Friday, 24 December 2010

Guelph: Land of Silver And Festival Gold

Guelph may rhyme with elf, but it’s no fairyland. Cruising Canada recently, I was levitated in Douglas Cardinal’s Canadian Museum of Civilization by a silversmith I had never heard of before. So when I read in the Toronto Globe and Mail the next morning that Lois Etherington Betteridge was the subject of a one-person show in Guelph, I asked the concierge at the Royal York Hotel how far Guelph was.
“An hour by train, and an hour and a half by bus,” he replied. Heh, I’d trek a lot farther than that for the kind of life I expected a roomful of Betteridges to give me.
The Macmillan Art Centre of the University of Guelph employs the brilliant ploy of having Robert Moriyama recycle an old school into a delicious exhibition space.
It reminds me of a schmooze I had at the Knoxville World’s Fair, where a local architect had taken a rundown old suite of Victorian houses and turned them into the Energy Exhibit. Later, when he went back to his Auburn University architecture reunion, visiting poohbah Bruce Goff sneered during his slide lecture of his (mainly) rehabs, “Don’t you wish you could do original buildings?”
On the spot, this heroic local architect decided in his heart of hearts he’d rather rehab great vernacular buildings than raise another bit of glitz. Bless him.
Well, Moriyama has a lot of Big Buildings under his T-square (Toronto’s Main Library, for a start), but his recycling job at Guelph is a marvel.
It prepares you for Betteridge (whose hubby, by the way, does the very good photos). Ms Betteridge, it turns out, is a year younger than I am: The vivacity of her oeuvre and the wittiness of her sly silverine jokes had made me infer someone 20 years younger. Heck, she’s been at it going on 40 years already.
She was born and raised in Ontario. After opening her own studio, she took time off to take an MFA at Cranbrook. Her American training put her at the center of Scandinavian Modernism, where functionalism is the central tenet.
“Form and function,” to quote the excellent catalog, “must necessarily harmonize in an all-embracing interdependence, while understatement rules in clean lines, simple forms and unadorned surfaces.” She admits that Eliel Saarinen’s silver urn of 1934—customarily the centerpiece of Cranbrook’s social functions—was her main mensch in a development she otherwise insists was an isolated one.
She rejects anything that smacks of industrializing, e.g., spinning. She limits herself to the ancient techniques of raising, forging, fabricating and chasing. Only rarely does she cast, except in her jewelry.
She took a six-year “sabbatical” in Britain during the early 1960s, then concentrated on two exhibitions: the group show “Metiers d’art/3,” 1978-79, and her 1981 personal retrospective. Happily, this freed her fancy, easing her into her current glorious mode, of which “Honey Pot” (1976) is a good example.
Its form is inspired by the natural world: “Its undulating, semi-spherical body is modeled on a wasp’s next, while the recessed lid has the shape of a honeycomb with a bee on it. Unlike the abstract and anonymous designs of earlier years, this one has a specificity and personalization which emanates from the everyday experience of the maker. Objects such as this whisper delightfully of enchantment.” (Etherington, Betteridge, Silversmith: Recent Work, Art Gallery of Hamilton.) “Madhatter’s Tea Party” (1988) explains itself.
You think that’s all that Guelph offers? Ha. Wrong, South of the Border breath.
Ask the curator for her dinky but true map of the best places to eat. And save time for the Civic Museum of Waterloo Street. It’s got a fine exhibition called “Passages,” on the successive waves of immigration that have mellowed the stiff-backed Scots and Brits who give the country its marvelous stability and sobriety.
But there’s still more reason to Guelph it. Through May 26, the little G (population: 50,000) holds its annual Spring Festival (box office, 519-821-7570). It began in 1968 as a volunteer-run fete with a $27,000 budget; now it has a professional staff and an international reputation, battening on a budget of $400,000.
The astonishing thing is the number of local businesses and Canadian corporations which pick up the tab for one or more of its score of events. Not like our “one corporation gets its name on all the publicity” sponsorship.
Diva Wilhelmenia Fernandez opened festivities on April 27th. My favorite attraction of the festival—the Lenny Solomon trip—paid tribute to jazz-violinist greats Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith and Eddie South. The Shevchenko Musical Ensemble treats the elves of Guelph to Russian and Ukrainian folk music, with male chorus, mandolin orchestra and folk dance troupe.
It all culminates in the free block party on Carden Street, Saturday, May 26th, featuring the Juno-award-winning children’s performer Sandra Beech. If a lineup like that doesn’t move you northward with reasonably-priced tickets ($6-$24, with discounts for seniors and students), budget motels and easy transportation access, you’re a hard-hearted traveler indeed.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 16, 1990

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