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Joni & Me Print-ready version

by Anne Bayin
CBC News
July 11, 2000

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Anne Bayin, a childhood friend of Joni Mitchell, attended the gala opening of Mitchell's first-ever Canadian art show on June 30, 2000.

Flying into Saskatoon for the Mendel Art Gallery opening of voices: Joni Mitchell, the first retrospective of the singer/songwriter's visual art, the "feathered canyons ev'rywhere" aren't much in evidence. It makes it easy to see the pretty geometric farmlands below, and follow the pencil straight lines of those highways that go on and on and appear to end nowhere. But I'm a Prairie girl; I know differently. Those roads arrive. As the landing gear drops, a familiar quickening tells me I'm home.

Funny, I've always associated Joni with planes, long before she grew up to write beautiful lyrics like Amelia, and paint and sing to the world about her private flying dreams. In fact, she was my first girlfriend who actually did fly. The circumstances were nearly tragic. One October day in 1952, when Joni didn't show up for Miss Fulford's Grade 5 class, there were rumours she'd been taken away on a "mercy flight" to the polio clinic in Saskatoon. When the rumours turned out to be true, it was so dramatic, so Joni, it took my breath away. At the age of nine, I confess, my first unforgivable reaction was one of envy, before reality and fear set in.

Joni says she got up one day, looked in the mirror, and a woman looked back. "I looked older," she says. Walking to school, she got winded, and had to sit down for a rest. Her bones were aching and she was convinced she had early rheumatism, like her grandma. Next day, she was paralysed. This was at the height of the 1950's polio epidemic, and it soon became clear something was terribly wrong. She spent six scary weeks in St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, listening to the wheezing of the iron lungs at night, determined not to be crippled, determined to walk again. She made a vow to the little Xmas tree that decorated her hospital room that if she got better, she'd do something special in life. She got better, the rest is history. At least that's the way I remember it.

Roberta Joan Anderson, Joan, as she was known then, is an artist who celebrates her prairie roots. "I'm a flatlander," she says. Our families both moved around a lot when we were young. Eventually, my family settled in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, where Joan and I became friends. She was the grocer's daughter; I was the preacher's kid. She liked me anyway.

As a young girl who loved crayons and words and pressing flowers in scrapbooks, I was attracted to Joan. She was magnetic and daring and inventive. She had the best husky laugh, even before cigarettes. As far as I was concerned, she had other major things going for her: she was blonde and she was an only child with her own bedroom.

Art was our refuge from boredom, before boys, before rock and roll. I still find it amazing what transpires in the heads of nine-year-old girls. God had yet to invent the multi-channel universe, so we did stuff to entertain ourselves: we sketched animals and forests sitting at the Anderson's kitchen table; we dressed up in fancy clothes; we made angels in the snow in the schoolyard. Family albums show similar phases from our early black and white period: the "smiling cowgirl" phase - in my case, Annie Oakley, in a local parade; the "bride" phase- decked out in veils for backyard mock marriages inspired by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Escape from mundane existence to glamour was always a factor in those days.

Joan's mother was a school teacher, who made beautiful Halloween costumes for her daughter; Joan's dad played a good trumpet. My mother was also musical, a community theatre director, with an endlessly entertaining trunkful of exotic silks and Elizabethan blouses with lace cuffs; my dad, when not in the pulpit, wrote wry verse.

Saskatoon was Joni's hometown from age 11 until she left high school for Art College. Although our paths have never crossed at the airport, I often think of her when I'm coming down the escalator. We've both arrived and departed from here hundreds of times, coming home for family visits. I'm wondering how many people off my Toronto flight are here for Joni's opening tomorrow.

I've seen some of her wonderful paintings before, but casually propped on the floor of her studio in L.A., not properly hung in a gallery. I'm looking forward to this. For those of us who grew up with her, it's a special thrill and a homecoming. My mum, in her 80s, is driving down with my sister and brother-in-law from North Battleford. Of course, Joni will be here. It's not every day you get to see a collection of 87 of your paintings, photographs, drawings representing 35 years of work displayed in the major gallery in your parents' hometown.

"I'm a painter first," she has said many times, and "I sing my sorrow and I paint my joy." Well, the painting part I never doubted. It was the singing that caught my whole family by surprise.

I'll never forget my mother's reaction, when we first saw Joni perform on Prince Albert television in the early 1960s. By this time, my mum was conducting choirs and composing music, as well as doing her theatre work. She knew her music.

I was away at university, but home for the holidays. When we got wind that 19-year-old Joan Anderson was to sing on local TV that night, we were glued to the set. Suddenly, there she was, on the flickering screen in our living room, looking like a movie star. She sat on a stool and sang several songs in a lovely, lilting soprano, accompanying herself on a baritone ukulele. We were blown away. "Well," said my mother, astonished. "Well." We waited for it. "She's good", she pronounced. "Joan can sing".

When Joni moved to Saskatoon, I knew she had it made. Saskatoon was "where it was at," a happening place, compared to North Battleford. We deferred to it as "the City." In fact, this prairie version of urban sophistication was only 100 miles to the south, but it might as well have been Mars.

Occasionally, when we were in our teens, I'd get to travel down for a weekend visit. On those smoky bus rides, where I was doing most of the smoking, I'd repeat the names of the passing towns like a mantra: Brada, Denholm, Ruddell, Maymont, Fielding, Radisson, Borden, Langham, Saskatoon. It was my ride to freedom, more than the sum of the towns. Away from the strictness of the manse and church twice on Sunday. "Why did we get such square parents?" I asked Joni who not only had perfect hair but the answers to life's big questions. "We needed something to rebel against," she explained, laughing.

In retrospect, Joni's parents were anything but square. They may have been mystified by their irrepressible daughter, but they were always there to support her. Somehow, they had created an adventurer, a non-conformist. I remember her mother allowing her to paint a tree on her bedroom wall, with wide branches from which she'd hang things. I loved staying over, swapping clothes, hanging out at the Commodore Café, reminiscing about James Dean. Once, Joni bought sparklers, poked them in the grass around the front lawn, and lit them in unison. When I hear the words "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," I don't think sprinklers. I think sparklers.

There were layers to Joni. "She has a real interior," I told a friend. This morning's headline in Saskatoon's The Star Phoenix reads, "Mitchell-Mania Takes Hold." I surf the story with interest while sipping cappuccino in a cafe called Calories. It's on Broadway Avenue, and suddenly, it's there — in the paper.

"Did you realize," I ask the two young waitresses on my way out the door, "Calories is the site of the old Louis Riel, the coffee house where Joni Mitchell got her start?" "Really?" one says, blankly. "No, we didn't know," says the other. Saskatoon, I discover, is still refreshingly low key about celebrity. Yesterday, the ad for Joni's show appeared on Page A12 near one for "Sizzling Hot Specials" at the Co-op Home Centres.

There's a special preview tour for the press this afternoon. Aptly, a musical carousel is going "round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down" in the Kinsmen Park across the street. Media vans, cameras, loudspeakers, and lights are setting up for the party. The Mendel is as ready as it gets: its lobby spiffed up with urns of exotic flowers, chairs for dignitaries, who will include Joni's parents and Premier Roy Romanow, are set up out front for the anticipated crowd of 5,000.

Barricades are everywhere, ready to cordon off Spadina Crescent. Pitched behind the gallery, overlooking the scenic Saskatchewan River, is a multi-peaked reception tent. Looking very Camelot. Joni, I think, will approve.

An unfettered imagination and love of freedom is what you see in the paintings on these walls. As an artist, she explores and changes styles as often as in her music. Sometimes this ticks critics off. She doesn't care. She paints for herself and refuses to be pigeonholed. Everywhere, there's humour. There's the famous Van Gogh take-off, Joni sans ear, which became the cover of Turbulent Indigo. A piece called Canadian Bacon, where the sky and the lake look like — well, bacon. Collages. Photographs of Joni's face superimposed with prairie imagery: elevators, old farm houses, wheat fields. Oil paintings of lovers. Snowscapes. A witty homage to Rousseau depicting the artist and a deer.

There's a buzz of excitement as Joni glides in, smiling broadly, wearing beige and a straw hat and a backpack. No, she's not at all nervous she tells the small crowd of perhaps 100. Yes, she explores many styles, but isn't that something to celebrate? She paints pure, doesn't want to be shocking or play the art world game. She saw her first Picassos and Matisses at the home of Papa Mendel, the man who donated this gallery. Above all, she loves truth and beauty.

She gives better than she gets. Did she ever dream one day her art would hang in a gallery like this? Never, she says. Her big dream was to have a bowling alley in her basement. What's behind the name of that elegant abstract painting The Stranger? "Well, actually, when Gilles (the curator) pulled the painting out of the warehouse, I looked at it and didn't remember it at all. I said, 'Who did that?'" She laughs. Joni's having a good time.

A few hours later, Mendel director Gilles Hebert is at the podium, facing the biggest crowd of his career. "Ho-hum," he deadpans. "Another typical opening at the Mendel Art Gallery."

After the speeches, 500 people are allowed into the gallery at a time. It's a rare sight to see people struggle to get inside a building to see art. But Joni's celebrity status has pulled fans in from Santiago, Chile; New Orleans; and Los Angeles. A woman from Vancouver, who knows the words to every song Joni's ever written, tells me she ran into Joni by accident the day before. She's thrilled. "I told her I'd had a dream we were jiving, and she took my hand and we started dancing," she says.

Next day, Joni and I grab lunch at the Bessborough. First thing I do is try on the hat; it doesn't suit me. She's hoarse from talking too much the night before, but still floating. We do the catch-up thing, agree it's the best time of our lives, and we'll stave off the facelifts. I tell her about the four guys I met standing around her oil painting Middle Point, 1995, all excited because they were sure they'd spotted the cat hair in the brush work around the ocean. She cops to the cat hair and says she hopes they also checked out the painting of Georgia O'Keefe's Rainbarrel. "My cat peed on that one," she laughs. People stop by for autographs, and she handles it with grace. Old pals from high school appear and the memories start jumping.

I drive by Joni's old high school, on my way over to see her parents. Take some pictures of colourful chalk drawings on the sidewalk in front. Then, I'm at the house, saying hi to the Andersons, like decades haven't really gone by. I can't believe things are so unchanged. The black tree is gone from the bedroom wall though, and there's a new patio out back.

Down in the rumpus room, Joni's cousin, Dave, his wife and family are sitting in easy chairs watching a tape of the All-Star Tribute to Joni Mitchell, which was held at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and first broadcast by the TNT cable network in April. The musical celebration featured stars like James Taylor, Bryan Adams, Wynonna Judd. Posters for the event said, "Pop, Rock, Jazz and Soul: One Woman Changed Them All."

Meanwhile, I've asked Joni's mum to show me the scrapbook she's made, entitled "The Life and Times of Roberta Joan Anderson." I want to tweak my memory as to when this talent first showed up.

And it's here, I find, in the early sketches of deer and landscapes, the pastels of dogs and vases, the pencil drawing of a teacher, a Happy Birthday Ode to her father, clever poems like "Sub Marine Symphony — The Lobster's Ball," written in Grade Seven.

On TV, Elton John has taken his bows for Free Man in Paris, and is gesturing towards Joni from the piano. "I've sung for the Queen, but it's not so intimidating as performing Joni Mitchell songs in front of her," he quips. Here, in the family room, we laugh along, the kids, the parents, and then it goes quiet as we wait for Joni, who's up next, and we know, because her mum told us, that she has to sing and she's only had a banana for supper.

She's doing a stunning torchsinger rendition of Both Sides Now, when I find the report cards. I don't expect humourless Miss Bready, Grade Four, to weigh in on the complimentary side, but she does. "Original in ideas", she says, and "a gift of interpretation." It's our Grade Six teacher who disappoints. "Joan should pay more attention to other subjects than art," he scolds.

Lucky for Joan, I say, that she moved to Saskatoon when she did, in time to meet the inspired Mr. Kratzman, a Grade Seven teacher who encouraged her renaissance ways, and told her to "write and paint in her own blood." Lucky she had parents who stayed calm while she was "busy being free." It's no accident that Mendel director Gilles Hebert has chosen to display, alongside the Joni exhibit, a show called School Art, 2000, which is joyful, wild, colourful, unrestrained.

Back at the gala in New York, everyone's on stage now for the rousing finale, led by the a capella group Sweet Honey In The Rock. All these famous musicians surrounding Saskatoon's Joni Mitchell, singing The Circle Game as the credits roll. Then the TV world gets switched off.

In the real world, Joni's parents, now in their late 80s, have to get ready to go to a local production of Hello Dolly with their daughter.

An estimated 75,000 people will attend voices: Joni Mitchell at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, before the exhibition closes September 17th, 2000.

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