When Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery launched its Joni Mitchell exhibition Friday, it was the biggest show in its 36-year history and attracted interest all over the world. The retrospective being held in the famous singer's old home town incorporates Mitchell's artwork, singing and lyrics.
Gallery director Gilles Hebert is a big, friendly man, normally laid back. But he was definitely in a rush in the frenetic days before the opening, nervously worrying a hangnail when he paused for a moment.
"Can you courier this to Joni?" he asked, handing a package to his receptionist. 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 simply have laughed.
For more than a year, Hebert has been working with Mitchell on the retrospective show incorporating her artwork, singing and lyrics. Planning began last May in Saskatoon, Mitchell's old home town, and Herbert has since met with her three times at her current home in Los Angeles. The result is Voices, a multidisciplinary exhibition.
It's an art event unlike any Saskatoon has seen. The kind of stir it's creating is rare at even at some of Canada's larger museums, several of which have expressed interest in getting the show, which brings together drawings, photographs and paintings Mitchell has created over the past 35 years.
Hebert 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 that plans for the tour haven't yet been finalized and that he had suggested to Mitchell that it was better not to "even think about it" until after the opening.
At the solitary brick and glass structure on the riverbank gallery staff had worked feverishly to prepare the show for thousands of visitors to the opening. The event was free and open to the public, and the gallery didn't close to midnight.
"Joni Mitchell is local, she's extremely successful, she's an artist in many mediums . . . but she hasn't forgotten her roots," says Anne DeWolfe, a communications and development consultant under contract to the gallery. "I think she really honours Saskatoon by choosing this venue as the first for her retrospective."
Ian Eichhorn, hired as project assistant for the exhibition, has been corresponding with Joni devotees from California to New Hampshire, England to Australia.
"The Joni Mitchell Web site, 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 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 such as North Battleford, Sask. 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 had 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. After some lean times in Toronto and Detroit, her singing and songwriting career took off in California in 1968.
The artist returns frequently to Saskatoon. 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, Hebert 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.
Sponsoring the exhibition, which Hebert 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 an actor who is the granddaughter of meat-packing mogul Fred Mendel, founder and benefactor of the civic gallery and conservatory.
Hebert says the opportunity to introduce voices, Mitchell's first Canadian exhibition, is worth hassles with line-ups, parking and porta-potties.
Working with Mitchell has been "exhilarating, fun and challenging," Hebert 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, Hebert is summoned 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," Hebert says of the poster, bordered in purple. "But can we find out if Joni has approved the purple, as opposed to periwinkle blue?"
Fittingly, this retrospective includes not only her art but excerpts from her writing and records. There are lyrics on the gallery walls, and five of her CDs, including jazz, pop and folk music, are 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, Hebert 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. But her retrospective offers viewers -- and listeners -- the chance to marvel at just how much she has, in fact, done.
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