Four Days In Dreams

I spent the long weekend at the end of August making art, playing music, and finding inspiration at a hand-crafted garden village in the woods north of my hometown. The Vale, as it’s properly called, is a community of artists living in cabins encircling a great hall designed specifically for performances of every variety; from painting, theater, and music, to poetry, brewing, and culinary arts.

The central hall started as a kitchen shack, and over time had evolved into a bonfire pit, an open dance floor, a covered dining area, and then a two-story art pavilion. Little alcoves full of chairs and couches can be found around the bottom floor, with the loft above serving as comfortable, well lit space to lay out canvasses and paints.

Upon arrival I set up my tent out near the cabin of a friendly shaman who offers to chase evil spirits off my shoulders with burning sage, finger-snaps, and magnets. Next to his cabin was an A-frame in which a dancer lived in his own recording studio; opposite him on the other end of the field an actor/playwright lived in a yurt next to the impressive vegetable farm he’d been keeping.

I brought apples from my tree at home to offer up for making pies and crisps, my ukulele, a batch of colored pencils, and several half-filled sketchbooks of varying age and use.

Once I had a place to dump my corpse after midnight, I went directly to the pavilion to see who had arrived and to pick out a deep chair to spend the days ahead working from.

The days were brutally hot. Once the sun hit my tent, it became an oven and there was no way to hang on to sleep. Instead I’d burst out and stumble to the far side of the hall to find coffee and other sleepy artists lounging around one of the several outdoor tables. Once the sun had reached that side of the building, it was our cue to return indoors and get back to our projects.

The nights were cooler and carried a different energy. Performers hit the stage, followed by dancing, childhood games, and the excitement of touring the works of everyone there kept us moving and stretching at intervals.

Like surfers standing in the tide, we would ride the waves that came to us, then come back to shore for food and conversation and visits to the lake. Riding the crest was being fully locked into your work; in the “zone” with work pouring out continuously. Sometimes I’d see the musical wave pass by with other surfers on it and want to switch over mid-stream, and sometimes I would. Mostly, though, I was deeply into finding the rhythm of coming in and going out with explorations in my sketchbook.

Jam 8

I’d go to bed just as the glow of the sun crawling up the horizon so I could get at least a couple of hours of cool darkness to dream in. I wasn’t the last to bed, though. Outdoors, a gathering of roasted, toasted writers, poets, dancers, musicians, actors, and acrobats would blather about whatever absurdities came to mind, and upstairs, steady-handed painters would stay hard at it until they could trade in their lamps for daylight.

After a dark winter and a dull Summer, it was exactly what I needed to remind myself of what good there is gathering, in meeting new people, and in riding the waves of inspiration. Nothing keeps you sharper than joining with others in the same pursuit.

I made some new connections in the cities nearby, and caught the sound of the festival train moving steadily onward through the winter. I’m hoping I can make it over to Cumberland for the Woodstove festival, and whatever comes after that wherever it lands.

The whole experience makes me want to reshape my big house and yard into a place where artists and musicians can come and play. Ever since strolling through the streets of Portland Oregon on holiday and seeing all these old houses turned into quasi-formal lounges, I’d wanted to build such a space – but until now I thought it was impossible. Things have changed, and I’m looking at my Autumn projects with a different eye.

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Music: Petunia and the Vipers

Petunia and the Vipers have come through Powell River twice in the last few months, taking the stage at the Red Lion Pub in Wildwood for both performances. Packed out and sold out both times, I was there roaming around the edges taking it all in.

Petunia 1

That one time Petunia had a beard and sang Lou Lou at the Red Lion in Powell River.

Some of you may be wondering what a guy named after a flower and a bunch of snakes might sound like on stage anyway. It’s not a question that’s quickly answered, but I’ll try.

Seeing Petunia and the Vipers play, to me, answers the question “I wonder what it would be like to be in a dance hall back in the day tapping toes to the likes of Hank Williams, Wanda Jackson, or even Harry Belafonte?”.

That’s the answer right there. It’s happening in front of you. Right now.

And that’s not to say that Petunia and the Vipers are a nostalgia act. These guys are just continuing a still vital tradition of musicianship going back to a time most often glimpsed in the photographs of our grandparents on the mantle, or heard warbling out of old records on the turntable. It’s still there, it’s just out on the road far away from the noise and pomp of what came after and because.

But I didn’t really spend my nights with the Vipers analyzing the music. In truth, I was busy cutting rugs.

The energy was high, and the band was as tireless as it was deft. Through roots country, through calypso, through darkest ragtime – the Vipers brought two nights and several encores of their best home-grown from all over the musical map. And when the night downshifted into something like the Cricket Song or Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, it gave us a dreamy, sunset dappled respite before diving back into the breathless, almost acrobatic pieces like Baby Amy and Lou Lou.

Petunia 2

Jimmy Roy plays.

Any time Petunia’s in town, whether by himself with the Vipers behind him, I try my best to make it to every show, and I end up seeing the same group of die-hards in the crowd each time. It’s almost like a club that mobilizes only for them, gathering only in their presence. Their battle-cry is Jimmy Roy’s name.

If you’ve been sitting around on the fence wondering whether this band is worth the babysitter money, take it from one of the die-hards: go see Petunia and the Vipers.


For more information on Petunia and the Vipers, visit their official website here.

If you want to check out the sound and character of the band, check out the videos for Mercy and Chained right here.

And click here to read what I wrote about Petunia a couple of years ago when he passed through and played for us at the Cranberry Hall.

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Art: Petunia

There’s a community hall right in my neighbourhood that’s always booking travelling musicians from all over Canada to stop in for an evening and play. With a steady parade of folk and bluegrass touring through, the doors to the Cranberry Hall are most often like a time-machine to an era I’d only ever experienced through books and old recordings (or possibly the Cohen Brothers’ “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”).

The performers are young, and yet they look and sound as though they’d stepped out of old vinyl and the family photos of our great grandparents. Often unplugged, and sometimes lit by candles, sitting in the small, church shaped hall and listening to the hushed and natural sound of voices and strings is completely transporting. I never miss a show there if I can help it.

One of my all-time favourite performances there was by a guy called Petunia. I hadn’t heard of him prior to seeing him play, but afterward I became a huge fan. He opened as a yodelling cowboy singer in the vein of Jimmy Rogers (listen here), then carried on through a range of hill-billy and ragtime to early rock and calypso. It was astonishing.

Afterwards I bought his record, shook his hand, and made sure to see him play whenever I could. The last time was at Slickety Jim’s in Vancouver for my birthday, in which the whole restaurant joined in for a sing-along of “Minnie the Moocher“.

Now, and for the past couple of years, I’ve been painting portraits of musicians that I’ve seen perform live, or that I otherwise find inspiring. I’d hit a bit of a creative drought during the Winter, but I had just finished a quick Tom Waits, and decided to keep my momentum and follow it up immediately with a painting of Petunia. No real reason. I just felt like doing it.

Petunia and some Petunias

Petunia and some Petunias

Now this is where things get a little spooky.

As soon as I had finished – like within the next 10 minutes – I was told he had been booked to play that same community hall just down the road from me.

How weird is that? A guy that plays all over the world is playing in my neighbourhood, and I find out about it just minutes after I finish painting his portrait.

Coincidences are funny things.

In any case, I figured it might be in my best interests to paint a huge bag of money and a sail boat. Y’know. Just in case. For now, I’ll just be satisfied to know that I get to see Petunia play at the Cranberry Hall again in just a few weeks.

And hey, if you’re interested in having a print of this painting of mine, you can grab one here, or here. If you do get one, I’d be curious to know if having it magically summons the musician himself to your town for a gig.

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Art: Haaaaat

I watched the Grammys when it aired in hopes of seeing the National win for Best Alternative Music Album (which went to Vampire Weekend instead), and stuck around like a true completionist to the end for Trent Reznor and Queens of the Stone Age. Well, almost the end.

Apart from hoping to see the National win, I was genuinely curious to see what goes on at the Grammys. I hadn’t watched this particular award show since I was a kid and decided that now might be a good time to jump back into the broadest part of the pop culture loop and try it on for size. I mean, I’m a music junkie. Shouldn’t I be watching this?

There were performances, speeches, weddings and all sorts of things I’m neither savvy enough or snarky enough to make comment on, and yes, I found it all curious and entertaining. I mean, that room was full of monstrous, legendary talent any way you slice it, and that will always be a fascinating world to catch a glimpse into.

And then there was this hat.

Mountie Mountain

Mountie Mountain

I found it kind of odd and distracting when they’d cut to Pharell for a reaction, or to see him take the stage, but I didn’t otherwise think much of it at the time of broadcast. It was just a slightly larger-than-average brown hat. People wear strange stuff at the Grammys all the time, and so I pretty much tuned it out (I mean, Pharell’s dates to the show were a couple of French robots, right?)

What I found fascinating about the whole thing was the reaction and discussion that this hat brought about. I think Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See blog said it best in her piece entitled Pharell Williams and the Power Hat, which was what first drew my attention to this whole thing as a thing in the first place.

And so bored, restless, and totally dry of inspiration days later, a dim lightbulb lit up above my head and I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be funny if you painted Pharell and his hat, except the hat is – get this – even BIGGER!?”

Oh the hilarity.

So there it is. What I thought would be a 20 minute doodle was hijacked by my sense of perfectionism and turned into a two hour painting of Pharell and his giant Mountie hat. Was it time well spent? Probably not.

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