The Sound of Abstract Expressionism: “Ted Ramsay: Visual Symphony Series” at WSG Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Ted Ramsey, three paintings from his Visual Symphony Series

Three acrylic paintings from Ted Ramsay's Visual Symphony Series (left to right): Johann Strauss II - "Thunder and Lightning," Mozart - "Sinfonia Concertante" K349 and "Symphony 40 in G minor" K 550, and Tchaikovsky - "Festival Overture 1812" op. 49. Images courtesy of WSG Gallery.

Ted Ramsay, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design, has long made expressionism in its many guises the focus of his painting. His last WSG exhibit, March 2013’s Spatial Narratives in Paint, was marked by expressive figuration, which Ramsay explained as, "In my figure paintings I strive for an aura of magic and mystery tempered with a subjective, but believable dose of reality." I wrote at that time that Ramsay’s “whose homage to silence is so complete, you can almost hear a pin drop.”

The paintings in Ted Ramsay: Visual Symphony Series, on display at WSG through March 14, are more boisterous than those in Spatial Narratives as Ramsay loosens his representational moorings by melodically flinging himself into his working surfaces. His Visual Symphony Series bears the conventions of abstract expressionism, but how they came into being are particular to Ramsay's working environment. As he tells us in his gallery statement: 

Michigan-based theater artists create "The Call of the Void," a sci-fi audio drama set in New Orleans

THEATER & DANCE INTERVIEW

The Call of the Void

The Call of the Void is a sci-fi audio drama following Topher and Etsy as they look for the truth behind a mysterious illness taking hold of victims in modern-day New Orleans. The audio drama has 10,000 listens in 54 different countries on 14 different streaming platforms -- and it was all created in a living room in Pinckney, Michigan.

Creators, lead voice actors, and engaged couple Josie Eli Lapczynski and Michael Herman are theater artists who are using podcast technology to share their talents with a global audience through a nine-part series podcast audio drama. 

While immersing themselves in sci-fi culture by reading HP Lovecraft, binging shows like Stranger Things and listening to the podcast Rabbits, Lapczynski and Herman decided to make their own sci-fi audio drama.

“We wanted to make a television show for your ears,” said Lapczynski. “In the last year, we've also been getting more and more into cosmic horror. We knew we wanted to create something in this genre and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, but rather than write about Cthulhu, we wanted to make our own monster, and so The Call of the Void was born."

Encore Theatre's junior production of "James and the Giant Peach" finds a way to make everything better

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

James and the Giant Peach

A Nancy Ekholm Burkert illustration from the 1961 edition of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how trippy a moment we find ourselves in that the work of Roald Dahl seems suddenly, particularly ubiquitous.

For just as a touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues its run at Detroit’s Fisher Theater, regional productions of the James and the Giant Peach stage musical -- with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald, and music and lyrics by U-M grads and Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul -- have been sprouting up everywhere, including at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.

Encore’s junior production, which begins February 28 and runs for eight performances through March 8, features 22 young performers, ranging in age from eight to 18.

“One of the things I love about [the show] is, not just the chosen family aspect of it, but also, James has this ability to be dealt a terrible hand constantly, and yet he always finds a way to make it better, and always finds the good in things that other are quick to overlook and discard,” said Matthew Brennan, the director of Encore’s production. “The insects, for example, these pests people just want out of their house. … [H]e finds potential in them, and that speaks to something really cool about this story.”

Sensitive Sounds in a Snowy Town: West-Eastern Divan Ensemble at Rackham Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

West Eastern Divan Ensemble by Peter Adamik

West Eastern Divan Ensemble 4 by Peter Adamik

“You’re a mighty and hearty lot,” said UMS President Matthew VanBesien, peering out over the snow-dusted crowd that had slowly filtered into the seats of Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening.

It was a lighthearted joke at the expense of those would-be concert-goers who might have filled in the empty chairs throughout the venue had they not been defeated by the weather, but it wasn’t unjustified: The snowstorm that had swept over Ann Arbor throughout the previous day and night had made navigating the roads a tricky proposition, and the spacious Rackham Auditorium looked to be more empty than not.

In introducing the concert, accordingly, VanBesien invited patrons to fill in the seats towards the front, jettisoning the assigned seating in favor of creating a more compact, less spotty-looking audience for the evening’s musical entertainment. Once condensed, it looked like the venue was maybe just under half-full, give or take a few dozen people.

Those who had braved the snowstorm had turned out to see the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, a chamber group offering sensitive interpretations of music both old and new, but perhaps better known for the quietly political origins of their parent organization, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded in 1999 by the famed pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said -- famous in numerous fields for his books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism -- the orchestra was created as a place for musicians from throughout the Middle East (notably Isreal, Palestine, and their Arab-majority neighbors) to come together to make music on an equal basis. 

Wordplay and funny fisticuffs highlight "Jeeves Intervenes" at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes

Agatha Spencer-Gregson (Ann Stoner) comforts her niece Gertrude Winkelsworth-Bode (Veronica Long) as Eustace Bassington-Bassington (Ryan Mauritz) fights with Bertie Wooster (Sean Magill) with the help of Uncle Rupert (Chris Martin), as Jeeves (Rory Quist) remains calmly in control in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's Jeeves Intervenes. Photo by Aaron C. Wade | Lions Paw Films and Photography.

Monty Python didn’t invent the upper-class Brit twit. That honor goes to P.G. Wodehouse with his man-about-town Bertie Wooster. 

Wodehouse was a humorist, novelist, short-story writer, Broadway lyricist (teaming with composer Jerome Kern), and man about town in the 1920s when he created Bertie. But he didn’t leave his inept creation without support, because he also created a witty man’s man, the very epitome of the valet, Reginald Jeeves, but always called just Jeeves.

Ann Arbor Civic Theatre will take audiences back to Wodehouse’s fanciful, upper crusty London of the 1920s when it presents Margaret Raether’s stage adaptation of Wodehouse in Jeeves Intervenes, March 12-15 at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the University of Michigan North Campus.

Director Andy Jentzen said it was Wodehouse’s playful use of language and a BBC series that got him interested in Jeeves and Wooster.

"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

A Thread of Jewels: The 6X collective's "Mistaken for Strangers" fills the A2 Art Center's Gallery 117 with wearable art

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Brooke Marks-Swanson, Yellow Furrow

Brooke Marks-Swanson, Yellow Furrow, knit leather, oxidized silver 

The contemporary jewelry-making collective 6X makes interconnected, wearable artworks. The six-member group of Midwesterners explained their approach as part of its February exhibition at the Ann Arbor Art Center: “Ties, which may not consciously be acknowledged at a simple glance, are visible upon further consideration of approaches to concept, material, and process.” Thus, the title of the A2AC exhibit, Mistaken for Strangers, in its Gallery 117 space references the connectedness of their creative processes, which may not be immediately recognized by viewers. 

A2AC moved its Gallery 117 from the second to the first floor, allowing easier access for visitors who may have not been able to use the stairs previously. 6X has created a dynamic installation that emphasizes the collective’s desire to form relationships between their varied works. The group accomplishes its goal to visually connect seemingly disparate formal approaches, with two towers of open white boxes standing in the center floor space, each box containing a piece of jewelry, and additional pieces displayed on top of the boxes. 

A quote by Nadeem Aslam prefaces the gallery wall text: “Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.” The concept of the threads that connect us is enforced visually not only by exhibiting the artists’ disparate works together but also through a two-part installation of white thread. The loom-like threads are suspended between two walls in one corner of the gallery, and a two-panel installation hangs from the ceiling above a series of pedestals displaying the artworks.

High on Books: Shelly Smith's "Reads & Weeds" podcast cultivates the best sentences and strains

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Shelly Smith

Photo by Moni Jones/Her & HIm Studio.

A love of the written word, cultivated cannabis, and the buzziest broadcast medium inspired Ypsilanti-based comedian Shelly Smith to start the podcast Reads & Weeds.

Smith had appeared on other comedians’ podcasts as a guest but, she says, “I wanted to do more than sit around and talk -- I wanted to do something more intentional. Some friends talked about doing a book club and it dawned on me that a podcast, revolving around cannabis and books, was the perfect cross-section of my interests.”

The upbeat, irreverent Reads & Weeds is a delightful listen. There is fun banter about topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to self-publishing books to women in prison to back tattoos. The show features a variety of co-hosts plus fellow readers who stop by, which makes for a riotous atmosphere. Smith’s childhood friend, Kris Walton, handles the technical aspect of the show in addition to occasionally co-hosting. Walton joined Smith on an October episode discussing Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which joined an impressive list of eclectic books that have been discussed on the podcast. 

“One of the books we read, Smoke Signals, is all about the socio-political history of cannabis,” Smith says. But all the reads aren't about weed. Other books include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, and The Illusion of Money by Kyle Cease.

Interlocking Parts: Hi Potent C and Dyelow's "War Medicine" highlights the KeepItG Records collective's creative bond

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Hi Potent C & Dyelow, War Medicine

Hi Potent C (left) and Dyelow at WCBN-FM. Photo by Herb Read.

The Ypsi-Arbor hip-hop collective KeepItG Records isn't just a rap crew with a tight handle. The various MCs, producers, musicians, and filmmakers treat KeepItG like a band, with scheduled practices, interlocking their skills and lifting each other up to create audio and visual art.

"The entire KeepItG Records meets and rehearses weekly, and each individual sets up their personal studio time around what’s going on for them at the time being," said rapper Hi Potent C, who has a new album, War Medicine, with KeepItG producer Dyelow. "A lot of the music gets made on the spot, but everyone is always cooking up something on their own time, too. For this specific project, we did a lot of the outlining in person in order to make sure we were sticking to the theme and storyline. From there it made it easier to fill in the blanks separately because we both knew what was needed and expected."

War Medicine is a loose concept record that takes some cues from Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and Prodigy’s 2017 LP, Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation). Lamar's album recounts his rough teenage years in Compton and Progidy's record is named after the philosophical model that posits thesis, antithesis, then synthesis -- or problem, reaction, solution -- is the way to determine "truth" or "the way."

"The personal ins and outs of living and not only the 'good side,'" is how Hi Potent C describes War Medicine's theme. "At the same time, keeping familiarity with people by showing them how to keep your head up no matter how unfavorable things might be going, because we all need that motivation from time to time."

Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan leads readers on a high-speed chase across the United States in his new thriller, "The Good Killer" 

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Harry Dolan, The Good Killer

Author Harry Dolan’s latest novel is different from his earlier novels. 

The Good Killer is more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery.

And that’s not a bad thing. 

According to the 53-year-old Ann Arbor author, it was the best thing about writing this book. 

“The central character is not a detective who’s trying to get at the truth,” explained Dolan. “There are crimes that take place, and there are secrets that are revealed at different points in the book, but it’s not structured as a mystery. It was interesting to see if I could write a different kind of story. I hope that the novel works as pure entertainment. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s a book about love and loyalty. It’s about characters searching for redemption.”

In The Good Killer, published by Mysterious Press, former soldier Sean Tennant and his significant other Molly Winter are a couple living under the radar in Texas. One day while Molly is at a yoga retreat in Montana that allows no communication with the outside world (cell phones are confiscated), Sean is a shopping mall when Henry Alan Keen snaps and shoots everybody in sight. Before the body count can rise, Sean stops Keen and helps the shooting victims.