New Images for a New Year

Photo by Curtis Wehrfritz The first official photographer of the Six String Nation was Sandor Fizli. Sandor was based in Halifax-Dartmouth back in 2005 and I'd seen his photo of my guitar-maker, George Rizsanyi, in the Globe and Mail and got in touch to see if he would shoot all of Voyageur's constituent materials as they came in to the workshop and various phases of the construction process. Sandor accompanied us to Parliament Hill for the big debut in 2006 and took some great shots there in tandem with Doug Nicholson who has been the official photographer for the Nation ever since (with a few guest appearances by Jim Panou). At this point, Doug has shot somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 portrait images featuring Voyageur with 15,000+ different people in every province and territory of Canada and at a session in Orta San Giulio, Italy. Add to that a similar or greater number of candid and performance images and you're looking at a unique relationship between photographer and subject closing in on half a million photos. I'm not sure even William Wegman's Weimaraners have that many shots!

As much as I never tire of looking at Doug's beautiful images – and as much as I look forward to some upcoming photo sessions at events with Doug (looking at you Saskatoon!), I've always wondered about having other artists interpret Voyageur in their own visual medium. I have a fantasy about a gallery exhibition featuring images of the guitar or representing the ideas of the Six String Nation by some of my favorite painters, for example. A recent encounter with an old friend in Parkdale lead to what I hope will be the beginning of the revelation of a whole new side of Voyageur and I couldn't be more pleased with the results.

I first met Curtis Wehrfritz back in the early '80s when I was a DJ at CKLN-FM in Toronto and Curtis was a student at what was then OCA (now OCADU, the Ontario College of Art and Design University). Our connection was music and Curtis was studying sculpture at school but he drifted into filmmaking and before too long had established himself as a unique voice in the fledgling world of music videos, making videos with artists like Holly Cole, Crowded House, Blue Rodeo and (perhaps most famously) Leonard Cohen, whose video for "Closing Time" won Curtis a Juno Award. He's also made some great commercials, a feature film and a number of shorts....but as much as the commercial work keeps him up to date with the latest digital video gear, his passion has taken him back in time to a much more hands-on, much more artisanal process of image making.

Back in the fall, I bumped into Curtis while we were both out doing errands on Queen St. – we seem to bump into each other about once every couple of years just for good measure. Over coffee, we commiserated about life in the arts in Canada and Curtis told me about the work that was really firing his imagination. It revolves around what Curtis calls "photography 2.0" (though perhaps it's closer to version 1.2), wet-plate collodion photography, invented in 1851 as a quicker and more stable advance over the earlier Daguerrotype process. Curtis's studio includes camera boxes and lenses dating back to that time and working with them seems so at odds with our instant-image-obsessed culture. But that was part of the appeal of doing this series of photos. Not only does the technology capture light in a particular way, but the vagaries of the process of the wet-plate preparation means that the image capturing medium contains its own artifacts that reveal themselves in the developing stage. One of the things that really struck me as Curtis and I talked about what we might do, was that he saw these collodion photos as having a kind of layered character – almost holographic. He talked about the photos as being a bit like reliquaries from a dream state. That (if you'll pardon the pun) really struck a chord with me because in many ways Voyageur functions in a similar way. While it appears to be a guitar on its surface, it is also a layered collection of stories that reveal themselves depending on where it is and who's playing it – as subject to the random particulars of the situation as photosensitive particles in the emulsion on the collodion plate.

We had a rough idea of what we might do and then one day in late November the stars aligned a little earlier than we thought they would and I went down to Curtis' home studio (it's just a few blocks away) in a converted dairy from the turn-of-the-last-century Parkdale. Curtis had set us up to do a series of photos themed to his "As Above So Below" series, which I thought fit perfectly with what Voyageur brought to the party. Curtis captured four exposures on a couple of different sized plates. Each one has its own imperfections and its own mysteries and I love them all. When I left the studio they were still in the drying stage so I haven't yet seen them in their finished, varnished form but I can't wait! You can see scans of all four images in our Flickr Gallery here.

We haven't yet discussed what exactly is going to happen with all of these beautiful plates but Curtis has kindly offered me one or two. I'm thinking that the smallest format plate might work well mounted on Voyageur's Calton case but I'm going to need some expert advice before we embark on that phase. In the meantime, I want to thank Curtis for the profound honour of doing these wonderful images of Voyageur and beginning the expansion of this project's visual legacy. I hope everyone will love these images as much as I do.

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Sound Familiar? A Nod from @CBCThisIsThat

This Is That's "Unity Shovel" It's a bit of a dream to be spoofed, parodied, roasted, imitated, etc. It marks a kind of arrival. It can be uncomfortable watching James Franco (or whoever) sitting there taking the most brutal insults from the others on the dais but you realize they have submitted to it because, having arrived on that stage, they know there is a toll to be paid – and who better to pay it to than your friends and colleagues who will one day switch roles with you and suffer your ribbing as the price of success.

So, first of all, I'd like to thank the producers of CBC Radio's This Is That in Edmonton, who have "honoured" Voyageur by spoofing it in a piece that airs again tomorrow at 11:00am nationwide on CBC Radio One. If you don't know the show, that will serve you well if you listen for the first time tomorrow. It was the brightest spark in the 2011 crop of summer replacement shows and got picked up for the regular schedule a year later. In a style that will be familiar to fans of The Onion, This Is That (conveniently un-acronym-able in polite company) mimics perfectly the earnest style of generations of CBC weekend magazine shows. It can be painfully funny until you get too familiar with the formula and begin to recognize the cast of voices too readily – which is why it pays to be a newbie. The segment focuses on a guy named George Bainbridge and the realization of his dream – an object made from fragments of Canadiana brought together in an effort to overcome the challenge of connecting us all across Canada (sound familiar?): the Unity Shovel (though, oddly, they seem to have fashioned a spade rather than a snow shovel – what's that about?)

At the risk of looking a gift-gag in the mouth (wait a minute...that doesn't sound right) I do want to register a small objection:
There is a suggestion in the spoof that the project was funded by taxpayer dollars (1.5 million of them in the web headline, 150,000 of them in the audio). Now, I don't know about their fictional shovel but the Six String Nation guitar, Voyageur, was not so fortunate. And in spite of having amazing adventures and being played by amazing musicians and connecting with tens of thousands of amazing Canadians (many of them also snow shovelers, presumably) in every province and territory of Canada, it continues to not be supported by tax dollars. In fact, it still faces some pretty steep challenges just to keep going. When James Franco takes a few on the chin for our entertainment, he's dressed in his formal-wear just like his friends/tormentors. CBC played a huge role in putting the Six String Nation project in a very precarious position – one that we struggle with every day to overcome. In retrospect, I'm glad that CBC Television took its hooks out of Six String Nation because I was increasingly afraid that what they might have made of it would have been the kind of show that This Is That does such a brilliant job of satirizing. I'm lucky that the people who encounter Voyageur at festival, conference, community and school presentations recognize it as something richer, deeper, more personal and more fun than that. I just wish we had the luxury of being stable enough as a project to receive This Is That's roasting with as much grace and good humour as it deserves – even if that means renting a tux because I certainly can't afford to buy one.

If you can't tune in to the whole show tomorrow, you can check out the Unity Shovel bit here. And be sure to check out my Twitter feed @SixStringNation to see a picture of This Is That producer Chris Kelly with Voyageur taken at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival back in 2006.
Thanks (really) to Chris, Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring.

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Head in the Game @TeamNext

Bruny Surin and Kimberly Hyacinthe As I said in my post about the Sport Leadership Conference earlier this month in Ottawa, I think there is a real resonance between artists and amateur athletes – especially in Canada: both depend on a combination of individual talent and teamwork to deliver the product to audiences, both try to connect those audiences to something within themselves and something bigger than themselves, and both are supremely underfunded.
The similarities were not lost on Ashley LaBrie, director of operations for AthletesCAN – an organization that supports amateur athletes in all their off-the-field challenges, from connecting them to available funds to advocating on their behalf at the provincial, national and international level. She extended an invitation to come down to a dinner at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto capping a day of activities for PanAm and ParaPan hopefuls participating in CIBC Team Next – a three-year bursary and mentorship program for promising athletes.

I went down with Voyageur and delivered an abridged version of the presentation to 50+ athletes and their mentors. It was a chance to continue the conversation with Stephanie Dixon we'd begun the week before at SportLeadership, to meet the wonderful and energetic Olympic Gold Medal triathlete Simon Whitfield and to share Voyageur with a group of people all prepared to do great things for Canada. Two of them did great things for Voyageur by playing a little for the gathering following the presentation: up and coming triathlete Andrew Yorke played a little Neil Young while 2012 Paralympian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy (coincidentally celebrating a birthday that night) favored us with some Radiohead.

Photographer Ahren Cadieux was set up to take some photos of the group and we managed to get just about everyone – including the legendary 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Bruny Surin, pictured above motivating his mentee, sprinter Kimberly Hyacinthe.

Thanks to Ahren and Ashley, to all of the #CIBCTeamNext participants and to Andrew Greenlaw and his CIBC Team Next team for their support of these athletes.
Thanks also to Wojtek for the audio-visual in the room.

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Good Sports @CAC_ACE #SportLeadership

Singer Angela Marie poses with Jowi and Voyageur First of all, I want to acknowledge that my friends at the National Speakers Bureau really do try to sell the Six String Nation experience to conference clients but I know it can be a bit of a tough sell. After all, if you're organizing a conference for health information management professionals or financial services technologists or hotel franchisees, it may not be apparent why you'd want your keynote speaker to talk about a guitar. But time and again I have the experience of sharing Voyageur's story with an audience and there's this moment that happens when I feel a profound connection with the room. It's the moment when the audience realizes that the story I'm telling is actually about them. At that point, all the connections that the project makes possible kind of come to life and everyone in the room feels that the story is a reflection of their own story, their own experience, their own organization. It's a beautiful thing.

I was very fortunate for this past weekend's event at the Westin Ottawa for the Coaching Association of Canada's PetroCanada Sport Leadership Conference that I had a couple of strong advocates in conference organizers Krista Benoit and Kelly Michael, who recognized the Six String Nation message as a great fit for the gathering. That opinion might not have been shared by everyone (or more likely it was just the result of over-indulgence at the awards gala and afterparty on Friday night!) as the ballroom was only about half filled on that first-thing-Saturday-morning slot. But gradually people filtered in and as I got further into the story, the more I felt the room was with me. It turned out to be one of the most profoundly affecting experiences for me of any presentation I've done. Here, after all, were elite-level athletes, coaches and association representatives who must be constantly aware of the relationship between individual contribution and national identity, cultural diversity and common purpose. It all capped off with a spontaneous request from the crowd for a rendition of "O Canada" which left not a dry eye in the house. I was honored and moved to be a part of the event.

The "performance pocket" was handled beautifully by Ottawa native Angela Marie (pictured with me, above), who did two originals, "Built for Breaking" and "Like Shania" as well as a cover of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" – fitting in the singer's home town and I believe the first Alanis song sung with Voyageur!

Following the presentation and the impromptu anthem, we repaired to the foyer where I signed books and people stood in line for over an hour to meet and hold Voyageur. I was so grateful to meet with such a warm and enthusiastic reception and have so many people offer to advocate that Six String Nation find a role at the PanAm and ParaPanAm Games next summer. It's something I've been trying to do on my own but haven't had much success with... yet. I was especially touched by Paralympic multi-medal winning swimmer Stephanie Dixon who co-emceed the event with fellow Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot and hung around to chat about a number of things once the line up had cleared. Stay tuned, we may be hatching a couple of really interesting initiatives in the future!

Thanks to everyone who attended, I'm glad you did. Thanks again to Kelly and Krista, Angela, Stephanie and Benoit as well as Dan Lamoureux, Conrad Hijazi and the rest of the EPS Canada crew who made everything run so smoothly. Thanks also to Lori Wagner from Porter Airlines not only for their support of the event and my travel to it but also for their ongoing support of Canadian amateur athletes and the great care they take with Voyageur every time we fly Porter. And an extra special thanks to my dear Sarah Gillett who handled book sales and made the whole weekend seem a holiday.

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Hillcrest Opportunity

Oluwayomi Odusi plays for fellow students at Hillcrest HS Knowing I'd be in Ottawa for the Coaching Association of Canada's Sport Leadership Conference on Saturday morning, I booked travel to be able to spend the weekend with a friend and provide an opportunity for some of my Ottawa-area school contacts to request a presentation. Teacher Jeannie Hunter, whom I met at the Ontario Music Educators Association Conference back in 2009, has been a consistent advocate for the Six String Nation and arranged for me to get an invitation to Ottawa's Hillcrest High School while she was away at this year's edition of OMEA.

I was greeted at the main door by students, music teacher Melanie Reeks and principal Barry Bickerton. Together, they all facilitated the set up in the auditorium and we managed some group portraits with some special ed and music classes before the doors opened. Three students were lined up to play Voyageur in the "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation: Oluwayomi Odusi (pictured) was up first, with Melbourne Eve playing next and Cansu Ozturk (she was the only singer among the three) performing last. Still, the three songs didn't quite get us to the end of the 8-minute performance pocket sequence so I called on principal Bickerton who had already volunteered to be on standby. Barry has a very friendly face and demeanor and when he started to play it seemed pretty pretty much in character. But after just a couple of bars his growling inner bluesman really emerged and had the whole assembly cheering. Later, he wrote me the most wonderful note that said, in part: Friday's assembly stands as one of the proudest moments for me in my career as a principal and I can tell you that students and staff who were drawn to the stage at the end of your presentation were just as enthralled as I was.

Thanks to Barry, Melanie, Jeannie, all the players, all the students and especially the crew who were very entertaining in their own right as they ribbed each other throughout the set up. I hope I'll have yet another opportunity to strengthen the bond between Six String Nation and Hillcrest down the road some time.

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A Chance Encounter in Calgary

Tom Jackson in Calgary I'm lucky to have good friends in different parts of Canada and so my occasional travels revolving around Voyageur give me an opportunity see people I wish I saw on a more regular basis. That was certainly the case this past weekend where I got to spend some quality catch-up time with old and dear friends Ted & Sue Koleff and squeeze in a pre-departure early lunch meeting Monday with my good pal Ian Menzies. Just as I was pulling up to the restaurant to meet Ian, I saw someone I've been wanting to see for a long time but never had the chance – the legendary actor, musician and activist Tom Jackson (pictured).

Through a friend, I corresponded briefly with Tom back when I was researching for the Six String Nation project and still looking for materials. Knowing he was from Saskatchewan originally, I was hoping he might connect me to something from Batoche. Our Louis Riel-related material ended up coming (spectacularly) from St. Boniface MB while Tom clued me in to the story of Almighty Voice from the One Arrow First Nation in Saskatchewan. He put me in touch with some people in the community and we ended up getting a piece of stone from the monument to the young Cree man whose tragic tale was a testament to the appalling treatment of First People by the North West Mounted Police and the injustices of the reserve system. It is now mounted as one of three inlays in the first fret of Voyageur.

I'm so glad I finally got a chance to put the guitar in Tom's hands and he played beautifully right there in the parking lot. Thanks for taking the time, Tom!

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Re-imagining John Ware

Cheryl Foggo I'd heard earlier this summer about a new play about Alberta's legendary black cowboy, John Ware, produced by Ellipsis Tree Theatre in Calgary written by author, screenwriter, historian and playwright Cheryl Foggo (pictured). Knowing that I"d be returning Voyageur to John Ware's Cabin to recognize the contribution of material for the pick-guard, I thought it might be nice to try and share the guitar and the story with Cheryl while I was passing through Calgary on the way home – especially since her play featured music by friend-of-the-Six-String-Nation Kris Demeanor and Foggo's daughter, Miranda Martini. So I reached out by email and much to my delight she was available and suggested a meet-up.

Cheryl and I had a lot to talk about and had a wide-ranging conversation about everything from John Ware to songwriting to public broadcasting. I'm hopeful that one day we'll be able to make some kind of collaborative presentation including Kris and Miranda and the guitar that links us all together. In the meantime it was a pleasure just to meet and to hear about the academic work Cheryl is doing which is on the verge of revealing some undiscovered facts about the life of Canada's most legendary black cowboy. There are details that will impact the presentation that I give at schools and conferences across Canada and I will look forward to sharing them in this space as Cheryl publishes her research.

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Alberta Homecoming Part Three: John Ware’s Cabin

Fred Hammer, Dinosaur Provincial Park Ranger The final homecoming this trip to southern Alberta made possible was a visit to John Ware's cabin. Ware was an African-American cowboy who arrived in Alberta in the late 1800's and established himself as a respected rancher and businessman. His prowess on horseback might have been enough of a foundation for his legacy but his gentle manner, his resilience, his feats of strength, his political savvy, his business acumen and his fatherhood all contributed to the making of a legend. There are many monuments and tributes to him in this part of the province but in particular his cabin has been preserved and was moved from its original location in Brooks AB to nearby Dinosaur Provincial Park. Ranger Fred Hammer (pictured) had been my contact for obtaining a small piece of wood from the cabin, which is now mounted on the face of Voyageur as an element of the pick-guard, so I was keen to make the pilgrimage.

The drive between Hand Hills and Brooks is clearly ranching and farming territory: long straight roads defining vast stretches of farming and grazing land dotted with cattle and horses. It was not hard to imagine Ware working this land. But then something very very weird happens as you approach the Park. There is evidence of some.... topography...on the horizon. You enter the park, climb a very short rise and round a bend in the road and all of a sudden a massive bowl is revealed and you feel like you have been transported to another planet. A UNESCO World Heritage site and the source of an astonishingly diverse collection of dinosaur fossils that have found their way to museums around the world, it appears you are looking at a vast, empty Cretaceous-era inland sea and it's not hard to imagine the prehistoric life that would have inhabited its waters and gathered at its shores. It is perhaps an unlikely location for an early 20th Century cabin but had it not been moved there it might not have been preserved at all. With the resources of the Provincial Park and the restoration expertise of Parks Canada, the cabin is accessible to a large number of visitors as evidence of an important figure in Black History in Canada and a giant in the society of Alberta as it moved into Province-hood in 1905.

Thanks to Fred Hammer and the rest of the staff at the Park – and to the nice Dutch tourists who came over to discover Voyageur and take back a few photos of a part of Canadian history they did not expect to find at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

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Alberta Homecoming Part Two: Hand Hills

Hand Hills Lake Community Hall Part of my unofficial goal for the Six String Nation project is to eventually visit Voyageur to all the places from whence it has come. This trip to southern Alberta has been a prodigal hat trick - first with our visit to the Kainai First Nation - source of the ammolite buffalo skull mounted inside the guitar. I set of early this morning in hopes of visiting two more material sources before I had to be at a meeting in Calgary.

My first stop was Hand Hills Lake - 38km east of Drumheller – site of Alberta's longest running pro rodeo founded by J.J. Miller in 1917, the Hand Hills Lake Stampede. Rancher and fourth generation Stampede committee member Blake Morton provided us with a piece of floorboard from the old Community Hall that sits between the lake and the rodeo grounds at the bottom of Township Rd 29-4. Blake and I had a great phone conversation a couple of days ago but he was to be away from the ranch on cattleman's business today so we didn't get a chance to meet. However, I made my way over a lot of country roads and down to the rodeo grounds, where I found the community hall (pictured) in a pretty sorry state of repair. I didn't see the new community hall but wherever it is, I imagine it would be a much more comfortable place to be on a hot day. Nonetheless, I'm so glad I got to drive those roads and see this place - even when it's not at its most alive.

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Leaving Lethbridge

Raymond Jr. High Voyageur enthusiasts Most of the fields around Lethbridge have a kind of shorn, russet-y look. People are working overtime to get the potatoes harvested, leaves are turning and this morning there was frost on the windows of the rental car. To borrow a phrase:
Winter Is Coming.

Probably appropriate, then – after such a bountiful series of presentations at 14 schools in the region plus the concert in Vulcan plus last night's Friends of the Foundation dinner – that today was the final stop on this magnificent tour put together by my friends at the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta - the Junior High down in Raymond, a little closer still to the U.S. border.

Principal Cory Bevans and librarian Sally Roberts helped me get set up in the crows nest tech booth cantilevered over the bleachers in the gym. Everyone seemed a bit doubtful that they knew what they were doing but it all worked perfectly. The presentation went really well with performances on Voyageur by student Paisley Perrett and teacher Ryan Heseltine (a saxophonist by training so I especially appreciated his foray on the six string). Many students came up afterwards to touch various parts of Voyageur and a sizeable bunch seemed to just stick around so we put together the informal "class" picture above.

Heading back in to Lethbridge I stopped in at Lucky Star Guitars to say my goodbyes to owner Mike Christou, who also came to last night's Foundation dinner. While I was there, Allan Wilson - guitarist in the band of last night's emcee, Dory Rossiter (CTV regional weather anchor): Dory & the Weathermen – dropped in and played Voyageur for a while, followed by Pincher Creek guitarist Jay Collins. Mike also showed me his first stringed instrument - a gorgeous little mandolin made for him in Alert Bay. I felt I could have stayed all afternoon.

From there, a swing by the Foundation office for farewells and a final toast of Prosecco with the extraordinary staff who did such a great job pulling this tour together and giving me the privilege of meeting so many people in so many communities in this beautiful part of Canada.
A heartfelt thanks to George Hall, Erin Vogt, Joey Going and Deb Stoltenberg.
Now it's early to bed for an early morning setting off, frost scraper at the ready.
Winter is coming.

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