Fans from around the globe converge on city for historic Mendel show
It's just days before the Mendel Art Gallery launches the biggest exhibition in its 36-year history and the director, Gilles Hébert, is understandably busy.
He's a big, friendly man, normally laid-back. But he's walking and talking quickly now, and when he pauses, it's to nervously worry a hangnail. As he leads the way to his office, he hands a package to his receptionist. "Can you courier this to Joni?" he asks.
He means Joni Mitchell, and if you'd asked him a couple of years ago if he figured he'd ever be on a first-name basis with the cultural icon, he'd have laughed.
For more than a year, Hébert has been working with Mitchell on a retrospective show incorporating her artwork, voice and lyrics. Planning began last May in Saskatoon and he has since met with her three times at her Los Angeles home. The result is voices, a multidisciplinary exhibition opening today.
It promises to be an art event unlike any Saskatoon has seen. For that matter, the stir it's creating is rare at Canada's larger museums, several of which have expressed interest in getting the show that brings together drawings, photographs and paintings Mitchell has created over the past 35 years.
Hébert is coy about whether the National Gallery of Canada is one of the bidders. "She is a Canadian cultural treasure," he allows.
But he adds plans for the tour haven't yet been finalized. "I've suggested to Joni that we don't even think about it until after the opening."
Motorists cruising past on Spadina Crescent Thursday might not have noticed, but the Mendel was the site of feverish preparations as staff put the finishing touches on the show and braced themselves to welcome more than 5,000 visitors to today's opening.
A big issue "is dealing with the traffic and the pedestrians outside, in front of the building," says Anne DeWolfe, a communications and development consultant under contract to the gallery.
DeWolfe, who recently moved to Saskatoon from Toronto, once saw an outdoor papal mass in Halifax overshadowed by horrendous transit problems. "It was a wonderful ecumenical event, but all anyone could talk about was how it took all night to get home," she says.
After consulting with police and civic officials, the Mendel obtained permission to have Spadina blocked off in front of the gallery during the opening. There will be additional security inside and out.
Gallery advertising circulated this week advises people to park near the YWCA or City Hospital and walk to the opening. Since the event is free and open to the public, lineups are expected, but the gallery will remain open until midnight.
The grounds around the Mendel are being spruced up, and the paving tiles along the walkway have recently been replaced.
There won't be a red carpet on that sidewalk, though. Said Gallery director Gilles Hébert:" This is a retrospective, not a tribute."
But tell that to the fans converging here from around the world. Ian Eichhorn, hired as project assistant for the event, has been corresponding with Joni devotees from California to New Hampshire, England to Australia. "The Joni Mitchell Website, jonimitchell.com, got hold of information about the show and there's been a huge buzz among the fans," Eichhorn says.
Six little words in the ads have propelled an already significant exhibition into a mega-event: "The artist will be in attendance."
Born in Fort Macleod, Alta., in 1943, Joan Anderson spent her early years in small Prairie towns, including Maidstone and North Battleford. When she was nine, she settled in Saskatoon with her father, a manager with a chain of grocery stores, and her school teacher mom.
In 1961, the young woman who'd spent so much time doodling in the margins of her notebooks graduated from Aden Bowman Collegiate and left Saskatoon for the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. She kept making art but, until now, it's not what she's been noted for.
She has always described herself as an artist who got sidetracked. It was a big detour. After some lean times in Toronto and Detroit, her singing and songwriting career took off in California in 1968.
The artist does return to Saskatoon frequently; her parents and her boyfriend, singer Don Freed, live here. However, these visits are unheralded. When he met with Mitchell at a local cafe last spring, Hébert recalls, they were swarmed with patrons.
"People were running home to get their albums and CDs for her to sign. She was so great. She'd ask them their names and then she'd say, 'Henderson. Now let's see. Are you related to the Hendersons that used to live on 14th Street?'
"She has vivid memories of living in Saskatoon, and hanging out at the pool on Avenue H, because it had the best jukebox."
Many of her contemporaries, now in their 50s, remember some of her earliest performances, at a Broadway Avenue coffee house called the Louis Riel (now the site of Calories.)
Undoubtedly, the Saskatoon fans, who've followed her career with special interest, will turn out for the voices opening. So will many from farther afield.
Everybody wants to know, `Is Joni going to be performing?' " Eichhorn notes. He tells them all the same thing. "She's not scheduled to do anything." He's been asked about accommodation, everything from four-star hotels to hostels. People want to know about the city and what else is happening at the same time.
He's been telling them about the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival and Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, both under way during the voices opening. Since Mitchell's recent release, Both Sides Now, has a strong jazz influence, "I expect there'll be a lot of cross-over" amongst art and jazz fans, Eichhorn says.
The opening is drawing unprecedented media coverage as well. There will be several TV crews and correspondents from Reuters, the Georgia Strait and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.
Mitchell will give a media tour of the exhibition Friday afternoon with Hébert. She'll also be at a private reception before the 8 p.m. opening. The opening will be outdoors, "and then 600 or 700 people will be allowed into the gallery at the same time to see the exhibition," Hébert says. Visitors will proceed through the gallery and out the back door to the reception, to be held in a 55- by 12-metre tent. The tent is necessary to accommodate the crowd. It also resolves the little dilemma presented by a smoke-free museum and a guest artist who is a chain smoker.
Sponsoring the exhibition, which Hébert says is costing between $120,000 and $125,000, are The Investors Group, The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, Inc., SaskTel and Camille Mitchell and family.
This Mitchell is no relation to the artist; she's the granddaughter of meat packing mogul Fred Mendel, founder and benefactor of the civic gallery and conservatory.
Hébert says the opportunity to introduce voices, Mitchell's first Canadian exhibition, is worth hassles with lineups, parking and porta-potties. "We're able to do it thanks to the gallery's remarkable staff," he says. "It's great for the city and for us."
Adds DeWolfe, "It's good for the Mendel to be able to draw in people who don't usually come to the gallery.
Joni Mitchell is local. She's extremely successful. She's an artist in many mediums...but she hasn't forgotten her roots.
"I think she really honours Saskatoon by choosing this venue as the first for her retrospective."
Working with Mitchell has been "exhilarating, fun and challenging," Hébert says.
"She is generous, accommodating and she has very high standards. She knows what she wants. It's refreshing to work with someone that focused." Mitchell "has a specific palette in all things, beyond her painting and her work," the gallery director notes. "She likes blues, but not clear blues. She likes off-colours."
As if for emphasis, Hébert is summoned at this point to approve the poster for the exhibition. It's a reproduction of Mitchell's 1995 painting, Turbulent Indigo, the cover art for her release of the same name. In it, she depicts herself, after Van Gogh's famous self-image, with a bandaged head. "It's beautiful. It looks great," Hébert says of the poster, bordered in purple. "But can we find out if Joni has approved the purple, as opposed to periwinkle blue?"
He's concerned, too, that the blues in the poster aren't true to the painting. Wearing protective white gloves, program facilitator Alex Stratulat brings Turbulent Indigo out of the vault and into the office for comparison. The painting, in its $2,000 frame, is stunning and Mitchell's presence is suddenly there, seeming to stare rather sadly and disapprovingly on the scene.
A flurry of phone calls to managers and public relations types fails to produce confirmation about the poster's background colour. To be on the safe side, a decision is made to go with the blue border.
"I think that's what Joni wanted," Hébert says.
Turbulent Indigo is a key work in this retrospective exhibition, he notes. Van Gogh cut off his ear in 1888 after a violent fight with the artist Gaugin, but Mitchell's self-mutilation is symbolic.
Turbulent Indigo was painted after her keynote address at the Canadian Conference of the Arts meeting in Saskatoon in 1994, Hébert explains. The title of the speech, "We're going to make Van Goghs," is the theme of the title cut on her 1995 Turbulent Indigo recording.
It addresses the whole notion of creativity. She took some criticism for that speech and went home and painted herself as Van Gogh, missing an ear.
"It was a time when she was probably feeling undervalued," Hébert says. Yet Turbulent Indigo won two Grammy awards that year, for best pop album and best album cover.
Mitchell has exhibited widely. She had a major show in Los Angeles last year, and has had others in Europe and Japan. "But she has all the insecurities of any artist," Hébert says.
"There's no presumption here. She doesn't assume people are going to be drawn into her work because of who she is."
He notes that, if asked to name a favourite artist, she'll list visual artists, musicians and writers. She doesn't distinguish amongst art forms, being so comfortable with all three herself.
Fittingly, this retrospective includes not only her art but excerpts from her writing and records. There will be lyrics on the gallery walls, and five of her CDs, including jazz, pop and folk music, on random repeat.
Of the 81 works showing until mid-September, 30 are photo works and 13 are prints, reproduced from early drawings in felt marker. The rest are watercolours and oil paintings.
Early in her career, Mitchell took felt markers with her on the road. In the 1980s, she was using acrylics and working with photography. She was also exploring abstraction. Her recent works are mostly oil paintings, combining landscape and figurative work.
One of the themes of the exhibition is Mitchell's connection to the Prairies, Hébert says. There's a painting featuring the Edmonton skyline, and another of a snowy country lane.
There are also photographic works with layered images reflecting a sentimental journey she took in the late 1980s, a road trip with then-husband Larry Klein between her birthplace in Fort Macleod, through Maidstone and North Battleford to Saskatoon.
So many things I would've done/ But clouds got in my way, Mitchell sang in the 1960s, and echoes, more knowingly, in her recent version of the song, Both Sides Now. Her retrospective offers viewers - and listeners - a chance to marvel at just how much she has done.
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