of Canada Place, you can also experience a rendition of the North Pole, using a bit of imagination.

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The windows are up until tomorrow night (Dec 31) so see them before they’re gone, or catch them next year.

Hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for 2018!

In Monet’s Secret Garden Part 1

He’s arguably the best known painter in the world. His scenes of nature and Parisian life grace calendars, purses, notebooks, umbrellas, teapots, and even socks (check the VAG gift shop).

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Of course I’m talking about Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter who influenced the course of modern art with his unconventional techniques. He painted outside (which wasn’t done at the time), and his quick, loose brushwork aimed to capture an impression of something, not the thing itself (hence the label Impressionist, which was first used by critics in a derogatory sense).

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing 38 of Monet’s works from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. In an interview with the CBC, the exhibition’s curator Marianne Matthieu says:

[Guests] have to visit this exhibition as if they were an invited guest of Monet. All the paintings have been selected personally by Monet [while he was alive] to describe his career, his life.

I visited the VAG last Tuesday evening (when admission is by donation) along with everyone else in Vancouver, so it seemed.

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The exhibit takes you chronologically through Monet’s work, beginning with some scenes with figures in them before the majority focuses all on nature.

I liked knowing Monet picked these works out himself. It made me wonder, Why this one? What did he like about it? What did he achieve with this one?

I enjoyed seeing paintings of his I had never come across in other galleries or books:

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Claude Monet, Le chatêau de Dolceacqua, 1884, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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The picture does not do this piece justice.

Monet painted the same scene many times, in different seasons and different times of the day to study the effect of light on a subject. Light was his subject.

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Claude Monet, La Seine à Port-Villez, effet rose, 1894, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The two below were the only figurative works included. You can see the loose Impressionist style best by looking at the undefined faces. And the little boy practically blends in with the flowers.

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Claude Monet, En promenade près d’Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Sur la plage de Trouville, 1870–71, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The didactic panel for the image above talks about how sand was lodged in some of Monet’s canvasses because he painted these beach scenes outside. Talk about the nitty gritty.

I had assumed there would be more water lily paintings given the title is Secret Garden and Monet’s gardens in Giverny are synonymous with his grand, rectangular water lily paintings. This was the most “quintessential” one shown at the VAG, with the characteristic pastel blues, pinks, and purples:

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1903, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

There were also these two beautiful wisteria panels hung to mimic the oval rooms at Musée de L’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lilies live.

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But there were other paintings that were darker and challenged what I thought I knew about the painter.

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Monet devoted the last two decades of his life to painting and cultivating his gardens in Giverny, a work of art in themselves. After touring the exhibition, I was surprised Monet chose so many of these works to depict his career  when he has hundreds of others to choose from. But perhaps these works came closest to communicating his artistic vision?

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Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-24, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In 1902, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and his works during his later years became increasingly abstract and darker. Notice also how much of the blank canvas he lets show through. The curator’s remarks accompanying this room below suggest the anguish and grief of WWI seeped into Monet’s canvasses, particularly his weeping willow series.

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Claude Monet, Saule pleureur, 1918-19, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

After all this heaviness and twisty contortions, Monet’s very last work closes the exhibition, returning to the light and soft palette that infused his earlier work (albeit looking unfinished). I thought it was a perfect farewell.

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Claude Monet, Les Roses, 1925-26, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Seeing these works has only increased my anticipation of setting foot in Monet’s gardens this fall and immersing myself in his inspiration.

I highly recommend you take in this exhibit at the VAG before it closes October 1!

Much Ado about Much Ado about Nothing

The Georgia Straight said, “This is Shakespeare at its sharpest and most satisfying.”

Bard on the Beach‘s 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing is visually spectacular and very well acted. Director John Murphy adapted this 1598 Shakespearean comedy and set it in 1950s Italy where the characters are glamorous film stars wearing tailored suits with skinny neckties or lacy cocktail dresses dangling cigarettes from their lips and riding off on Vespas.

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Waiting for the show to begin

The costumes and setting alone make this play a delight. Daringly minimalist, it features a few director’s chairs, boom mics, movie camera, and a large pair of “Studio B” doors as the backdrop that opens and closes to reveal slices of Vancouver scenery. The first act plays out in black and white, and gradually more colour is introduced “when love enters the picture” according to Pam Johnson, the scenery designer.

As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the dialogue is witty and quick, but I particularly found the language harder to follow in this one than other Bard plays. Luckily the visuals largely make up for this, but I still would have liked to catch more than 50-60%!

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Bard on the Beach tents in Vancouver

There are basically two strands to the plot: 1) Beatrice and Benedick, both stubbornly single and opinionated, take every opportunity to insult each other. Their friends hatch an elaborate plan to matchmake them. 2) Benedick’s friend Claudio falls in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero and the two are set to be married.

Where’s the tension that moves the plot forward? That’s the part that confused me. It comes from the villain Dona Johnna, sister to Don Pedro, a famous film director. The synopsis in the program guide says she is a journalist and wannabe filmmaker, but that doesn’t explain why she devises her own elaborate plan to ruin Hero’s honour and break up her wedding to Claudio. I caught that she is jealous of her brother but how is interfering in Hero and Claudio’s relationship revenge for her brother’s success? Apparently my friend and I aren’t the only ones wondering about her motivation—Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail comments on this too. Again, is this because we couldn’t understand the Elizabethan English or because the plot is weak?

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Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

While Much Ado About Nothing is a lot of fun, it has more of a darker side to it than I expected from a Shakespearean comedy. A fiance disgraces his lover and a father renounces his daughter. A character is believed to be dead. Another character asks someone to murder a friend.

While all turns to happiness and dancing in the end, it certainly isn’t the uproarious and easily accessible comedy that last year’s Merry Wives of Windsor was.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until September 23.

The Conditional Figure

I had just heard Said the Whale talk about their new album As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide at CBC’s Musical Nooners. Stephen Quinn asked frontman Tyler Bancroft about the inspiration behind this noticeably darker album that deals with the deaths of friends, neighbours, and babies. Tyler said something like, “After turning 30, life gets a lot more difficult. There are many beautiful things too, but it comes with a bunch of rough stuff.”

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As a recent 30-year-old, this concert me in a contemplative mood as I wandered downtown on my way to the HSBC building to see David Robinson‘s sculptures at the Pendulum Gallery.

I had seen Robinson’s work previously—in his Parker Street studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl and at Regent College.

The works command attention in the high-ceilinged, glass-covered atrium, as if the lines and angles of his sculptures play off the architecture.

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There is usually an element of tension in his works, whether it be balancing precariously while blindfolded, falling out of a safety net, or pushing and pulling against larger-than-life forces.

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David Robinson, Chair (2013), mixed media. 67 x 33 x 74 inches.

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David Robinson, Draped Figure (2009), paper, resin, 31 x 44 x 15 inches.

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David Robinson, Dead Reckoning (2017), ed. 5. Sitka spruce, Baltic birch, polymer-gypsum, bronze, 96 x 64 x 11 inches.

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David Robinson, Departure (2015), bronze/Douglas fir, 27 x 33 x 9 inches.

The way curator Chris Keatley wrote about this exhibit, aptly named The Conditional Figure, seemed to piggyback on what Said the Whale had just talked about.

This exhibition presents large-scale sculptural works that consider the figure as a conditional entity, created to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. Figures are split and penetrated, surfaces are textured and rough. The idea of the unassailable body, strong, solid and resolute, is brought into question, bringing forward the view of ourselves as systems in flux, constantly changing and evolving in time and space. In some works, the figures themselves retain a solidity of form, and it is their extended bodies – boats, planes, wings, ladders etc. – that suggest the fragile nature of both structures and beliefs in which we wrap ourselves.

How has my view of self changed as I’ve aged? What do other people see and what do I see when I look in the mirror? Has the blindfold come off? Am I as secure as I think I am? Am I paddling alone? Against the current? What load am I pulling?

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David Robinson, Binary Vision (2003), ed. 6, polymer-gypsum, glass steel, 90.5 x 45 x 20.5 inches.

I view David Robinson’s sculptures as poetry in space. They ask the tough questions about existence. The vast white walls serving as the background to many of the works create breathing room to consider these questions in a gentle, unhurried way that almost feels too bare.

This exhibit complemented the permanent public artwork in the atrium by Alan Storey I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Talk about balance and tension. This 1600 kg aluminum pendulum swings back and forth from the roof about 6 metres out, aligning with its base briefly before departing again.

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If you’re downtown, I highly recommend you see Robinson’s exhibit before it closes today!