Archive for April, 2018

I’m writing a play with two women’s voices in it, so any time I get a chance to see a play with parallel structures, I want to see it. A few nights ago, I saw Pat & Emilia, a mixed-media chamber opera. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. What’s ‘mixed media’ when you meld it with chamber opera, anyway? This ended up being a theatrical and musical collage of operatic and dramatic conventions. The first act was spoken and sung from the point of view, mostly, of Emilia Cundari, who was a world renowned opera star who lived in Windsor. She died in 2005. The second half is mostly told from the perspective of Pat Sturn, who was a photographer who lived until she was a hundred years old. One woman had a dream of being an opera star, and traveled the world from Canada, to New York City, and to Italy. Then, she fell in love and married, returning to Windsor to raise her family. Some sources say that she “killed her career” in favour of having a family. Cundari was photographed by Sturn at some point, and Sturn followed Cundari’s career via local Windsor media.

Pat Sturn was a well known and respected photographer in Windsor. She died in 2011, at the age of one hundred. I kept thinking, while watching the play, that I don’t think I would want to live to be as old as a hundred years old, that it would be hard to see friends die before me, that it could be isolating. Sturn found a dear friend in current Windsor poet laureate, Marty Gervais, though, and he’s had a hand in remembering her, and allowing other people (like me) to come to know her legacy.  She called him “Mr. Poet.” She sounds like she would’ve been interesting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea with, that she would have been fascinating to talk to.

There seems to have been a friendship of some sort between the two women, but it isn’t clearly defined in the play, so you’re left to make your own suppositions. You do know, though, that both women were strong individuals, just with different life paths. Sometimes, two strong creative women might not be able to be friends, even if they really wanted to be. It happens.

The play is thought provoking. You get a sense of how both women were living before their time, and how they must have struggled, with family and friends not understanding their drive to pursue creative careers rather than traditional ones. The more I listened and watched, the more I thought that it really hasn’t changed that much. The women I know who are creative are either single, or paired with others who are creative, too, or maybe in relationships with those who have a deep appreciation of the arts and creativity, even if they aren’t artists themselves. How else to manage your artistic and creative gift? Being a writer, a singer, a musician, a visual artist, whatever the medium is, it feels (to me, anyway) like there’s a compulsion to do whatever it is you’re meant to do while you’re here on the planet. You don’t get a choice, in my view and experience. It tends to come first. It’s part of your DNA, so how can it not?

I remember being very young and loving stories and poems, and songs that told stories, and singing those ballads. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, I should write something down.” It was just something that came from inside of me. When you know it’s such a deep part of who you are, this creative part, then you know it’s going to be with you for life. A lot of people can’t handle that, in terms of relationships. There is, to be honest, a great deal of creative work that must be done in solitude. You’re an introvert and creative, but you still need humans around. (After all, you use humans in your stories and plays, don’t you?! 🙂 ) But you also need someone who understands that there’s a balance of time needed to create on your own, as well as time spent together. That takes confidence on both people’s parts, I imagine, if it’s to work. Still, I wince at the suggestion that you can only be creative and that this in itself prevents you from being in a successful relationship with a partner. It seems archaic, as if you need to give up one in favour of the other. It seems too simple and sacrificial to me, somehow.

I remember seeing an exhibition at the McMichael Gallery in the fall last year. It was called “Passion Over Reason: Tom Thomson and Joyce Wieland.” I was more familiar with Tom Thomson, given his paintings of Northern Ontario landscapes. I had gone canoeing through those scenes last summer, so I felt even closer to his work than before. What I remember, though, is that I read a snippet of text about Wieland in that McMichael exhibit in late September. Born in 1931, Wieland was the first woman artist to be accorded a 1987 retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She was married, for some time in her life, to Michael Snow, who is a famous Canadian artist in his own right. In an article published in Canadian Art magazine last year, author Allison Macduffee wrote that the McMichael exhibit was a love letter to both Thomson and Wieland, but that it also raised questions of “gender, myth-making, and nationalism in Canadian art.” Wieland’s work—in terms of feminism, visual art, and also in filmmaking—is groundbreaking and brilliant. The pairing of the two artists made me think a lot about the notion of nationalism, and of the differences between gender of the artists, and the time periods in which they both lived and created art. (My head gets busy sometimes…too busy!)

There was a bit of text, on some wall, at the start of the exhibition. I read everything at art galleries. I like to look at the art first, let it sink into me, and then I read the little explanatory notes. As I wrote in a mid-September blog, there was a bit of text that spoke about Thomson never having married, and about Weiland never having had children. The text implied that this is why both artists were so unique. I found it funny at the time. Then, listening in on an older couple: “I heard the husband say to his wife, with certainty, ‘Well, you know…artists…probably why this is a good exhibit.  They’re too odd to be with other people, aren’t they?’ I just shook my head and thought of all the artists and writers I know who manage to be in relationships and still produce brilliant creative and artistic work. Both Thomson and Wieland had romantic relationships, so it’s not like they were that odd, but perhaps just that they were not conventional for their time(s).” (Conventional is boring, I think…but I’m a poet…)

What I kept thinking on Thursday night, while I watched the play, was how beautiful it was. Here were two vibrant and creative women, who were productive and gifted in their own respective fields, who seem different on the surface at first glance, and separated by years, but who really were more similar than they might have cared to have admitted to themselves or one another. The piece where Pat Sturn reflects on turning one hundred years old, and how she loved someone who offered her a ring, was bittersweet. She loved him, he knew her best (her character sings this in the second half of the play), but she chose her love of photography over the man. She was a feminist, but, I think, so was Emilia Cundari. They both followed their dreams; the paths were just different ones. One was not better than the other. They likely both had regrets near the ends of their lives. I have yet to meet a dying person who doesn’t have one or two regrets. The notion of artistic women making creative choices for themselves, though, resonates with me. It niggles at me, likely because I’m making what some might deem to be ‘selfish,’ creative choices and decisions right now in my life. They aren’t simple, but you breathe through them, as you would through the movements of a challenging yoga pose. (It’s uncomfortable in Sun Salutation until you push up from Cobra, into plank position, and then into the release of that Downward Dog…it’s sort of like that.)

There was one line that both characters sang in a duet near the end of the chamber opera that really struck me. It spoke about both women having made their choices, and mistakes. Here is the thing that bothered me most: that some people equate the notion of ‘choices’ to the notion of ‘making mistakes.’ I’m of the mind that we make choices in our lives. I used to believe we could also make mistakes, and perhaps we can, in small ways. But, at this point in my life as a creative woman (and after having had a lot of encounters with deaths in my family) I now believe that we just make a series of choices. A choice is not good or bad; it just is.  If we think of it from the Buddhist perspective (can you tell I’ve been reading Pema Chodron this year?!), we need to not assign something a value of being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A choice is made with the most accurate information that you’ve gathered for yourself, and, if the choice does not work out as you’d imagined or hoped initially, then you just make another choice, again rooted in where you feel you are at the time, and with what information you have. You need to, though, trust your heart and mind when it comes to all of this. You must also have hope…and a sense of adventure and exploration. A question posed, and then answered, may point you in a different direction. It isn’t a ‘mistake’ because that just sets up a dynamic of polarities or something.

So, Pat Sturn and Emilia Cundari seem to have had a falling out. Their friendship wasn’t mendable. They couldn’t build bridges after they were burned. No one knows exactly what was said, or what happened, to precipitate the end of their friendship. (Sometimes women’s friendships are complex.) What seems clear, though, is this: they were both amazingly spirited women, ahead of their times; they both made great strides in their respective creative fields; they both fell in love, with their art and with men who cared deeply for them; and, they were unique, and stubborn, and vibrant. I don’t think either of them made a ‘mistake.’ Neither one’s path was better than the other’s, even though they probably couldn’t see that…

Emilia sang around the world and then had a family. Pat felt like she only had her creative work and, so, perhaps pushed away thoughts of love. Maybe, I was thinking as I drove home afterwards along Highway 3 from Windsor to Kingsville in the dark that night, she thought that love and relationships with men would distract her from her devotion to her creative work. I get that. But I also think that love (which is spirited and creative in and of itself) might have surprised her and lit up her work in a new way that she could never have foreseen. Maybe she just didn’t find the right person. It happens. She would have seemed strong and powerfully creative, but was likely vulnerable at the core of it all, underneath any supposed facade of great strength. Who knows? This is all supposition on my part. I’m a writer. I make up stories in my head. I didn’t know either woman. The beauty of the play, though, is that I feel as if I care about both of them, and that’s the sign of a decent piece of theatre, I think.

The thing I think is most sad, though, is that Emilia Cundari doesn’t have a proper memorial plaque on her grave in Windsor. So, the actor who played her in Pat and Emilia, Tara Sievers-Hunt, is spearheading a Go Fund Me account to raise money for that little bronze plaque.  There’s a link here, to an article in the Windsor Star, if you’re so inclined to find out more. Emilia was a pretty amazing woman, and so was Pat.


And here’s a bit about the initial process of creation of this piece of theatre, and the conversations that spurred it all:








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