Art & literature come out to play together at the Leon Rooke & John Metcalf Salon Exhibition

I had the great pleasure of attending the Leon Rooke and John Metcalf Salon Exhibition last night, hosted by Fran Hill Gallery at Rooke’s residence at 246 Brunswick Ave., Toronto—also the new contact space for the gallery since it moved from its St. Clair W./Christie neighbourhood Show Room. The event featured Rooke’s latest paintings and sculptures, and the Biblioasis launch of two new books by Metcalf: The Canadian Short Story and Finding Again the World—Selected Stories.

Ushered up to event in the spacious, open and bright second floor space of the home—with its striking sky lights, interesting nooks and gorgeous fireplace—several of us (including me) remarked that we wanted to take up residence there ourselves. And it was here that we wandered about, viewing Rooke’s art over wine and cheese, and  treated to a reading by Metcalf.

Comprised of small to medium-sized canvasses, and curious, detailed and often delightful sculptures and shadow boxes, much of Rooke’s (who is also an author) work in this exhibit has a light, playful, whimsical quality—with some of the pieces emerging with a richer, deeper palette and darker, mysterious and even erotic undertones. Be forewarned: Not all of the pieces on display are necessarily for sale (exhibit pieces are noted with a number, accompanied by a printed guide with titles and pricing) and at least one piece (the Fish sculpture, featured at the top of this post) sold last night.

Following a brief introduction by Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells, Metcalf—who also worked for years as a highly respected editor, most notably on Best Canadian Stories, curating the anthology and shepherding writers—read us excerpts from The Canadian Short Story and The Museum at the End of the World. Part historical overview, part critical guide, part love letter to the form, The Canadian Short Story is anything but a dry, academic tome, despite its hefty size. Sharply insightful, and full of humour and interesting examples and anecdotes about authors; hearing the excerpt, it struck me as being the “inside baseball” for the short story lover. And the audiophile journey Metcalf took us on with the piece from The Museum at the End of the World (a series of linked stories and novellas) gave us sharply drawn characters; visceral and present details that pique the senses; and a curiosity shop environment that enveloped the intimate, almost confessional nature of the characters’ conversation—about the musicians, birthplace and evolution of the blues. I was so taken by this work of autobiographically inspired fiction that I left with a signed copy.

All in all, it was a lovely and inspirational evening of striking art, literature and people.

The Leon Rooke exhibit continues throughout the fall; give Fran Hill a shout at 416 363-1333 or franhillartgallery@gmail.com to book an appointment. The residence at 246 Brunswick Ave. is tucked in behind 244 Brunswick Ave., accessed by the walkway to the right.

You can visit the Biblioasis website or your favourite book shop to find works by John Metcalf.

Here are some snaps I took last night.

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Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

Interview: Lizzie Violet

Lizzie Violet—photo by Anna Lozyk Romeo

Happy International Women’s Day! Today’s post is an interview with an incredibly talented, hard-working, gutsy and generous woman in the Toronto arts scene.

Lizzie Violet is a writer, spoken word artist and horror aficionado—that “dark little girl with the crooked grin” who took her finely tuned, quirky sense of observation and love of zombie lore, and wrote it down. Evocative, darkly funny and sharply drawn, her writing ranges from hilarious and poignant personal storytelling, to socio-political observation, to chilling tales of the supernatural and deadly creatures from beyond the grave.

LWMC: You first become attracted to horror when you were a kid, staying up late with your dad watching old horror movies on TV. What was it that hooked you?

LV: Apparently, I liked to scare myself. Even as a young introverted kid, I figured out how invigorating an adrenaline rush felt. Even more so than watching the movies, the stories I would make up in my head scared me even more. I had an overactive imagination.  I was never afraid of the boogieman or the monsters in the closet. I was all about the bizarre versions of monsters and ghosts my mind would visualize or create and I would wonder if the creak in the stairs was a werewolf coming to gobble me up. I loved every second of it. Recently, my mom dug up some of the stories I wrote as a kid. You can see where it all began.

LWMC: You also became infamous around the school library for your interest in horror literature and biographies of serial killers. When did your love of the genre translate into wanting to writing horror-themed poems and stories?

LV: How that all started, was my Great Grandfather Bill died when I was 10 years old. I was really close to him. They took me to his viewing at the funeral home and to me, the man in the casket looked nothing like him. He had this weird heavy makeup on, including rouge and lipstick. At the viewing, I started asking a lot of ‘inappropriate’ questions about why he looked that way and what was going to happen to him now that he had ‘passed away’ (no one would actually use the word dead). No one would answer me. I had a melt down and then wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral.

After that, I would continually ask the librarians for books about death, eventually progressing to books on serial killers and hauntings. We used to get the Scholastic Book Club magazines and I would get upset when there weren’t books along that theme as an option. They (teachers and the librarian) became concerned about how morbid this young child had become. My parents were not pleased, to say the least. All of this pushed me further into introversion and a way for me to cope was to start writing. To everyone’s dismay… my writing was always horror themed. From that point on in my life I became death-obsessed. Not in a ‘wanting to kill myself way,’ rather needing to seek the knowledge about death. Why it happened, what happened to you and your body when you died. Why we had funerals. Did it hurt? Recently, I discovered a writer and YouTuber called Caitlin Doughty (her channel is ‘Ask A Mortician’); I wish I had known someone like her as a kid. She is open about death and death positivity.

LWMC: Over the years, you’ve written in a number of media, from poetry, to the story for I Hate Todd’s “Zombie Love” music video, to screenwriting, stage and radio playwriting, and blogging, including your new Not Vegan Now Vegan food/recipe blog. Do you have a favourite medium?

LV: Short stories. I am madly in love with short stories. It goes back to that adrenaline rush feeling. You have to get people pulled in and worked up in a short amount of words. The pressure to do that in under 10,000 words is exhilarating for me. If I had to pick a second, it would be screenwriting. I love storytelling in that format as well. When you read a book or a short story, the reader sees the setting or character differently. They create their own visual. When you put it on a screen, they get to see what you want them to see. They get to actually be in your head and that terrifying thought, is appealing to me.

LWMC: Last Fall, you bid farewell to Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and tapered off your event production work. And, most recently, you quit your day job to pursue writing full-time. What led up to that decision and how has it been, adjusting to the new routine?

LV: I realized I had my fingers in too many pies and, because of this, I wasn’t getting enough writing done. When I don’t write, I actually get depressed. I sat back and took a look at what I have accomplished; what I could accomplish and realized I needed to be all in. Life is too short and I don’t want to ever have regrets for not trying. You only fail when you don’t make the effort.

I’ve been adjusting well. I freelanced for almost 10 years prior to my last job, and am able to focus and be productive. There are days when you just can’t be creative, and my mantra for those days is to do something else. Go for a walk. Write a list. Have a dance party in the living room. Dig holes somewhere. Just don’t let frustration take over. Sometimes you need to shake the cobwebs out—then you will be fine.

LWMC: What have been your biggest challenges? Your biggest rewards?

LV: Other than things being tight financially at the moment, I don’t really have any challenges. I do have a lot of rewards. Being able to wake up every day and write is the best feeling in the world. I am also lucky to have a partner who is supportive of my dreams.

LWMC: You’re working on a novel right now. What can you tell us about it?

LV: Without give too much away—it’s semi-autobiographical, yet still fiction, a ghost story and set in small-town Ontario. The two main characters are teenagers who don’t fit into society’s ideals of what a teenager should be and, did I mention, it’s ghost story. The title of the novel is Freaks & Grimm. In the next month or so, I am going to start hitting up open mics and read parts of the novel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

LV: Oh yeah! Going back to your question about shows, though I am no longer producing shows similar to the Cabaret, I am still producing shows that showcase my work. Heather Babcock and I are working on a new format for our RedHead Revue. Hoping to have a date for this spring.  I am also working on a YouTube channel called Lizzie Violet’s Lair.  The content will be segments on horror, b-horror movies, talks about death and the dead. I will have regular guests to chat about ghoulish things such as hearses, graveyard tours, the paranormal, ghosts, zombies and more. Oh… and don’t worry, we will also talk about horror-based writing. I’m working on the set-up and scripts. I’m hoping to launch it this summer. You should all subscribe so you don’t miss the launch: https://www.youtube.com/user/lizzieviolet1313

The RedHead Revue page is https://www.facebook.com/redheadrevue/.

LWMC: I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

All of them!  If I had to just pick one, it would be gloomy or serendipity. Can I choose two?

What’s your least favourite word?

Moist. Why does that word even exist?

What turns you on?

When someone gets my weird and morbid sense of humour.

What turns you off?

Phoniness. Say what you mean. Say what you feel. Don’t pretend to be something or someone you aren’t. Being authentic is important. Oh… damn… I sounded like a hipster.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sounds of a thunderstorm rolling in. Nothing more soothing than thunder and lightning.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sounds of animals in pain. It breaks my heart.

What is your favourite curse word?

Motherfucker.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

There isn’t any other profession. This is what I’ve dreamed of all my life.

What profession would you not like to do?

Veterinarian. When I was a kid, I had a brief moment were I wanted to be a vet, until I found out that they had to euthanize the animals.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

You made a wrong turn. It’s the other gates you want.

Thanks, Lizzie!

You can also keep up with Lizzie Violet on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Compelling, poetic, unflinchingly honest snapshots of working class people in Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards

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Heather Babcock at the launch for Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards – photo by Lizzie Violet

Where do the words
Interrupted
Of the working class people go?
Lost somewhere within their time
Interrupted.

This is the prologue to Heather Babcock’s chapbook Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards, a collection of short stories published by DevilHousePress.

A compelling and vividly detailed collection of works, Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards opens with “Break,” a first-person narrative from the point of view of a heart-broken, over-worked waitress soldiering on through her shift to pay the bills – and finding emotional release in an unexpected moment of solitude during a much deserved break.

The workaday characters – Wilbur and Christina in “Half Off” and Betty in “The Trees Turned to Glass” – struggle through harsh and unfair circumstances, doing the best they can to survive as they scramble to eke out a living, and find snatches of happiness and moments of ecstasy when they can. Constantly faced with judgement in the present and haunted by ghosts of the past, daydreams and fantasies become a welcome escape – an oasis from the dull, grey hopelessness of a world that sees them as disposable. And in “Rebecca,” we get a portrait of one of those judgemental, comfortably smug points of view, as wealthy record producer Conrad washes his hands of responsibility for someone he supposedly loved once.

There is beauty and poetry, grit and defiance, especially in the stories of family and loss. Jake in “The Dancing Bear,” escaping from his brother’s hospital bedside and into a local bar and a pretty woman. First-person memories of a mother, a dead sister and flowers in “Marking Words” and the title story “Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards;” the sharp edges of family history smoothed by nostalgic recollections made bittersweet by family tragedy.

And the closing story “Wind Pudding and Wagon Tracks” is parable-like in its insight into the human spirit; set in a place where everyone is treated equally and all are given the same choice – only each comes from different places with which to make that choice.

Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards is a beautiful collection of unflinchingly honest snapshots of otherwise invisible working class people; their everyday drudgery finding momentary respite in after-hours second lives, rich fantasy worlds, moments of recollection and in the imperfect love of equally lost souls.

You can find more of Babcock’s work online on her website. Babcock performs regularly around the city reading her work; coming up, she’ll be performing with Neil Traynor at I Got You Babe! And Evening of Poetry and Music with Heather and Neil at Hirut Restaurant on March 19 at 8 p.m.