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Published Saturday July 12th, 2008, Salaon, Telegraph Journal.

Peter Powning writes about his marathon production in the weeks leading up to the June 12 opening of his show at a prestigious gallery in Toronto. With six weeks to go, he had 30 pieces left to finish. Yet Powning says his creativity thrives in this kind of crazy atmosphere.

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My life as an artist probably looks a bit strange from the outside. Some of my best work happens in the extremely intense atmosphere a looming deadline creates.


An exhibition of the scope I just opened at the Sandra Ainsley Gallery in Toronto is a big commitment. The Sandra Ainsley Gallery is large (nearly 7,000 square feet) and unusual. It was the first gallery to open in the renovated Gooderham and Worts Distillery in downtown Toronto. It is a Victorian era complex of beautiful stone and brick industrial buildings, complete with clock towers, peaked roofs, and cobbled streets, and has been a popular destination in the city over the last five years. Good restaurants, galleries, artist's studios and shops cluster around an evocative streetscape.

The gallery is one of the district's centrepieces. The interior walls are the original stone and brick, left as they were found - nouveau post-industrial decay. The large rooms are dark; pools of light on the art objects provide the only illumination. Very dramatic. This is not your typical white-walled gallery.

I love exhibiting my work there because of the atmosphere and look of the gallery, but also because I enjoy working with Sandra Ainsley, her son Daniel and the gallery staff. Sandra is a dynamic, engaging powerhouse. Once I deliver the work, a show at the Sandra Ainsley Gallery becomes a collaborative effort. Getting to that point, however, is a long and sometimes fraught process.

This is the fourth solo show I've had with Ainsley since 2000. All have gone well for me, yet there is no guarantee when a new show comes along that it will be a success. Defining success is a bit slippery. Sales only determine a certain aspect of success - that's the easy measure - but while sales are critical, feedback from visitors and collectors feels more important.

I agreed to do this solo exhibition on the heels of my last solo exhibition there, in 2006. You might think I would have begun producing work for it right away. That's what I had in mind, despite the fact that I've never managed to accomplish such a feat. I didn't physically produce any work for the show until January of this year. However, I was sketching, and planning and mulling over ideas long before that.

But over this time, I was also working on a number of large public commissions, sculpture proposals for potential commissions, committee work for community and educational organizations, as well as supplying work to other galleries and having shows in Virginia and Halifax. I also had work in about 10 group shows around the continent over the last two years. And I curated a show for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, did the annual Sabat Lecture, was the keynote speaker at an arts conference in Calgary and the guest speaker at an award ceremony in Kitchener, Ont.

Much of this activity was a result of winning the Bronfman Award (now a Governor General's Award) in the fall of 2006. That was a wonderful experience, but it did involve a lot of my time, including all the festivities in Ottawa, and film crews at the studio for days. The award meant that the following year I was commissioned to make the Governor General's Awards presentation sculptures for the Visual Arts and attend the awards ceremonies.

This ridiculous list doesn't include family events (a gathering of the clan in California), going back and forth to Florida several times a year to visit my parents as my mother was gradually lost to Lewey Body disease, a brutal form of dementia. She died a month before my show was to open in Toronto. It has been a joyful and sorrowful time, and an almost incomprehensibly busy and intense period of my life.

So this may give you a bit of context for what my life has been like while I was either intending to produce art for the show or was (finally) actually engaged in the process of physically making the work. I think I became a bit of a mad wraith to my family.

I have a mental image of the process. It's like being in a tub with nice hot water (the ideas and plans being the water). I'm immersed in this bath, comfortably soaking, dabbing soap here and there, but the water level gradually decreases (now the water is time passing), and suddenly, there I sit, wet and naked. The little water that is left is producing a swirling vortex around the drain making an alarming sucking noise. This is what I call the "circling the drain" period in the months and weeks before the show. This is where all the grand plans and visions have to meet the reality of production, the looming deadline inexorably sucking away the days.

I tend to work on many sculptures at once, partly because most of them involve a range of materials, and casting bronze in batches is more efficient than doing one piece at a time. (Most of my work includes cast bronze.) By the end of April, I had about 20 pieces in progress and maybe 10 or so finished. The show was to open June 12 with 40 pieces on the show list. Each piece has many parts in different stages of completion. By then there was little lee-way for time-consuming problems to be solved. The pressure became increasingly intense to make decisions, assemble work, and try to figure out technical complications on the fly.

This may sound a bit crazy, but for me there is something intensely creative about working in this pressure cooker atmosphere. I have to be very focused, very disciplined. I work long hours totally immersed in the work. It was hard, however, to see the forest for the trees during this time. In fact, I really didn't get a good feel for how the show held together as a body of work until we had installed it in the gallery. This is in stark contrast to the large public commissions that I make, where everything is planned, scheduled, and done well ahead of deadlines.

Preparing the work for this exhibition was a time when I relied heavily on my studio assistant Joe Cernan. He is a monster worker, fixer, packer and all-round right-hand man. I couldn't do this alone. My work has become too big, too complex and often too heavy for me to even move without help. Joe not only does a lot of work to help me keep things moving but he's a good morale booster as we face the challenges of finishing and packing the work for shipping.

I have to say that making this show in particular was a wild roller coaster of a ride, one that I was sure, as I neared the deadline, I would never, ever want to repeat. Once we loaded the four huge pallets of finished work on a full sized transport truck wedged into our gravel lane with the very shaky forklift prosthesis on our ageing tractor, I was hugely relieved. It was great to see it all headed down the road.

When I got to the gallery in Toronto five days later I was faced with all the crated work to be uncrated and set-up. I'm not sure why this surprised me since it was the whole point of the effort, but I nearly fled, tearing my hair, at the prospect of not just the work involved in setting it all up, but the challenge of how to display the show well. Fortunately, that's a group effort. I'm left mostly to my own direction with the help of gallery staff, but I get good feedback and Sandra periodically reviews what we've done (she's very good at this) and we make changes and tweak lighting and fuss around with placement until after three long days and two nights work it's all up and looking like it was well planned from the start (not sure how that happens but probably simply because it has to).

By noon of the opening day, almost everything is done. Price lists, labels, some last-minute lighting changes and the set-up for the evening's opening go on all afternoon. The caterers set up in one of the gallery's many rooms, we test the audio visual equipment with the usual head scratching and muttering and eventually half an hour before the opening we all scurry off to closets and store rooms to don our glad rags, splash cold water on our faces and prepare to face the public.

I am to do a talk. I show an eight-minute video about my studio and how I work. The film was made by the Canadian Museum of Civilization for the Bronfman Award. It is very well produced. I know it's cheating to hide behind a DVD as a public speaker, but people always inexplicably applaud at the end of it. My feeling is that they applaud in relief that they didn't have to suffer through listening to me trying to do the same material without a director, many editorial cuts or music. I'm happy that they are happy. I then show a whack of digital slides about my work and yak about how I make it, and talk about my life as an artist, take a few questions, get a nice response from a good turn out, stagger to the wine bar and then mingle and answer questions, hoping that my mouth isn't foaming.

It's all a bit of a blur. Although it's a high, I'm still worn out from the set up and months of effort and stress. I talk to so many people I can't take it all in. From this point on, it's Sandra and her crew who take on the job of explaining and marketing the work to collectors and the public. I retreat back to our little green valley in New Brunswick to recover, try to pick up the pieces of all the things I've put off, see if my family remembers who I am and try to avoid commitments for another big solo exhibition any time soon.

Trouble is, I've already got a great idea for the next one. Any takers?

Peter Powning, who lives in Markhamville, near Sussex, won the Saidye Bronfman Award, one of Canada's highest craft awards (now a Governor General's Award), in 2006. He is also a winner of New Brunswick's prestigious Strathbutler Award.