Art is Hell by Ann Ireland

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Art is Hell Studios on King St in Welland.

The fog hangs low as we hike alongside the old Welland Canal in late January. Artist Tony Calzetta is giving me a potted history of the area. A newcomer to this small city in the Niagara region of Southern Ontario, he has made a point of informing himself of local lore. The working canal that takes ships through a series of locks, allowing them to bypass Niagara Falls and continue sailing through the Great Lakes, has been located outside the city of Welland since the early 1970s. This old canal, he tells me, has been transformed into a recreational area. Dragon boats, kayaks, and racing sculls all skim the flat water during the warm months.

Is that a football stuck in the ice? Geese tiptoe from one watery patch to another. Calzetta, a high-energy man in his early seventies, points out how the muddy Niagara River slips under the canal through a series of man-made tunnels. Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin, also an artist, fled Toronto over a year ago. They’d been renting a loft for close to thirty years above a bar next to a rock-music venue. The racket had become intolerable. Like so many artists, they couldn’t afford to buy property in the city.

A search outside the city brought them to Welland, and a sturdy building on Main Street that formerly housed a soup kitchen. From the outside, the white-painted building is bunker-like. The sign—AIH, or Art is Hell Studios—and a storefront window displaying manipulated photographs created by Montmollin, are a tipoff that artists might live here. Push open the door and the completed project reveals itself: long hallway, many rooms—and the owners’ sculptures, paintings, and photographs hanging on walls and perched in display cases. Offices have been turned into storage spaces. There is, finally, room for everything—life, the work, and the working. Twelve-foot ceilings loom over the vast, combined living/dining room. I mentally compare this open area to the couple’s former loft in Toronto, up two rickety flights of stairs. Usable space there shrank by the year as more art got made and piled against the walls. Montmollin worked in a corner jutting against Calzetta’s studio. “We had the tendency, if one of us was in the studio, the other would leave,” she recalls. “Tony liked to listen to the radio and talk and swear.”

Calzetta doesn’t argue. “I’m oblivious to sounds when I work.”

Tony Calzetta.

Now they each have large, open studios. Montmollin looks happy. “I can close the door.”

Calzetta adds, “It’s a new experience for us, having private space.”

The renovation of the four thousand square foot space took a year. Calzetta’s new studio used to be the dining hall, which fed sixty clients lunch most days. Montmollin’s studio housed the walk-in fridge, freezer, and prep area. Months later, people still knock on the door wondering when lunch will be served.

Gabrielle de Montmollin.

I’m curious as to whether they fear losing career opportunities by leaving Toronto.

“We’re too old for that,” Calzetta says. “We haven’t considered ourselves part of the Toronto art scene for the past fifteen years.” He goes on to note that new generations of artists have popped up all over the city, “Like flies on shit, everywhere.”

Montmollin seems equally unfazed. “The day we saw this building I said to Tony, ‘The only reason not to do this is because we’re afraid, and that’s not a good reason.’” Though she does admit to twinges at leaving her artist-run space in downtown Toronto, the Red Head Gallery, which allowed members to have a show every eighteen months.

“I’m so happy not to be in Toronto any more.” She pauses; her shoulders drop. “Though I’m slightly afraid that I’ll relax too much.”

I’m staring at the barred windows high up on the walls of the living area. Years ago, the building was used to store tobacco and cigars. The front section, the oldest part of the building, housed an Italian grocery before its soup kitchen days.

We sit at the dining table. Calzetta uncovers a casserole dish to reveal a coq au vin. We take turns leaning in, inhaling. Where do they shop, I wonder aloud, not having spotted a supermarket downtown.

The mall, of course. There’s no supermarket downtown, but there is a weekly farmers’ market nearby. They hop on a bus to the mall to get most supplies. Like so many small North American cities and towns, the downtown is a bit sad sack with its boarded-up storefronts. Immediate neighbours include a donut shop, where drug deals are conducted, a “rub and tug” spa and a tattoo parlour.

Welland became economically depressed after the loss of its manufacturing base in recent years. “Which is why we were able to buy this place so cheap,” Calzetta points out.

The pair is starting to make their presence felt in the region. Friends from Toronto often visit and spend the night. They’ve joined the Niagara Artists Centre in nearby St. Catherines. In March of last year, Calzetta and Montmollin had a show at the Welland Historical Museum, and in May Calzetta had a show in Grimsby—a collaboration between him, printmaker Dieter Grund, and the novelist Leon Rooke.

Now that the building project is complete, the convoluted environmental assessments pretty well wrapped up, and only the property tax nightmare left to wrangle—“I guess I have to make art,” Montmollin says, ripping off the heel of a baguette.

“No more excuses,” Calzetta concurs.

Montmollin reminds us that she prepared her final show at the Red Head Gallery while surrounded by construction chaos.

So what’s this Art is Hell business about then?

It’s a website, they explain, as well an online space for collaborative projects.

Tony Calzetta, Bob Was Quite Leery of the Jibber Jabber Jimmys.
Acrylic, charcoal, and oil stick on canvas, 2012.

“Except we aren’t really collaborative artists,” Montmollin says.

Projects have been small so far; images are created together and then put online.

Calzetta seems more interested in pursuing the concept: they could make postcards and sell them.

Montmollin throws up a hand. “Is that us? Making postcards?” She thinks not. She already has a part-time job and wants to use the remaining hours of the day for her own work. “I don’t think we’re real collaborators.”

“True,” Calzetta says. “We’re not Gilbert and George.”

It’s entertaining to watch a couple tell their collective story. Memories and versions of events conflict. One starts to talk, the other interrupts. It’s a form of music; a conversational fugue.

The city mouse in me wonders if there’s enough in this town to keep the mental wheels rolling. The building is a glory, but what about the rest of life?

“You must be very self-sufficient,” I suggest.

They agree that they are, mostly, though Calzetta admits to being more social.

“Our art practices are very different,” Montmollin adds. “Tony asks me for feedback and only sometimes do I ask him for feedback.”

“Not that I listen to what she says,” Calzetta says.

“Often he does the opposite.”

Montmollin slips out to the kitchen and returns with a platter of hazelnut cookies, fresh from the oven. The wine from a local, Niagara-region winery, has been decanted from boxes.

At some point during the meal I realize that the studio’s high windows offer no view of the street or patio. There are no city sounds. This is a world unto itself; one could disappear into its midst for days on end.

“You can’t go out on the street and buy a magazine or a book,” Montmollin says. “You have money in your wallet and it stays there. Nothing to spend it on.”

When the artists first met, Montmollin was cutting the eyes out of Barbies for a series of photographs in which the naked dolls were posed in various encounters and landscapes. Later, when the couple were travelling together, she carried a bag of doll body parts: heads and limbs and dismembered torsos. “If we get stopped at customs, I’ll say I don’t know you,” Calzetta had warned.

Calzetta perches on a table in his new studio, surrounded by work at different stages of completion. Small sketches line the upper walls. He will often project one of these onto the white walls, bumping up its size many notches, to see how the shapes work on a larger scale. While the images are often recognizable—airplanes or catapults or children’s war toys; trees and clouds and oddly endearing fantastical creatures—Calzetta began his creative life in pure abstraction. An ebullient talker with energetic gestures, he speaks of still being “curious about abstraction,” but wary of how “it can verge on decoration.”

He’s cranky about a lot of current art. “Ninety percent is crap!” and blames the educational system. “Inbreeding. The teachers teach gullible students. People can get a PhD in Studio—what the hell is that?”

Calzetta is himself the product of a BFA at the University of Windsor and, later, an MFA at Toronto’s York University. He doesn’t have much good to say about the latter experience. He was one of two painting students in a sea of more conceptual-minded artists. Professor and noted multi-­disciplinary artist Vera Frenkel accused him of being a member of the “grunt-and-groan school of art.” It still rankles. “Everything was an intellectual process to her. She had no idea about emotion or energy. There’s the bullshit art and she was very good at it.”

All of this is said with passion yet no ill-humour. He means it, but he is not, by nature, a nasty man. His lack of caution is bracing.

From the start, Calzetta loved drawing and painting. As a student, he was deeply attracted to the work of Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko—giants of abstract expressionism: “Minimalism was boring to me.” He recalls seeing a huge Barnett Newman painting at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The work was mainly red, as he describes it, with a single vertical line. “Tears rolled down my cheeks; there was more than just the paint; there was emotion there.”

Philip Guston’s work, with its use of cartoon-like imagery heavily outlined in charcoal—is an obvious influence on Calzetta’s paintings. He recalls seeing Guston’s work in Detroit in the early seventies. “My head went crazy, to see how someone could take cartoon imagery and make fine art,” Calzetta says.

Calzetta soon began to create his own “alphabet and language” of imagery, using his intuitive sense of colour. He wants viewers to fashion their own narrative from what they see. “I believe that people should interact with the work,” Calzetta says. “If they want to make a story, it’s up to them. My titles are ambiguous, a parallel narrative to the work.” Titles such as Hookers and Caviar and Dirty Boy play off the paintings, rather than describe their content.

He jumps off the table to stand in front of a large painting still in progress. “I’ll sit for weeks in the studio without making anything, just thinking.” There can be a fear of launching into something new: “I’ve learned to just start.” He stretches his arms to reach the perimeter of the canvas. “I like large scale. How far can you reach?”

Gabrielle de Montmollin, Rockies. Mixed media on canvas, 2014.

Montmollin is more low-key in manner. She also has a wry sense of humour. “I’m terrible at travel photography or taking party photos,” she confesses. “I always get the back of peoples’ heads.” Her work-in-progress spreads across a large table in her studio. As a photographer and mixed-media artist, her tools are her camera, scissors, glue, paint, and iMac. She uses photography in tandem with paint and collage elements to create multimedia works. A collector and manipulator of images, she creates curious alternative universes. One series involved situating naked Barbie dolls in mysterious, even ghoulish landscapes. Another set of black-and-white photographs show people wearing animal heads while doing otherwise normal things. Disconcerting images, a mix of comic and frightening. Dark play.
These days she’s making animated GIFs, a form somewhere between photography and video and ubiquitous on the internet.

“I’m in a period where I don’t know what I’m doing,” Montmollin says happily.

But it turns out she has a pretty good idea of how to proceed. She’s currently making a GIF using old photographs of her baptism in conjunction with manipulated pictures of her three “fairy godmothers”: Simone de Beauvoir, George Orwell, and the Devil.

Why the Devil?

She tugs at her earlobe. “My mother used to say that the knob on my earlobe was where the Devil tried to hold me back when I was born.”

Montmollin grew up speaking French at home. When her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Geneva, which she hated. It was a conservative place for a sixteen-year-old during the hippie era. Her mother, who worked in an art gallery in the Swiss city, built a vacation home in southern France, which the family still owns. Montmollin returned to Canada and attended Carleton University in Ottawa, graduating with a degree in political science. With a view to becoming a journalist, she worked for years as a researcher on the CBC television program, Man Alive. She never attended art school full-time; instead, she took photography courses as needed.

Her 2016 show at the Red Head Gallery involved a series of lenticular images—a larger version of the kind once found in Cracker Jack boxes—which offer an illusion of depth and change as the viewer shifts position. To start the process, Montmollin formed three images using photo-collage and paint, then sandwiched them on top of each other, slightly offset. This was sent as an electronic file to a Brooklyn company that creates lenticulars.

“I like the fact that people experience the work themselves,” she tells me. “The viewer interacts, randomly creating their own images.”

The images blink back and forth in the manner of stop-motion animation.

“My stuff always has a possible narrative, as in the doll pieces. People make up their own stories. I have an indefinite story going on in my mind, but the viewer tends to have more definite stories. They often point out things I hadn’t noticed.”

I recall how, earlier in the day, Calzetta spoke in a similar way about his work.

“I don’t like digital, exactly,” Montmollin says.

Really? She does, after all, use Photoshop and constantly scours the internet for images.

After years of working in film, manipulating photographs in the darkroom and using paper negatives, she misses the hands-on work. “Photoshop isn’t hands-on in that way. I like to paint and paste onto images; that’s what makes me happy,” she says, noting that she only uses the software at the end of the process.

“I’m a folk artist in what I’m doing. I never feel I’ve mastered the technical side of things. I have ideas and imagery that are more interesting than the more technically adept artists.”

The fog finally lifts, burned off by the sun. We check out the Saturday farmers’ market. This time of year it’s apples, and more apples. We pick up several jars of preserves and some sugar-free muffins and head for home. I get lost in their building, wandering the hallways, ducking into wrong doorways. Eerie photographs and delicate sculptures and big, energetic paintings pop up everywhere on the freshly painted white walls. In here, Welland disappears.

—From CNQ 101 (Spring 2018)

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