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Artists, Tony Gregson

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A shaggy giant stoops down to glower out of the frame, a classically muscled Monstroso, in the nude, dayglo mythology in slashes of yellow and greens. The figure is actually meant to be Polyphemus, the man-eating Cyclops of Odyssey fame. But wait a minute – isn’t that a familiar face? Could that be Denman’s very own Andrew Fyson, of Baroque Festival fame?

Welcome to the world of Roxanne Cowes-McPhail, painter, sculptor, dramaturge, performance artist and acknowledged leader in the art of creative disruption.An exhibition at the Guesthouse, in conjunction with Denman potter Ember Hutchens, is a great opportunity to check out some powerful portraits, ink drawings and artfully grotesque masks.

Roxanne’s maternal family are Hutsuls, a small Ukrainian subgroup in the Transcarpathia.“There are two wolves inside you,” Roxanne’s Ukrainian grandmother told her. “Which one will you feed?” There has never been much doubt. How she handled children’s art classes hints at her approach. Everyone was required to break off the eraser on their pencil. Then, because “there are no mistakes,” she got them to draw a feeling, often with amazing results.

For Roxanne, it all began when she was a small child.One day her father, a pharmacist, took her along on a prescription delivery. At the house was an amazing sight: koi in a garden pond – friendly fish. Then, turning the corner, there was a man, Jim Nichols, pipe jutting awkwardly out of the corner of his mouth as he looked sideways into a mirror, painting himself.  “That was flabbergasting this was possible,” she recalls,” because I came from a very not art-oriented family. ‘High culture’ was not a thing. I had never seen anyone paint or draw with such great accuracy. I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’”

And she did.  She asked for, and was given, with some reluctance, photos of her twin sisters. Over the next three months, keeping it a “great bloody secret”, she drew them in pencil with the help of an eraser. “To this day,” she says, “nobody believes that I drew them.” It was a jarring lesson, judging a book by its cover. For this and many other reasons, she left home very young.

Marion and Jim Nichols came back into her life. Her father was a highly intelligent man who acknowledged Roxanne’s brains, encouraging her to take up some STEM profession at university, like radiology. She wanted art school but by the time she was ready, life was complicated by a first child. Art school was a big decision with a lot of personal responsibility. She needed a sign. She found what she was looking for at the Glenbow Museum: a show of the Nichols’ work, including the very self-portrait she had seen in the making.

The Alberta College of Art (now Alberta University of the Arts) was attached to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.” It was really exciting, being attached to a school full of plumbers and electricians who were not terribly fond of the art fags.” You learned to stick together. She shared accommodation with two other artists “who were mental in other ways than me,” like welding her Honda Civic into a giant ant, or asked to plant a garden on the street, coming home to find mannequin body parts sticking out of the ground between the plants.

Most important was the chance to try everything. Glass blowing –a great art but hopeless; textiles, never again, thank you; and pottery, with an instructor enamoured of a Japanese discipline where you make forty-two teapots exactly the same before you choose two, and out of that, one. A tea set with cockroaches streaming out of every vessel was appropriate payback. Roxanne is not one to conceal her thoughts or avoid action.

Nowhere is that perhaps more apparent than the notorious burlesque she has hosted every few years, Denman’s Martini Lounge (the last one, “Common People”, had a real bouncer dressed as a priest). Each Lounge is a fully scripted evening of scabrous humour and outrageous shenanigans designed to amuse and/or appall, written, designed, and directed with serious intent  “A Martini Lounge must have an element of truth,” Roxanne asserts,  otherwise, it can’t happen. “It must include something that is wrong, or just a  ridiculous truth.” She has such a strong, spontaneous reaction to physical injustice, such as a man beating a small child, that her intervention has put her in harms way and she has had to be rescued (“Everyone else was just taking photos”). She believes that you should be free to satirize anything. “If you are offended, that is just fine.”

Usually, a Lounge starts with a head song that comes from nowhere and just won’t stop. Her response to music is so strong that some songs compel her to flee the room, as a warning of her potential reaction to a situation (like Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day” which Roxanne calls “the murder song”). The music runs in the family. Predominantly farmers they may be, but “everyone in my family can play anything.” There’s not a hell of a lot going on in northern Alberta, she says, so the music (country & western, Irish, and folk) was largely home entertainment. Roxanne plays the banjo and has put together bands on the island with performances at the Guesthouse that are always well-attended.

AMartini Lounge is no mean feat of organization. “I can see the end game. If you cannot see every possibility, you will be in trouble.” She first picked up the know-how hanging out in the Calgary theatre scene where she knew many actors and performers. Tough and bossy by her own admission,her reputation precedes her, partly because she loves the challenge of the unfamiliar, to bring out the possibilities in people.

Which bring us to the painting, the epicentre of her creative life. An extrovert by nature, it is here that Roxanne finds the most private of spaces where the intense absorption can get all too much, to the point where, for her own health, she must drag herself away, a situation lately exacerbated by Covid isolation.  As in all other things, there are no half measures.

Her powerful portraits are anything but passive appreciations, going far beyond the good likeness with which most people would be content. Her portraits fill the frame with dramatic perspective. The figure thrusts into the foreground, in vivid colours. They are not just arresting drama. They are avatars, embodiments of an inner daemon (in the classical Greek sense ofa powerful,driving spirit. Portraits like “Puck” and “Cupcake” posits a mischievous mayhem that can also be disturbing. Or, as in the case of Mr. Fyson, this time, submerged, beg a serious question of identity that may just apply to the viewer.

Unlike most portraits which freeze the subject in time, these pictures, almost like the famous portrait of Dorian Gray, seem to have a life of their own, as a psyche.

Themasks are the most obvious example of how theatre pervades her work. Whatever her experience of pottery, they show a real flare for the classical grotesque with its satyrs and riffs on the usual barnyard suspects, like pigs. But the piece de resistance are the frights that go beyond Hallowe’en scares and show a delicious sublimity for unspeakable horrors of the soul. I have had the privilege of purchasing two of them for my library and have yet to take the risk of mounting them in case I find myself one day unable to explain the bloody knife in my hand.

Roxanne has always made things happen. Boo!

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