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Willow Winter Works

I recently visited City Hall in downtown St. Catharines to see the Seasons exhibition in the third floor space. This latest show there is structured around students from three different secondary schools here in the city responding to an equal number of works in the civic art collection. A strong representation of this collaborative project is seen as soon as you enter the hallway, with Alex Jacenek’s multiple small pieces next to their ‘inspiration’, one of Sandy Middleton’s haunting landscapes.

But I must confess the following: I almost didn’t make it to the reception, as when I climbed the stairs to the first floor, I caught a glimpse of Abstract City Hall, on that first floor. This (also collaborative) rendering of city hall, combining more literal and more imaginative – yet all equally vibrant – depictions of ‘city hall’ is a work by the Willow Arts Community artists that is installed there indefinitely. It’s made visits to that civic space more enjoyable, and raises important questions not just about how the space is seen, but also about the diversity of communities here in the Garden City.

This Thursday, the Willow Arts Community will debut new works, as part of the Winter Exhibition, at Rodman Hall Arts Centre, showcasing artists with lived experience of mental health/addictions.

Allow me to offer a teaser of what you’ll experience at the opening reception; but if you’re familiar with the numerous past productions both visual and aural, I don’t imagine I’ll have much work to do to convince you to support this latest showcase.

Joe Lapinski and his many collaborators from (what I think of as) the Songs of the Willow ‘ musical ensemble will perform a variety of songs, new (from their latest 12 week original songwriting series). If you attended the debut of their album at Niagara Artists Centre last Summer, you’ll understand why I consider this a highlight of the evening (despite my obvious bias to visual).

But the power of the Willow Arts Community is not just their artists but their variety: there will be offerings of “hilarious games from [the] 12-week Big Chicken Improv class” as well as more ‘visual’ artworks from Robin Nisbet‘s acrylic painting workshops, textile collage submissions from Azra Momin‘s class, and “[transformative] up-cycled art creations from Judith Rudoler‘s Lost and Found class.”

You may have also recently see copie sof the Willow Arts Community 2019 Program Guide around the downtown and in a few other cultural spaces of note in St. Catharines. This offers enticing and exciting information on not only upcoming workshops, but also exhibitions and the staff and volunteers who define the Willow. Both the calibre of instructors (Lepp, Middleton, the aforementioned Lapinski) and the breadth of services offered is impressive, as is the space that the Willow has ‘carved out’ in the community, and how many it touches and supports, as artists of various levels, means and experience.

The Winter Arts Exhibition opening reception is from 6 to 8 PM on Thursday, April 4th, and the artworks are on display, open to the public at Rodman Hall Art Centre, until the 21st of April. Go see it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I began this by mentioning the Seasons exhibition at City Hall: this is an effort from St. Catharines Culture, out of city hall, and another notable happening is the annual evening of the St. Catharines Arts Awards. These feature various categories (Emerging Artist, Established Art, etc.), including the Making A Difference Award.

The latter “celebrates a St. Catharines arts entrepreneur, arts administrator, arts organization, arts animator or volunteer in the arts whose leadership and innovation have significantly contributed to the growth and development of arts and culture in St. Catharines.” This year’s nominees include several people near and dear to your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s heart (and, of course, the larger community). Emma German, whose work in presenting Up Close and In Motion at Rodman Hall highlighted art and social history of Niagara and beyond as manifest in the collection of Rodman (before her contract was allowed to end, arguably prematurely and shortsightedly, by Brock), is a worthy nominee. My long suffering yet always supportive Editor and Publisher here at The Sound, Chris Illich, is also nominated (#wearethesound loves y’all, even if we don’t win, but we appreciate your support, always. #artcriticfromhell will gladly accept kisses and / or libations).

And most notably for this article, Willow Arts Community is also nominated (last year, founder and Director Shauna MacLeod was given a special Jury’s Pick Award for her vision and vigour in making Willow happen, and for shepherding it into a community that many depend upon, and that has become a lodestone for many).

Rodman Hall’s excellent staff inviting Willow to make a home at RHAC was – is – a major factor in both its success, but also in recognizing Willow’s importance, and in supporting too often marginalized and too often ignored, too often vulnerable, communities.

So, what will Adminstrative VP of Finance Brian Hutching‘s decision to seek a developer for Rodman Hall (despite heritage status, despite the Barlow Report, despite the interim board being unconsulted) and to have all artwork, staff and – one can only include this – groups and communities that depend upon the space (both literal, for many of the aforementioned workshops, but also for the solidity and framework that is emotional and conceptual) mean for Willow Arts Community?

This bluntly puts in jeopardy a space that has been repeatedly acclaimed by many partnering institutions, been awarded praise and props for what Willow Arts has accomplished, and again punishes and ignorantly disregards some of the most vulnerable here in Niagara.

When you contact Brian Hutchings, or St. Catharines City Council to express your displeasure at this latest ramifications of rash, ill considered decisions, this arms you with more information to ask how Brock is supporting communities, the city and those of us upon which it depends for equal, if not greater, reciprocal support….

All images courtesy Willow Arts Community.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.

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