Art meets hockey

A marriage made in Canada

Greg Forrest, "Anything Else is a Compromise," 2004.

It's the first warm, sunny Saturday in April and already downtown Halifax is filled with foolishly optimistic crowds wearing shorts and flip-flops. At the Nova Scotia Power parking lot or "graffiti pit" over on Morris and Lower Water streets, a group of about 20 young people are preparing for their weekly street-hockey game around a Jenga-like pile of hockey sticks. Two new nets---their candy-apple-red metal still gleaming, the white rope still pristine---are being assembled for the game.

What isn't obvious is that the majority of these players are artists. This is the NSCAD street-hockey pick-up league---a 15-year tradition. It's not ironic; it's not performance; it's just fun. In the last two years they've been playing at the pit, only three weekends were deemed too crappy, weather-wise, to play. During one snowstorm, "Joey chased...a plow Tiananmen Square-style down the street and got him to plow it out so we could play," says Noah Logan. He's the vice-president external of NSCAD's student union, SUNSCAD, who provide the league financial assistance to buy sticks (replacement plastic blades and balls are the only other real costs). The new nets are courtesy of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which will be using them for its own mini-street-hockey tournament on May 9 (12-1:30pm, NSCAD Port Campus parking lot), as part of the gallery's survey show, Arena: The Art of Hockey.

Lengthwise, the pit is as long as a regulation-length ice surface, although the NSCAD league plays the short width across---still wide enough to wind players as they run back and forth. The concrete wall and railing are high enough that there's no chance a ball will end up on Lower Water and the colourful graffiti is a decent alternative to the bank and beer logos that line professional arena boards. It's rare they yell, "Car!"

As the nets are set up, a few players exchange comments like swift passes.

"You don't usually associate art with hockey, but it's inherent in our identity as Canadians," says SUNSCAD president Stefan Hancherow. "But the arts community is never seen as sports-oriented."

"We have some really good artists and some really good players," says design student Cody Petruk, who creates the group's fun promotional posters.

"Anyone with any skill level can play," says Logan. "We have students, faculty, friends...even a few Dal students. There are some regular female players, which is good, because it's not male-dominated. Painters, sculptors..."

So is there blood? Petruk once took a good skinning fall and broke his glasses. But most of the violence is kept to minor-league trash-talking, often over favourite NHL teams.

"I've got blood," says Jordan, walking up while holding up a slightly bleeding palm. With his long hair held back with a US-flag sweatband, and his rolled-up pants and Chicago Blackhawks jersey, he could be one of the hard-playing Hanson brothers from the 1977 dude movie Slap Shot.

Because there are so many players today, they'll play five-on-five with three teams. As they start chasing the orange ball, it's a blur of Converse and sticks. There is yelling, sure, but nothing offensive or mean.

Graeme Patterson, artist-in-residence at the AGNS, wearing hockey gloves and a Buffalo Sabres jersey, soars down the asphalt, long dark hair trailing in his wake. Squint and he could be one of the scrappy little rubber players from his stop-motion animated video Lafleche vs Woodrow 1972, a hockey game between two neighbouring Saskatchewan towns. (The Lafleche team is modelled after real players from a photo, Patterson's family hometown team is fictitious.)

Patterson's other piece in Arena, "Hockey Organ," is a souped-up STIGA rod-hockey game with its own "Jumbotron." Instead of pulling rods to make the players move, you press organ keys, which in turn play music. He's never participated in organized ice hockey---"I'm not as solid on skates as I am in shoes"---but Patterson definitely has a passion for the game. This week he's pairing up with legendary player Darryl Sittler. Patterson is working on an animation of a famous 1976 game, in which Sittler scored six goals and four assists. Sittler will provide the voiceover.

The action heats up. NSCAD assistant professor and printmaker Mark Bovey---born in 1966, he's the oldest player and the only full-time faculty member here---skids out behind the net and ends up in a pile of leaves. New grad Chantal Tardiff comes out of the rush, holding her finger, dripping a considerable amount of blood, the skin peeled back. She sits out a few minutes while it's bandaged up with hockey tape. This is her second week playing. Holding a tissue, Tardiff says that it wasn't so much the game that was intimidating at first, but the "spouting of hockey facts and hockey pool stuff." Minutes later, she's back in the game.

Ray Cronin, curator and acting director of the AGNS, is both general manager and coach of Arena. The exhibition boldly takes up three floors of the gallery with work from 61 artists, mostly Canadian, many of them considered rising or established stars in the contemporary art world.

"Curating a show is not that different in some ways that you set up an art project. You set up the rules you're working within; the parameters," says Cronin. "One of the rules that I gave myself is that I wanted to find artists who had already made hockey art. I didn't want to do a call for submissions for people to make things to put in the show."

Walking through Arena, it's clear that many artists make connections between hockey and identity---personal, national, group or gender. "It's about creating a sense of Canadian heroes but it's also how you act as a man in the world," says Cronin. "When the gloves go up, they have to come off. You can't fight with them on---these are rules of behaviour."

Cronin's relationship with hockey is connected to his own identity. His dad, a philosophy professor, played, and although Cronin "was never a good joiner as a kid," he loved street-hockey. When he left small-town New Brunswick at 19 to attend NSCAD, Cronin stopped playing because "it was considered uncool and kind of thuggish in the '80s. But it didn't last." By graduation, he was back "watching and talking and following the Habs."

Artist Susanne Caines describes her own relationship with hockey as "uncomfortable." She says, "I was brought up in a mostly male household with a lot of hockey players and didn't really fit into their passion for hockey." Her video, A Little Town in France/Marnay-sur-Seine, shot while she was in a residency in France, documents a site-specific performance where Caines placed a home-made Halifax Mooseheads banner on the front of the tiny town's bar and taped the locals' confused reactions. What you don't see is that she also posted Mooseheads' scores in the local community centre, the town's only other public building.

"People are really into hockey here in Halifax. It reflects some of my questions about that passion. It's not meant to be judgmental. It's about how I feel about hockey and what it means to me."

Caines, whose practice usually involves interacting with the public to "heighten their awareness of everyday situations" sees this piece as examining codes of behaviour---in particular, what happens when "you place yourself outside your own country, and your own values"---something to think about as the world hockey championships continue this week.

At its core, the exhibition breaks down into three themes, says Cronin: the sentimental, subversion and style. If Caines represents subversion, Lisa Lipton is style. For over a year, Lipton worked on hand-knitting incredible white- and cream-coloured masks, helmets, skates, stick warmers and goalie pads. All are housed in three museum cases (modelled after Hockey Hall of Fame displays), alongside photos of figure skaters and hockey players wearing the gear in typical portrait poses. The artist also created a video of a romantic narrative between a figure skater and a goalie wearing the knitted equipment. Premiering May 8 at the AGNS's "Films on Ice" program, the film touches on issues as diverse as gender politics and the environment; the two characters' gestures are more dance than slapshot.

Lipton says, "I had been working on dance-related projects with a lot of knitted and sculptured elements and costumes in them. My friend, in the kitchen one night, just showed me some goalie moves and I thought, 'this is a dance move right here.'"

Growing up, Lipton figure-skated for about 10 years. "I see parallels in the relationship between figure-skating and hockey, and figure-skaters and the relationship they have with the arena and the dressing room and that smell. I started playing with that."

Lipton is not an avid hockey fan. For her, it's more about the exchange of "spending so much time in an arena, but also standing on the sidelines waiting to get on to the ice, as well hockey players waiting to get on to the ice for us to come off." She also thought about the amount of time she spent practicing. "I had these ideas of stardom and becoming famous, but at some point in my late teens I just decided 'that's it,'" she says. "Hockey players, too. There's the commonality of spending a whole bunch of your childhood and energy a sport, then just giving it up."

On Saturday May 3, the sun's shining again. The smell of hibachi fuel rises from the graffiti pit. The game hasn't started, but there's an old-school goalie mask strung up in the middle of one of the nets and everyone's taking turns shooting pucks at it. It's covered in black marks like bruises; there's a crack forming under the nose hole. This is Mark Bovey's contribution to Masked, a silent auction of goalie masks by local artists, on at Seeds Gallery right now.

It's modelled after the creation originally introduced by Montreal Canadiens' Jacques Plante in 1959, after he had his nose broken by New York Ranger Andy Bathgate and returned to play wearing a crude home-made mask. Bovey intends to have all the participating artists sign the mask around the nose and mouth area in red Sharpie pen, which will probably look like spilled blood.

Bovey is the most accomplished hockey player in Arena and in the pit. He played Junior B hockey and half a season of Junior A, until a shoulder injury when he was 16 killed any future Stanley Cup dreams. He's sitting out today with a bad back. One of his pieces in Arena, a digital print called "3 Stars-Peter, Paul, and Bobby": An autobiography of the first ten years of my life, definitely falls on the sentimental side, but like the other pieces in the show, its emotion is used intellectually, or as Cronin points out, "because they're artists, they use it to suck you in and then twist it."

The print is of an old accounting ledger book from the late 1800s. Friends of Bovey's great-grandparents were accountants and after the seven-year period legally required to keep the books, they would donate them to the kids, who would use them to draw, practice their penmanship and make scrapbooks. Bovey found them in his grandfather's attic, where they sat abandoned for 50 years.

Along the top, most likely in the 1920s, Bovey's grandfather marked these pages of the scrapbook for hockey pictures. Bovey, of course, "identifies with his passion for the sport." Placed over top of his grandfather's memories are Bovey's own: a Peter Puck colouring book, an X-ray of his dislocated shoulder, Bobby Orr hockey cards and an unanswered letter Bovey wrote to the great hockey player (he switched allegiances to Phil Esposito shortly afterwards). There are also autographs from hockey players that appear as if they were ripped out of a notebook.

When Bovey was young he was taken to see a Toronto Maple Leafs game and waited out back of the Gardens to get autographs. The boy was so enamoured with the signatures, "The artist in me drew around them and then tore them all out. It was dark and I used a flashlight to do it. Then I fell asleep and all the slips of paper fell to the floor and were destroyed by my wet boots." Of course these days you can find pretty much anything on the internet, including old hockey player signatures, which Bovey digitally removed and recreated in the ledger.

There's a subtle connection played out here, between a commercial ledger and the current state of hockey players being seen as million-dollar commodities. This started happening when Bovey was a kid, but he says they were unaware of it---players were just idols. "There's a disdain about hockey now because of the awful amount of money players make. And the difference is kids today know it." Like Lipton, young Bovey abandoned dreams of stardom. "The best thing that happened was at 16, I dislocated my shoulder. I realized I have to get serious about school."

Conversation stops: Patterson has scored a beautiful goal from an imaginary blue line. He looks shocked as everyone cheers.

Art and hockey are proving to be ideal partners, at least in terms of attendance at Arena. "The rarest sight in museums and art galleries is happening because of this show---the absolute most rare sighting---and that is men in groups," says Cronin, laughing.

"I look around the rest of the world and contemporary art is the biggest draw for art museums. People don't line up around the block for impressionist shows. They don't want to see the old masters; they want to see new art, young artists, new technology---engaging, challenging work. I don't think it's something in the water or in the genes that in Denmark people like contemporary art, it's about exposure and looking at it, and thinking about it. So any way we can get people excited about contemporary art by buying into a bigger event in the city or a larger interest people already have, I hope it continues to build audiences."

Films on Ice, Thursday, May 8 at 7pm; Arena: The Art of Hockey artist reception and book launch, Friday, May 9 at AGNS, 1723 Hollis; Artist walkthrough, Saturday, May 10 and Sunday, May 11, 2pm; Masked silent auction, Seeds Gallery, 1892 Hollis, until May 10.

Sue Carter Flinn won a 2007 Atlantic Journalism Award for her story about photographer George Steeves. Born in Sittler's hometown, she played ringette (poorly) for several years, once wrote a love letter to Kitchener Ranger Brian Bellows and still adores the smell of zamboni exhaust mixed with fries and popcorn.

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