Living Below Ground – Francis Benjamin Johnston

Francis Benjamin Johnston, [Janitor apartment. 137 East 30th Street, New York, New York. Stairwell garden], circa 1922. Glass lantern slide.

Francis Benjamin Johnston, [Janitor apartment. 137 East 30th Street, New York, New York. Stairwell garden], circa 1922. Glass lantern slide.

I love this image of the entrance to a basement apartment in New York from the 1920s, there’s just so much character and all the plants. Some serious entrance goals.


Out & About – Camera


This past weekend I went and saw The Cool School at Camera, which is part of the Stephen Bulger Gallery located at 1026 Queen Street West, Toronto. Produced by Morgan Neville and Kristine McKenna and distributed by Arthouse Films, the documentary looks at the importance of the Ferus Gallery and the nascent modern art scene in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  I highly recommend watching this film if you are interested in American Expressionism because The Cool School provides an alternative scene of the movement showing what was happening in L.A. during the same period of time and how that scene evolved into distinct movements that were entirely avant garde, by artists such as Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, and Ed Ruscha. Centred around Walter Hopps and the Ferus Gallery the film delves into various aspects of the art scene in L.A. and how influential it was to become.

This summer Camera is screening various art documentaries for free at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday. There are two more movies in this series:

August 13th, Standard Operating Procedure

August 20th, Exit Through the Gift Shop

August 27th, Smash His Camera

Happy Long Weekend

Today is a civic holiday here in Canada. I’ll be out helping a friend install her upcoming exhibition Us (& It) at Ryerson Artspace at the Gladstone, 1214 Queen St West here in Toronto. The opening is on Thursday, August 4th from 7 to 10 pm. I hope to see you there.

Clare Samuel, from Us (& It), 2016.

Clare Samuel, from Us (& It), 2016.

Out & About – Shakespeare in High Park

Last week, Christina and I ventured to High Park to see Hamlet, presented by the Canadian Stage and directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte. After a wonderful dinner at the tree house (a.k.a. Christina’s place), we walked over to the park and joined the crowd of people ready to see one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. After finding good seats, we settled in for the long haul, with the play running approximately an hour and forty-five minutes and with no intermission (an endurance test, to say the least).


The set was minimalist and lent an air of modernity that was peppered throughout the entire production, from the costumes to many of the directorial touches (did Ophelia really need to get “naked”?). The play was a condensed adaptation that stuck, for the most part, to the original but for this viewer there was something that was lacking.

But I don’t want to be entirely negative. The actor playing Hamlet, Frank Cox-O’Connell (below), did a wonderful job portraying the complexities of the role. While traditionalists may have been turned off by the more contemporary touches of this pot smoking, grieving-turned-slightly mad Danish Prince, I enjoyed Cox-O’Connell’s take on the role. His acting was a convincing mix of a roguish youth mourning the loss of his father, a confused and angered son, dealing with his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle, and a conflicted young man wanting to revenge the death of his father but navigating the ethical and moral terms of this plea of violence from the ghost of his father.

Hamlet’s relationship to Ophelia, in this version, was slightly uneven and confused. Playing opposite of Cox-O’Connell was Rose Tuong as Ophelia. I wanted to like Tuong in her role but no matter how hard I tried I thought she was the weak link in the production with her over the top performance and uneven approach to her role. I blame these two faults on the director who seems to have wanted to create a buzz through some of her choices with Ophelia. By this I mean the overt sexual gestures, for example Ophelia taking of her nickers, and when in her mad state, after the murder of her mother, she tears off her clothing (leaving Ophelia in nude undergarments, which was not at all shocking and left me wondering – WHY?). This last point was especially at odds when Gertrude speaks after Ophelia has committed suicide:

“. . . When downe the Weedy Trophies, and her selfe,
Fell in the weeping Brooke, her cloathes spred wide,
And Mermaid-like, a while they bore her up . . .”

(Hamlet, from the original act 4, scene 7)


Other notable performances besides Cox-O’Connell’s were by Kaleb Alexander who plays Laertes and Nicky Guadagni who plays a gender reversed role as Polonius as mother, instead of father to Laertes and Ophelia.

Shakespeare in High Park banner

Every summer I look forward to Shakespeare in the park and, as you can tell, I was pretty disappointed with this production. I may have to go and see All’s Well that Ends Well to hopefully even out the experience.

Currently Reading – The White Road

I enjoy reading and I thought I would share with you what I am currently reading. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund de Waal is part history and part biography. Written by famed potter de Waal, the book explores the history of porcelain, the medium the potter is best known for working with.


The book is a treat for those who have done primary research and de Waal takes us through a literary adventure of his own “obsession” or research process. Peppered throughout the book are images, such as the one below. I am learning so much about not only the various histories of the medium but also about de Waal’s own commitment to porcelain and his career.


I first encountered de Waal’s writing with his book The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. This book was spellbinding to me and I highly recommend it. Another book based on biography and history, The Hare with Amber Eyes traces de Waal’s inheritance of a collection of netsuke tracing back the ownership of this collection to his great, great-uncle Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and friend to many of the Impressionist painters in Paris. The journey of the netsuke takes de Waal all-over Europe and finally to Japan, where the tiny sculptures had originated.


Both books have a sense of loss that is tied to the intersection of history and lived experience, that I appreciate. Material culture comes alive in de Waal’s books and the narratives he weaves around common (or uncommon) artifacts.

Living Below Ground – Joseph Cornell’s Basement Studio






*All images: Cornell’s basement studio, 3708 Utopia Parkway, Flushing, New York, 1964.  © Terry Schutté.

Joseph Cornell’s studio was in the basement of his home, located aptly on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York. Hidden in the shoe boxes, folders, tins and other assorted organizing containers, was the source material for his art. Each receptacle was painted white and labelled in Cornell’s hand and indicated what was inside. These include descriptive labels, “Watch Parts,” “Love Letters,” and “Seashells.” But Cornell also used more poetic phrases for organizing his source material, such as “Centre of a Labyrinth,” “Celestial Theatre,” and “Childhood Regained.” Inside these boxes and files were assorted objects, images, newspaper clippings, and other archival material that was collected with dedication.  While other artists use paint, marble, or other mediums – Cornell used the detritus of life to create his artwork.

But what do we make of Cornell using his basement as a studio? Cornell did not live alone in the house on Utopian Parkway. Sharing it with his mother and brother, one can imagine space was tight. Where Virginia Woolf, in her extended essay “A Room of One’s Own,” claimed that space was needed to write – one could easily expand Woolf’s concept to include the artist. In the lowly basement, Cornell claimed the space he needed to create his work.

The use of a basement for his studio makes me think of the interiority of his work. A basement is typically limited to small windows, if there are any at all. From the first picture above, we can see Cornell’s studio had at least one window. And yet, Cornell created these miniature universes within six-sided shadow boxes. These containers work like windows into small constructed spaces, and isn’t that what windows do? Compose a view out into the world? Contained and interior, much like a basement, Cornell’s boxes afford the viewer an access point into the interiority of Cornell’s life. Both window and world.



Out & About – The Hearn

On June 26th, Clare and I went to check out the final day of Luminato at the derelict Hearn Power Station. Here are some snaps from that day.



Michel de Broin, One Thousand Speculations, 2013 (7.9 metre in diameter ball made up of 1,000 mirrors)

Michel de Broin, One Thousand Speculations, 2013 (7.9 metre in diameter ball made up of 1,000 mirrors)



(I am the worst. I didn’t note who did the work above)

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Liegender Frauenakt), concrete sculpture, bee hive, bee colony, 2012.

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Liegender Frauenakt), concrete sculpture, bee hive, bee colony, 2012.


Living Below Ground – The Invisible Man

Jeff Wall, After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface, 1999-2001.

Jeff Wall, After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface, 1999-2001.


“The point now is that I found a home—or a hole in the ground, as you will. Now don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a “hole” it is damp and cold like a grave; there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. . . . My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night. . . . And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form.”

Condensed excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, first published 1952 (New York: Random House, 1982), pages 5-6.

In the summer of 2009, I took part in a school trip to Paris. On a visit to the Musée du Quai Branly I was fortunate to see an exhibition on the evolution of Jazz music. Jazz Century was a fantastic exhibition, full of art, artifacts, and music. One of the highlights was close to the end of the exhibition, Jeff Wall’s After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (pictured above). Presented as a large scale backlit colour transparency the  joy of seeing this work in person is the amount of detail Wall packed into the image.

“Mine is a warm hole . . .” The narrator states discussing his basement dwelling. I have never read the book (it is on my list of books to read this summer) so I can’t speak to the importance of the basement within the larger arc of the story but the quote is lovely and deals with one of the major issues I will have to tackle once I move in – warmth and light.

Living Below Ground – Laura Ingalls Wilder Style

Since this blog is supposed to be primarily about basement living, I thought I could look at different ways of living below ground is found in literature and art. When I initially thought of doing this, my mind immediately went to the dugout in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book On the Banks of Plum Creek (the fourth book in the popular Little House on the Prairie series). Built by a Norwegian settler named Mr. Hanson, the dugout was located on the banks of Plum Creek, near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The Ingalls family lived there between 1874 and 1876, after moving away from the prairies and the dangers associated with their time there.



As a child, I remember being enchanted with the idea of living under a grassy knoll. From the description in the book the interior walls were whitewashed and the only natural light came from the one window that was set far into the earthen wall, as Wilder explains, “But the wall was so thick that the light from the window stayed near the window.” While I know my wee basement apartment will not have the charm of living as Laura Ingalls did in a handmade dugout, I like the idea of associating basement living to one of my favourite childhood books. Hopefully the lighting situation will be better in my new place . . .