From the flatlands

by Sheila Robertson
Western People
August 10, 2000

Songs to aging children come Aging children, I am one.
-Joni Mitchell, Clouds, 1969.

According to myth, the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus, were the goddesses presiding over art, poetry and music. One imagines all of them, from time to time, hovering about, whispering inspiration to Joni Mitchell.

The breadth of Mitchell's creativity Is the subject of a major exhibition that opened June 30 at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, Sask. The multidisciplinary show, entitled voices, continues until Sept. 17. It brings together more than 80 of her artworks, completed over the last 32 years. Along with the visual rhythms hi her canvases, the exhibition incorporates the melodies and rhythms from five of her recordings and includes displays of her lyrics.

Although Mitchell, 56, has shown her art in the United States, England arid Japan, this is her first Canadian exhibition, and her first retrospective. She appeared amazed when asked at a press conference prior to the exhibition opening whether she considered this event a homecoming.

"Of course it is," said the artist. Although she has a $6-million manor in Los Angeles, her parents and boyfriend, singer Don Freed, live in Saskatoon. "I'm a flatlander. Period."

One of the reasons she chose Saskatoon as the site for her retrospective, she said, was so her parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, now in their 80s, could attend. In addition, "Papa Mendel" was the grandfather of one of her school chums. It was at parties at the home of Fred Mendel, meat packing magnate and founder, in 1964, of the Mendel Art Gallery and Civic Conservatory, that she was first exposed to works by Picasso, Matisse, and other great artists.

Born in Fort Macleod, Alta., Roberta Joan Anderson spent her childhood in small prairie towns before the family, including her grocer father and school teacher mom, settled in Saskatoon when she was 11. In Maidstone, where she lived from ages three to five, "the grain elevators were our skyscrapers."

From an early age, Mitchell exhibited a passion for art and music. She took piano briefly, but balked at the discipline. She wanted to do her own thing. Similarly, she was more interested in drawing than studying while in high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate.

She was still a teenager when she began singing at coffeehouses. At first, the music was a means to an end, a way to buy cigarettes and, for a brief period, to survive as an art student. But it was the music that took off first, with her self-named debut album in 1968.

Mitchell has since had 20 more releases, including the recent Both Sides Now, the cover art for which is in the Mendel exhibition. She has won two Grammy awards, Billboard. Magazine's Century Award and a Governor General's award. In 1997, she was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

While these honors celebrate her music, Mitchell maintains she is an artist first. In the 1970s, as a touring musician, she made pictures in felt markers of friends like Judy Collins, Neil Young and James Taylor. Prints of some of these images, which have a great deal of energy and charm, are in the retrospective. It is the first time they've been exhibited.

At the press conference, Mitchell recalled she was all set to take lessons from Ernest Lindner, a noted Saskatoon landscape and figurative artist, when she was 13. "But he was on sabbatical that year, so I ended up with Henry Bonli."

Bonli was a devotee of Barnett New-man and other New York abstract expressionists. Although Mitchell wasn't impressed at the time, decades later she went through a long period of making abstract paintings, with many different tools, including a rolling pin.

Her recent paintings situate figures in the landscape. Mostly she does self-portraits, which are useful for album covers. She also paints her friends and her cats.

Among the portraits is an homage to a mentor, jazz bass player Charles Mingus, whom she visited in Mexico shortly before his death in 1979. The acrylic painting depicts him from the back, hunching in his wheelchair, contemplating a glorious tropical garden.

"He said to me one time, 'Why does everything have to be ugly or beautiful Why can't it just be pretty'

"Yeah," Mitchell reflected, puffing her cigarette in the officially smoke-free art gallery, "I like pretty things too."

As is often the case with celebrity art, Mitchell's exhibitions have received mixed reviews. There were some untoward comments in a guest book accompanying a show she had at Canada House, in London; she admitted.

"Some people wrote things like, 'Don't give up your straight job,' and 'Thanks for the amusement.'"

But she said she believed some of her works have merit and deserve to be shown. "I'm taking a break from song-writing, but I have hundreds of paintings I want to do."

A series of photographs in the exhibition documents a sentimental journey she made in 1986, with her then husband, musician Larry Klein. (Her earlier marriage to folk singer Chuck Mitchell was brief.) They began the trip in Calgary, where she'd spent a year-the extent of her formal training in art-at the Alberta College of Art.

From there, they traced the path the Anderson family had taken to progressively larger centres: from Fort Macleod to Maidstone, North Battleford and Saskatoon. While taking slides of the trip, Mitchell accidentally double exposed a roll. She began playing with the images one night when she couldn't sleep and was pleased with the portraits of herself and Klein layered over grassland, grain fields and small-town landmarks.

"The lamination of the self-portraits to these nostalgic images of wheat and barns and elevators gave me great personal excitement," she says in an essay for the exhibition catalogue.

She then made a number of these layered compositions deliberately. In them, Mitchell's rather ghostly, solemn image appears transparent, a canvas for the vast western skies.

Gilles Hebert, the director of the Mendel gallery and the man who organized voices, was fascinated by the link between a cultural icon and an isolated landscape.

Over the years, Mitchell has frequently returned to her home in Saskatoon to reconnect with the prairie "and she has drawn from these pilgrimages," Hebert says in his catalogue statement.

For example, 40 Below 0, a 1995 oil painting included in the show, was inspired by a drive in the country near Prince Albert in mid-winter. She took a photo of a just-plowed lane leading to a farmyard and, on returning to the studio in her pink stucco home in Bel Air, she poured her impressions out onto the canvas.

A more abstract rendering of the prairie is found in a long, narrow acrylic painting that evokes the endless horizon. The Road to Uncle Lyle's #1 features the elongated tailfin of a white car 'and patchwork-like reflections of the yellow line of the blacktop, highway signs and a wheat field.

Mitchell said her paintings often reflect changing situations. The storm clouds seen hovering in The Road to Uncle Lyle's dumped hail and flattened the crop. Elsewhere, a snowy scene captures a moment shortly before an avalanche.

Mitchell has often referred to her roots in her lyrics as well. Phrases like "I wish I had a river I could skate away on" clearly don't allude to Los Angeles.

The identification with the rural, Western Canadian experience is even more striking in Song for Sharon, from the 1976 recording, Hejira. Here she recollects going to every wedding in Maidstone, to see "the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown."

It is perhaps her honesty as well as her gift for poetry that have impressed her legion of fans. Those who frequent the official Joni Mitchell website, at jonimitchell.com, exchange information on practically every move the star makes. It was there many of them learned about her retrospective at the Mendel gallery. As a result, fans flocked to Saskatoon for the opening from as far away as California and Minnesota.

Steven Goetz, a 44-year-old waiter who lives near Sydney, Australia, would love to have come, too. In an interview via e-mail, he described himself as "Joni's biggest fan." Her music has had a huge impact on him, he said. "She has touched me in so many ways."

Goetz recalls talking with Mitchell in New York in the mid-1980s, when she came to a restaurant where he was working. "She had dinner with an old friend that night, and she told me he taught her how to paint. They both proceeded to draw all night on the tablecloth."

On leaving, Mitchell apologized to the owner for ruining the tablecloth, but Goetz assured her he would take it home and hang it up in his apartment.

He's carried that tablecloth with him ever since and it's still on his wall, he said. "Even though it isn't signed, it's worth more than anything I own."


Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=1632

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