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Generative Art Is Stupid. That’s How It Should Be.

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A boyfriend just going through the motions. A spouse worn into the rut of habit. A jetlagged traveler’s message of exhaustion-fraught longing. A suppressed kiss, unwelcome or badly timed. These were some of the interpretations that reverberated in my brain after I viewed a weird digital-art trifle by the Emoji Mashup Bot, a popular but defunct Twitter account that combined the parts of two emoji into new, surprising, and astonishingly resonant compositions. The bot had taken the hand and eyes from the 🥱 yawning emoji and mashed them together with the mouth from the 😘 kissing-heart emoji. That’s it.

Compare that simple method with supposedly more sophisticated machine-learning-based generative tools that have become popular in the past year or so. When I asked Midjourney, an AI-based art generator, to create a new emoji based on those same two, it produced compositions that were certainly emojiform but possessed none of the style or significance of the simple mashup: a series of yellow, heart-shaped bodies with tongues sticking out. One appeared to be eating another tongue. All struck me as the kinds of monstrosities that might be offered as prizes for carnival games, or as stickers delivered with children’s-cancer-fundraising junk mail.

An image of a heart-shaped emoji that appears to be screaming and eating a tongue.

One of Midjourney’s creations based on an idea from the Emoji Mashup Bot.

ChatGPT, the darling text-generation bot, didn’t fare much better. I asked it to generate descriptions of new emoji based on parts from existing ones. Its ideas were fine but mundane: a “yawning sun” emoji, with a yellow face and an open mouth, to represent a sleepy or lazy day; a “multi-tasking” emoji, with eyes looking in different directions, to represent the act of juggling multiple tasks at once. I fed these descriptions back into Midjourney and got competent but bland results: a set of screaming suns, a series of eyes on a yellow face dripping from the top with a black, tar-like ooze.

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Perhaps I could have drafted better prompts or spent more time refining my results in ChatGPT and Midjourney. But these two programs are the pinnacle of AI-driven generative-creativity research, and when it came to making expressive, novel emoji, they were bested by a dead-simple computer program that picks face parts from a hat and collages them together.

People have dreams for AI creativity. They dream of computers dreaming, for starters: that once fed terabytes of text and image data, software can deploy something like a machine imagination to author works rather than merely output them. But that dream entails a conceit: that AI generators such as ChatGPT, DALL-E, and Midjourney can accomplish any kind of creativity with equal ease and performance. Their creators and advocates cast them as capable of tackling every form of human intelligence—as everything generators.

And not without reason: These tools can generate a version of almost anything. Many of those versions are wrong or misleading or even potentially dangerous. Many are also uninteresting, as the emoji examples show. Using a software tool that can make a particular thing is quite a bit different—and a lot more gratifying—than using one that can make anything whatsoever, it turns out.

Kate Compton, a computer-science professor at Northwestern University who has been making generative-art software for more than a decade, doesn’t think her tools are artificially intelligent—or intelligent at all. “When I make a tool,” Compton told me, “I’ve made a little creature that can make something.” That something is usually more expressive than it is useful: Her bots imagine the inner thoughts of a lost autonomous Tesla and draw pictures of hypothetical alien spacecraft. Similar gizmos offer hipster cocktail recipes or name fake British towns. Whatever their goal, Compton doesn’t aspire for software generators such as these to master their domain. Instead, she hopes they offer “the tiny, somewhat stupid version of it.”

That’s a far cry from the ChatGPT creator OpenAI’s ambition: to build artificial general intelligence, “highly autonomous systems that outperform humans at most economically valuable work.” Microsoft, which has already invested $1 billion in OpenAI, is reportedly in talks to dump another $10 billion into the company. That kind of money assumes that the technology can turn a massive future profit. Which only makes Compton’s claim more shocking. What if all of that money is chasing a bad idea?

One of Compton’s most successful tools is a generator called Tracery, which uses templates and lists of content to generate text. Unlike ChatGPT and its cousins, which are trained on massive data sets, Tracery requires users to create an explicit structure, called a “context-free grammar,” as a model for its output. The tool has been used to make Twitter bots of various forms, including thinkpiece-headline pitches and abstract landscapes.

A context-free grammar works a bit like a nested Mad Lib. You write a set of templates (say, “Sorry I didn’t make it to the [event]. I had [problem].”) and content to fill those templates (problems could be “a hangnail,” “a caprice,” “explosive diarrhea,” “a [conflict] with my [relative]”), and the grammar puts them together. That requires the generative-art author to consider the structure of the thing they want to generate, rather than asking the software for an output, as they might do with ChatGPT or Midjourney. The creator of the Emoji Mashup Bot, a developer named Louan Bengmah, would have had to split up each source emoji into a set of parts before writing a program that would put them back together again in new configurations. That demands a lot more effort, not to mention some technical proficiency.

For Compton, that effort isn’t something to shirk—it’s the point of the exercise. “If I just wanted to make something, I could make something,” she told me. “If I wanted to have something made, I could have something made.” Contra OpenAI’s mission, Compton sees generative software’s purpose differently: The practice of software-tool-making is akin to giving birth to a software creature (“a chibi version of the system,” as she put it to me) that can make something—mostly bad or strange or, in any case, caricatured versions of it—and to spend time communing with that creature, as one might with a toy dog, a young child, or a benevolent alien. The aim isn’t to produce the best or most accurate likeness of a hipster cocktail menu or a daybreak mountain vista, but to capture something more truthful than reality. ChatGPT’s ideas for new emoji are viable, but the Emoji Mashup Bot’s offerings feel fitting; you might use them rather than just post about the fact that a computer generated them.

“This is maybe what we’ve lost in the generate-everything generators,” Compton said: an understanding of what the machine is trying to create in the first place. Looking at the system, seeing the possibilities within it, identifying its patterns, encoding those patterns in software or data, and then watching the thing work over and over again. When you type something into ChatGPT or DALL-E 2, it’s like throwing a coin into a wishing well and pulling the bucket back up to find a pile of kelp, or a puppy, in its place. But Compton’s generators are more like putting a coin into a gachapon machine, knowing in advance the genre of object the thing will dispense. That effort suggests a practice whereby an author hopes to help users seek a rapport with their software rather than derive a result from it. (It also explains why Twitter emerged as such a fruitful host for these bots—the platform natively encourages caricature, brevity, and repetition.)

Much is gained from being shown how a software generator works, and how its creator has understood the patterns that define its topic. The Emoji Mashup Bot does so by displaying the two emoji from which it constructed any given composition. One of the first text generators I remember using was a weird software toy called Kant Generator Pro, made for Macs in the 1990s. It used context-free grammars to compose turgid text reminiscent of the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, although it also included models for less esoteric compositions, such as thank-you notes. The program came with an editor that allowed the user to view or compose grammars, offering a way to look under the hood and understand the software’s truth.

But such transparency is difficult or impossible in machine-learning systems such as ChatGPT. Nobody really knows how or why these AIs produce their results—and the outputs can change from moment to moment in inexplicable ways. When I ask ChatGPT for emoji concepts, I have no sense of its theory of emoji—what patterns or models it construes as important or relevant. I can probe ChatGPT to explain its work, but the result is never explanatory—rather, it’s just more generated text: “To generate the ideas for emojis, I used my knowledge of common concepts and themes that are often represented in emojis, as well as my understanding of human emotions, activities, and interests.”

Perhaps, as creative collaborations with software generators become more widespread, the everything generators will be recast as middleware used by bespoke software with more specific goals. Compton’s work is charming but doesn’t really aspire to utility, and there is certainly plenty of opportunity for generative AI to help people make useful, even beautiful things. Even so, achieving that future will involve a lot more work than just chatting with a computer program that seems, at first blush, to know something about everything. Once that first blush fades, it becomes clear that ChatGPT doesn’t actually know anything—instead, it outputs compositions that simulate knowledge through persuasive structure. And as the novelty of that surprise wears off, it is becoming clear that ChatGPT is less a magical wish-granting machine than an interpretive sparring partner, a tool that’s most interesting when it’s bad rather than good at its job.

Nobody really wants a tool that can make anything, because such a need is a theoretical delusion, a capitalist fantasy, or both. The hope or fear that ChatGPT or Midjourney or any other AI tool might end expertise, craft, and labor betrays an obvious truth: These new gizmos entail whole new regimes of expertise, craft, and labor. We have been playing with tech demos, not finished products. Eventually, the raw materials of these AI tools will be put to use in things people will, alas, pay money for. Some of that new work will be stupid and insulting, as organizations demand value generation around the AI systems in which they have invested (Microsoft is reportedly considering adding ChatGPT to Office). Others could prove gratifying and even revelatory—if they can convince creators and audiences that the software is making something specific and speaking with intention, offering them an opportunity to enter into a dialogue with it.

For now, that dialogue is more simulated than real. Yes, sure, you can “chat” with ChatGPT, and you can iterate on images with Midjourney. But an empty feeling arises from many of these encounters, because the software is going through the motions. It appears to listen and respond, but it’s merely processing inputs into outputs. AI creativity will need to abandon the silly, hubristic dream of artificial general intelligence in favor of concrete specifics. An infinitely intelligent machine that can make anything is useless.

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Her Art Was Once Viewed as “Obscene.” Now Martha Edelheit’s Nudes Are Finally Gaining Acclaim After Decades in Obscurity – artnet News

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I am rooting for Martie Edelheit.

At the age of 91, she’s finally emerging from years of obscurity. Her mind is clear and her body agile enough to enjoy every small step of it all—a bustling opening, a post-opening dinner at the fashionable restaurant Il Buco—while leaning on a cane, or a friend’s arm. Small, fierce, outspoken, Martha Edelheit keeps pushing forward, with new 11-foot paintings and a planned return to New York City, her hometown.

I first encountered Edelheit in the context of another story, which explored the asymmetry of market acclaim for female artists based on the findings of the Burns Halperin Report.

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As I wrote in December: “The overwhelming majority of women, especially women of a certain age, are ghosts as far as auction sales go. The reasons for this vary, from the market’s preference for painting over conceptual and performance art to lack of access to the gallery system to individual choices to slow artistic production during child-rearing years.”

Edelheit came to my attention because she wasn’t listed among more than 2,000 women surveyed in the report. That’s because not a single one of her works has come up for auction since she started making art some 70 years ago. 

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery © Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery
© Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But things are changing. This week, Edelheit’s solo show “Naked City: Paintings from 1965-1980” opened at Eric Firestone Gallery in Manhattan, with prices ranging from $20,000 to $500,000. Her 1962 painting, Tattooed Lady, was a recently a star of “New York 1962-1964,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum exploring the rise of Pop Art. A limited-edition print based on this work and priced at $2,200 just came out on Her Clique, with half of the proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders. Next month Edelheit’s early abstract paintings will be part of “Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70,” a survey of an overlooked generation of 81 international women artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2248403" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-2248403" src="https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1-1024×487.jpeg" alt="Martha Edelheit, Women in Landscape (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.” width=”1024″ height=”487″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1-1024×487.jpeg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1-300×143.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1-1536×730.jpeg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1-50×24.jpeg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/dCz7USE7-1.jpeg 1800w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”>

Martha Edelheit, Women in Landscape (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“A lot has happened for her in the past five years,” said Eric Firestone, listing strong sales from her first exhibition in 2017, multiple museum acquisitions, scholarly texts, and upcoming institutional shows.  

Edelheit’s figurative paintings still shock, irk, dazzle. The naked body is there to behold in all its glorious detail— every pubic hair, skin roll, and nipple—on a scale that succeeds in being both monumental and intimate. The models look relaxed as they lounge and recline, enveloped by verdant foliage or sumptuous fabrics. One canvas, Women in Landscape (1966-68), consists of three panels and measures almost 17 feet across.

“She’s taking gestures, poses, compositional framework from the Renaissance and redoing them around these concerns of the body and the self,” said art historian Melissa Rachleff, who included Edelheit in “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965,” at the Grey Art Gallery in New York in 2017. “When you look at her works compositionally, you see Dürer, you see Rubens, you see Botticelli.”

Edelheit said her interest in the naked body has been keen since childhood. She was one of those girls who immediately undressed and dismembered a new doll. “I was looking for genitals,” she said. “But all dolls were neutered.”

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2248405" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-2248405" src="https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-1024×626.jpeg" alt="Martha Edelheit, David x 2 (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.” width=”1024″ height=”626″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-1024×626.jpeg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-300×184.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-1536×940.jpeg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-2048×1253.jpeg 2048w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-50×31.jpeg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/L0IbZB9k-1920×1175.jpeg 1920w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”>

Martha Edelheit, David x 2 (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Her early works in the 1950s were abstract paintings that owed color sensibility and compositional patchwork to Michael Loew, an American artist who lived on the island of Monhegan in Maine. Edelheit and her first husband, psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit, visited Monhegan in the summers.

“We were sharing a house,” she recalled. “He had a studio on the first floor, and we were on the second floor. There was a balcony, and I would look down and watch him work. And I learned more about painting by watching him work than I learned any from any class. He was what they called back then a Neoplastic painter, a disciple of Mondrian.”

In New York, Edelheit was becoming part of the avant-garde scene, a member of the Tenth Street artist-run space and its offshoot the Reuben Gallery, where she had her first solo show in 1960. She was friends with Susan Sontag, the first person she met as a University of Chicago undergrad, and artists Carolee Schneemann and Rosalyn Drexler. Her male peers included Claes Oldenberg, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine, Robert Rosenquist, and Allan Kaprow.

Installation view, "Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980" at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Installation view, “Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980” at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“As she befriended artists who were engaged in performance and happenings, those exchanges opened up a space of possibility for her to consider the body,” Rachleff said.

Despite her active exhibition history, Edelheit sold very little art and was rarely reviewed while “the boys all got galleries and moved uptown and into the museums,” she said.

It didn’t occur to her that this had something to do with gender because she didn’t see herself as a female artist—she simply thought of herself as an artist.

The feminist movement opened her eyes to gender discrimination. Initially reluctant to join it—she was “dragged in kicking and screaming,” she said—she became an active member.

“I was forced into it because of what was happening with women artists,” she said. “Not just me, but all the women artists I knew.”

The overt sexuality of her artworks—later dubbed “radical eroticism” by art historian Rachel Middleman—was also a complication.

In 1966, a New York Times critic spent more than two hours at her exhibition at Byron Gallery uptown only to inform the gallery owner that he “can’t review that obscene woman,” she recalled. “Charles Byron had a show in his office of a guy who did postcard-size landscapes. So, he did a review of that.”

An event that had a profound impact on Edelheit’s life and art took place in 1957, when her younger brother, Robert Ross, suffered a horrific motorcycle accident while on vacation in Sweden. He spent months in a coma and years in rehabilitation. A Korean War veteran, he was treated in U.S. military hospitals that were filled with crippled servicemen. What she saw there while looking after him found its way into her works on paper from the early 1960s.

Her “Children’s Games” series of ink drawings are filled with headless, limbless figures doing horrible things to themselves and each other. Masked amputees appear in her ink-and-watercolor works like Bird House With Baby (1962) and Dream of the Tattoo Lady (1961). The chains and masks in these works are suggestive of sadomasochism.

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2248411" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-2248411" src="https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-1024×583.jpeg" alt="Martha Edelheit, Self Portrait with Tools (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.” width=”1024″ height=”583″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-1024×583.jpeg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-300×171.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-1536×874.jpeg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-2048×1166.jpeg 2048w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-50×28.jpeg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/MoERrG6H-1920×1093.jpeg 1920w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”>

Martha Edelheit, Self Portrait With Tools (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I wasn’t thinking about S&M,” Edelheit said, explaining instead that “masks were a way of not having to show the emotions of the figures represented.”

The circus, which she loved as a child, was another frequent theme.

“Back then, before you walked into the circus, there was what they called the freak shows,” she remembered. “That’s where you’d see the world’s tallest man, the world’s fattest woman, a two-headed dog or a two-headed cow.”

That’s where she also first saw tattooed people.

“I was hypnotized by them,” she said. “The idea of painting your body, of marking your body forever was really a powerful image for me.”

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2248417" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-2248417" src="https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-853×1024.jpeg" alt="Martha Edelheit, Boating Central Park (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.” width=”853″ height=”1024″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-853×1024.jpeg 853w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-250×300.jpeg 250w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-1279×1536.jpeg 1279w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-1706×2048.jpeg 1706w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-42×50.jpeg 42w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/LsQTMuaH-1599×1920.jpeg 1599w” sizes=”(max-width: 853px) 100vw, 853px”>

Martha Edelheit, Boating Central Park (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

She began exploring tattoos in earnest in 1962 with a series of “Tattoo Paintings.” She painted tattoos on mannequin hands, arms, and legs as well as in her “Back Paintings” of 1972 to 1975. Several of these works are now on view at Eric Firestone Gallery.  

Tattoos were not just a decorative trope, according to Jennifer Samet, who works closely with Edelheit and organized both of her shows at the gallery.

“The paintings become this arena in which she can depict not only their bodies, but their ideas and dreams,” Samet said. “She used imagined tattoos as a way to tell those dreams.”

Edelheit spent the past 30 years in Sweden, where she moved after her first husband died and she remarried. She met her second husband, Sam Nilsson, years earlier, after her brother’s accident. A budding journalist, he would go on to become the head of Swedish public broadcasting and a prominent figure in the media and culture circles. Edelheit unexpectedly found herself in a new role, attending Nobel Prize galas and having dinners with the country’s king and queen.

“It’s like someone handed me a movie script,” she said. “All of a sudden I had a closet full of evening gowns.”  

Her art had to adjust as well. She settled in a remote area on an island, with the nearest bus stop seven kilometers away. This wasn’t the kind of place where she could ask a neighbor to strip and model for her.

<img aria-describedby="caption-attachment-2248413" loading="lazy" class="size-large wp-image-2248413" src="https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob-1024×757.jpeg" alt="Martha Edelheit, Seals, Central Park Zoo (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.” width=”1024″ height=”757″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob-1024×757.jpeg 1024w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob-300×222.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob-1536×1136.jpeg 1536w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob-50×37.jpeg 50w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2023/01/wxg5xTob.jpeg 1786w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”>

Martha Edelheit, Seals, Central Park Zoo (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I think it was Rubens who said, ‘I paint what’s in front of my nose,’” she said. “And I looked out the window and what was in front of my nose was sheep. So, I did. I’ve been working with sheep and landscape for the last umpteen years.”

She used materials she found in her environment, making canvases out of chicken wire and papier-mâché and creating a lot of wire sculptures of sheep.

Now another change is looming. Following Nilsson’s death in 2020, Edelheit wants to return to New York. She spent several months in the city coinciding with her exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Eric Firestone.

The stay brought back the memories of all the people who used to be part of her life, the models who became her friends, the 5,000-square-foot studio at the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue and East 92nd Street (where she paid $125 a month in rent).

Once again seeing the paintings she created in that studio has been intense.

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What to do in Burnaby in February: Art exhibition at gallery – Burnaby Now

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A new exhibition at Burnaby Art Gallery is weaving conversations of beauty, race and colonialism between fine tendrils of gold and hair.

The exhibit, Ornament and Instrument, showcases the intricate and meticulous work of Vancouver-based multidisciplinary artist Karin Jones.

Jones, who was nominated last year for the prestigious Sobey Art Award for emerging Canadian artists, studies how historical narratives shape identities.

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Her installation piece Worn, commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum, features prominently: a bustled Victorian mourning dress created using braided hair extensions, surrounded by cotton bolls scattered on the floor below – some stuffed with Jones’ hair.

Her artist statement explains the mourning dress symbolizes sadness, “high culture,” the British Empire and the constraints of feminine beauty norms.

The piece “underlines African hairstyles as a craft as refined as any decorative art produced in Europe; it alludes to the invisible labour of the thousands of Africans who contributed to the wealth of the British Empire,” states Jones.

Jones has also created a new iteration of the work Freed, using an early 20th-century dress from the Burnaby Village Museum’s collection.

Jones’ expertise in jewelry and goldsmithing comes into sharp relief through “Damascene inlay work on objects such as farm tools,” as she explores the intersections of beauty and race.

The exhibition’s opening reception will be Thursday, Feb. 2 from 7 to 9 p.m.

The gallery’s opening hours are Tuesday to Friday between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and weekends between noon and 5 p.m.

Ornament and Instrument: Art Show in Burnaby

When: Feb. 2 to April 16
Where: Burnaby Art Gallery (6344 Deer Lake Ave.)
Cost: $5 suggested donation

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PROFILE: Christine Hager a behind-the-scenes pillar of local art

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Behind every local art event and program are those who make it all happen, and one person who works hard to make Orillia’s arts community thrive is Christine Hager.

Since moving to Orillia more than 20 years ago, Hager has found herself involved in a variety of non-profit organizations in the city.

She has volunteered full-time at Couchiching Jubilee House, served as executive director of the Sharing Place Food Centre and, for the past eight years, has worked as secretary for the Orillia and District Arts Council (ODAC).

One might think Hager, given her resumé, has had a lifelong passion for non-profit work and the arts, but her involvement in Orillia’s creative scene stems from a background in business, and her artistic career is limited to her hobby of sketching horses while growing up.

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“I am not an artist. I do not paint or sculpt anything … but I love art,” she told OrilliaMatters. “It’s part of your soul. Everything around you is art. People just need to open up their eyes and recognize that.”

Originally from Sudbury, the soon-to-be-70-year-old Hager comes from a background in inside sales. She spent much of her career working for mining companies.

She said her current path began through making connections with others.

“You get tapped on the shoulder by somebody, you go for coffee, people ask you something,” she said. “I moved down here around 2002, and that’s when I kind of fell into doing not-for-profit work.”

Her background in business and sales has helped Orillia’s arts scene grow. Most arts programs and events in the city need funding, after all, and that’s where Hager shines.

She recently stepped down from her position as secretary to take a role in revenue development for ODAC.

“That’s what we need right now. We need the stability to be sustainable. We can’t depend on grants. You have to have a diversified revenue stream,” she said. “I’m the best one to do that because I have the most contacts.”

Her transition to non-profit work happened smoothly, and it continues to bring her great satisfaction.

“It’s given me that sense of satisfaction that, when I tell someone I can understand how (they’re) feeling, it’s because I’ve been there, and I can empathize with what they’re going through,” she said. “One of my favourite things at the food bank was until you walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, you have no right to criticize them.

“It’s always teaching and educating the public. That’s all these positions have always been. The public needs to know the reality of not-for-profits and vulnerable people, homeless people, and hungry people — and the arts people, too. They are trying to make a living as well.”

When Hager joined ODAC in 2014, “the board was very thin,” she said, but the organization now boasts an array of opportunities for local artists, thanks to the work of Hager and others.

ODAC hosts numerous art exhibitions for members, local and county art projects, public events, and more, on top of advocating for its members and other local artists.

One new program rolled out through ODAC is its Helping Elders with Arts (HeARTS) program, which provides seniors with the chance to learn a variety of art styles, art history, and enjoy physical activity on a regular basis.

With all her work helping the local arts scene thrive, Hager — who said she enjoys Sudoku and jigsaw puzzles — does not take much downtime for herself.

She also volunteers with St. James’ Anglican Church through its Sunday breakfast program, social justice committee, and community garden.

While she hopes to eventually take a bit of a step back from her responsibilities, Hager said she loves connecting with people.

“It’s nice meeting people. I love meeting people and developing the network that I have,” she said. “That’s been one of my big things: just getting to know people, building relationships, and then finding opportunities.”

Looking to the future, she hopes to see ODAC gain a full-time staff member and become a true “umbrella” organization that provides opportunities and advocacy for all local artists.

More about ODAC can be found here.

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