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Blind artist and his 'Miraculous' mural in Bishop Arts

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When the Bishop Highline Apartments open in early June in the Bishop Arts neighborhood of Dallas, the four-story west-facing wall at N. Adams and Melba will feature the work of an artist who will never get to see the finished mural.

That’s because the man painting it is legally blind.

Monday morning I found artist John Bramblitt six-feet up a ladder, a paintbrush in his hand, and whistling “if I only had a brain.”

“I don’t know why but every once in a while that song pops in my head,” he laughed.

Bramblitt, 47, suffered irreparable damage to his optic nerve from epileptic seizures and other health problems while still a student at the University of North Texas in Denton. He had plans to be an English teacher but channeled some of his frustrations into his art instead.

“Well, when I first started to be honest, I thought I was crazy,” he said. “I thought I was out of my mind.”

But with the help of his wife, Jacqui, he found out he could place his paints in rainbow order, label them with braille, and paint by feel. When he’s working on canvas in his own Denton studio he usually works completely alone.

“The yellow feels a little bit different than the other colors. The black feels different than the other colors. It gives you a tactile way to be able to feel the wall and understand where you are and what you’re doing. So it’s the same way to get around a canvas that I get around a street,” he said.

And John Bramblitt is definitely getting around. His work on canvas is in demand around the world. He’s served as an art instructor to hundreds of visually impaired students across the United States. And by the time the Bishop Highline Apartments mural is done in June to celebrate the grand opening of the complex, this will be his second outdoor mural and the first in his hometown.

“Art was my way to reconnect with people to say that hey I’m still me in here,” Bramblitt said.

“It does surprise me that somebody who can’t see the finished product still wants to produce it,” Jacqui Bramblitt said. “But I know from years of being with him that he sees it. He just sees it in his head.”

“Whenever I was first losing my eyesight, I thought everything was over. I thought my life was over,” John Bramblitt said with his guide dog, “Eagle” sleeping next to him. “This painting is a painting of joy. It’s a painting of optimism. I know the more that I paint the brighter, the colors need to be, because the happier I am.”

John doesn’t name each piece of artwork until he finishes it. So he has a few more weeks to come up with something. In our interview, he may have hit on an idea.

“So it’s just a dream come true,” he said of being able to paint the mural in Dallas and add his unique touch to the art landscape in Bishop Arts. “To me, it’s just incredible. It’s miraculous.”

When Bishop Arts sees the finished product that he can’t, they’ll likely think the artist and his work are pretty miraculous too.

John Bramblitt website

Bishop Highline Apartments

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Another arts group faces a curious tradition – having the rug pulled out from under its expansion plans in Montreal

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On paper, Valérie Plante should be the most museum-friendly mayor Montreal has ever had. She is a trained museologist, who worked at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) before entering politics. She had a homecoming of sorts in April, as she and other politicians assembled at the MAC to fête its $44.7-million renovation plan.

Last week, however, the mayor revealed that a plot of land earmarked five years ago for a McCord Museum expansion would instead become a small park. The museum has spent more than $250,000 on needs and site assessments for the project near Place des Arts, for which Toronto philanthropist Emmanuelle Gattuso has pledged $15-million.

A 2017 exhibit at The McCord Museum in Montreal.

Marilyn Aitken/Mccord museum

The mayor said the change was necessary because a nearby plot of privately owned green space would likely soon be filled with another glass tower. Her decision is apparently final, although she promised to help the museum look for another site.

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That pledge was sure to provoke a hollow laugh from anyone who knows the hazing ritual that Montreal often inflicts on arts institutions seeking new digs. The pattern is simple: A site is found, plans are made, and then the land and related promises vanish like a fairyland castle. Repeat to the point of exhaustion, or beyond.

The MAC spent 16 years searching for a way to escape or enlarge its boxy building at the southwest corner of Place des Arts. At one point, it even considered a move into the Old Port’s derelict Silo No. 5 – an infamous black hole for redevelopment schemes that never happen.

Incredibly, when MAC was founded in 1964, it had no permanent quarters at all. It spent its first three decades moving from one temporary site to another. Apart from a brief honeymoon period after its current galleries opened in 1992, the museum has spent its entire half-century of life looking for a decent home.

The Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) spent 30 years angling for a proper symphony hall. Six times it found a site, lined up backers and made plans, and each time ended up with nothing. When the seventh plan was announced in 2006, Quebec’s minister of culture felt obliged to say, “Cette fois-ci, c’est la bonne” – this time, it’s for real. Five years later, her words were proven true, as the MSO played its first concert at la Maison symphonique.

Several of the orchestra’s blown chances occurred after an election changed the faces in power. When Jean Doré replaced Jean Drapeau in the mayor’s office in 1986, for example, he announced that the site approved by his predecessor for a symphony hall would instead become a park.

Ms. Plante’s reprise of the same tune 32 years later couldn’t come at a worse time for the McCord. Since the land was promised five years ago by her predecessor Denis Coderre, the museum’s activities have expanded in every way. It merged with the Stewart Museum in 2013 and with the Fashion Museum in January. According to its latest annual report, McCord attendance in 2016-2017 rose by 25 per cent over the previous year, revenue went up 37 per cent and membership jumped 150 per cent.

McCord president and CEO Suzanne Sauvage says the museum can display only 1 per cent of its collections at any time – the norm among museums is 5 or 6 per cent – and can no longer accept donations of objects. There’s just no room left in its current quarters on Sherbrooke Street West.

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The museum holds large and important collections of Indigenous objects, photographs and costumes. All those collections would have been featured in the planned second building, say Ms. Sauvage, which would have doubled the McCord’s space.

The museum’s return to square one does not bode well for other things that were running in its favour. Ms. Gattuso’s $15-million pledge is still on the table, but Ms. Sauvage is understandably nervous about what may happen to it if there’s a long delay in finding a new site.

The clock is ticking, Ms. Plante. Can you hear it?

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Corner Brook artist humbled by arts residency

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Meagan Musseau is excited about an opportunity to connect with a community of her peers while fostering her own creative ideas as an emerging artist.

The Corner Brook interdisciplinary artist, a graduate of the Fine Arts (visual) Program at Grenfell Campus, has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Atlantic Canada Artist Residency at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

During her eight-week residency, Musseau will have full access to studios, digital art facilities and interaction with a lare community of her peers in a self-directed environment where she will be foster her own ideas and create new pieces of work.

“I am super excited to receive the news and very humbled by it,” Musseau said earlier this week.

One of the neat things about the experience that wasn’t known to her until she was notified about winning the award was that her residency would culminate with a public speaking tour across Canada. It’s purpose is to connect east with west and it will allow her to talk about the Bannf Centre and showcase her work to the world.

The residency, made possible through a partnership between the Banff Centre, the Hnatyshyn Foundation and the Harrison McCain Foundation, is something Musseau views as a great avenue to extend her work and network with those who share a common thread.

More importantly, she views it as a huge responsibility to take on a public speaking tour — not something she would ever undertake lightly because she’s thankful for what’s being presented to her as an emerging artist.

“I need to put in the work so that when I travel and make my new work I’m doing a good job,” she said.

During the residency, Musseau will create a new body of work titled “Necklaces Were Born.” Likely a performance or installation-based body of work, this is her response to a collection of Beothuk caribou bone pendants she came across during a visit at The Rooms provincial archives in St. John’s.

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Women in the Arts: Iwona Blazwick

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For this series celebrating women in the arts, the Director of Whitechapel Gallery, London, discusses being a curator in the 1980s and the experiences that have shaped her understanding of gender in the workplace 

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

When I was a baby curator in the 1980s I entered a bright new era of feminist awareness ushered in by figures like my then boss, Sandy Nairne, director of exhibitions at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), and the ICA’s public programmes organizer, Lisa Appignanesi. In 1980, Sandy presented a trilogy of exhibitions featuring work by women artists – ‘Issue’, curated by Lucy Lippard, ‘About Time’ and ‘Women’s Image of Men’, both curated by Joyce Agee, Catherine Elwes, Jacqueline Morreau and Pat Whiteread. I had been educated at a convent school and my mother was a practising architect, so I was blissfully ignorant of sexism. Those shows were consciousness raising – it dawned on to me to ask why there had been no women artists included in my art history studies? Why were they absent from commercial galleries, museum collections, exhibitions programmes? At that moment, I also understood that exclusion is the mother of invention – women were pioneering video, performance, photography and installation. Lisa organized events that created the intellectual framework for this new avant garde. She put together conferences on issues of postmodernism, identity, cultural theory, desire. She invited speakers like Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Annette Michelson and Laura Mulvey – it was mind blowing. 

Other shining lights for me were artists such as Judith Barry, Katharina Fritsch, Rose Garrard, Jenny Holzer, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, Connie Parker, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel and Nancy Spero. And then of course there was the full frontal assault of the Guerrilla Girls. Curatorial colleagues began to have their voices heard, including Carolyn Christov Bakargiev with whom I maintain an ever-inspiring dialogue. Later, exhibitions such as Cathy de Zeiger’s ‘Inside the Visible’ shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1996, Catherine David’s documenta X of 1997 and, of course, ‘WACK!’ curated at LA MOCA by Connie Butler in 2007 all expanded our horizons. 

I think we should also pay tribute to some great gallerists like Maureen Paley, Monica Sprüth and Janelle Reiring and Helen Winer of Metro Pictures who all represented young women artists in the 1980s. Monica also published the magazine Eau de Cologne, which provided an incredible platform for women across the profession. 

What, if any, were the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

Professional life for us facilitators – curators, producers, gallerists, publishers, editors – has been easier than for artists. Until the mid-20th century, the very notion of creativity was designated as masculine, so female artists have had to overcome millennia of being dismissed, neglected or silenced. What is remarkable is their tenacity and invention. However there will always be push back, the return of the repressed. Why have curators like Anna Coliva, Ann Goldstein and Cathy de Zegher been hounded by the press and the authorities? 

What specific experiences have you had that shaped your understanding of gender in the workplace, the media and the arts?

I was very lucky to run an artist’s space called the AIR Gallery in the mid 1980s where we pretty much had autonomy. There were just three of us and we did everything so there was no chance of a hierarchy. And the ICA, where I worked until the 1990s, was like being part of a visionary graduate programme where exhibitions, talks and publications came together to generate a post-patriarchal sensibility. Rather than the ossified and hermetic institutional structure that typified so many museums and galleries in the 20th century, I believe in a porous structure where organizations expose their staff and their publics to guest artists, thinkers, activists, poets who offer new perspectives and radical propositions. 

What has changed today?

Those artists for whom identity is not their subject have become liberated from the burden of representation. I am also proud our Max Mara Award for Women Artists has enabled women with young kids to undertake travel, research and new commissions. I think visual art along with literature are currently the most progressive cultural forms. This year’s BAFTAs didn’t recognise a single female director. In 2016, the BBC’s Proms featured 8 women out of 124 composers. Clare Foy, playing the lead role in the Neflix drama The Crown, was paid less than Matt Smith, who played her consort. The struggle continues. 

I hope that the presence of female artists in art biennales, international exchange programmes and digital platforms will inspire women in regions where religious and social orthodoxy demand their invisibility and their silence to assert their freedom. 

What are your thoughts about #Metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

At last there is some immediate and communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo. 

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