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The drawer girl

Shary Boyle performs her animated drawing piece Songs of Childhood in Halifax this week. Sean Flinn watches and listens.


Shary Boyle gets her hands dirty when she works. The Toronto-based artist’s self-described “live, animated drawing performances,” often in concert with a musician, leave her hands smeared with ink.

Boyle makes her mark from Berlin to Brooklyn, Paris to Halifax. She returns to town for a performance at the Khyber on Saturday November 12 with Daniel Barrow, an exciting Winnipeg artist who combines sight, sound and movement.

One of five nominees for the just-announced Ontario shortlist of the 2006 Sobey Art Award, Boyle’s Songs of Childhood imaginatively evokes and explores smallness, the meaning and implications of being small in this big, bad world. Though you meet a number of diminutive characters in Boyle’s story, you should not be fooled by their apparent weakness or vulnerability.

“There is always a hidden element of the confrontational, supernatural within my characters,” she says. “It is their camouflage. If they were our size they would be 100 times stronger than us, like ants.”

On their own, Boyle’s storybook children—wide-eyed and often looking up as if being stared down by some stern adult—first provoke thoughts of your own childhood when you felt like everything was out of your reach. But mixed with the other elements, such as music and large-scale projection, they take on, as Boyle suggests, power, strength and authority.

Whether on stage or working in her studio, Boyle says, “My relationship to music has always been extremely cathartic.” She’s worked with Feist and Swede Jens Lekman, grew up listening to Kiss and Frank Zappa and is currently immersed in “Finnish folk-pop.”

Boyle weaves a tale called “Me and Little Andy,” based on the Dolly Parton song, into Songs of Childhood. “I love Dolly Parton—her voice is magic, and she’s an incredible storyteller. Her more obscure narratives like ‘Me and Little Andy’ are genuinely perverse.”

Parton’s high-flying soprano and sharp tone possess a creepy childlike quality. In Boyle’s “Me and Little Andy,” the tale of a lost little girl and her dog takes on a magical, slightly unnerving impact thanks to Boyle’s “infusing still images with light and movement, revealing the process of drawing, enlarging my usually tiny pictures to a monumental scale and taking that all out of the gallery and into places of performance—it’s unexpected, reanimating.”

Artists like Boyle specialize in the unexpected. You may recall Halifax artist Tonia DiRisio’s blown-up photograph of a miniature model chair hanging on a banner in the artport space and stared at the simple inversion of scale: how could something so small become so big?

But, as Boyle suggests, she reveals not only our collective sentimentality and unease with childhood memories, but also “the process of drawing,” her own presence in moving the whole thing along. Whether she’s layering multiple drawings on mylar (a plastic sheeting), or drawing right on a blank transparency live and in the moment, you see her hand’s shadow projected overhead.

She chooses to use the old-school overhead projector, as does Daniel Barrow, because, she jokes, “I’m all about analogue.” But the tool, the overhead projector itself, becomes part of the work as it triggers memories of school days and lessons augmented by crappy transparencies.

You’d think her past performances would be rife with malfunctions, but Boyle’s been lucky. If there was a technical problem on her end, especially when she’s partnering with a musician, she’s been able to act her way out of it.

“I can sing and dance, but unless a poorly timed tequila is involved, I tend to be a competent, organized performer,” she says. “Rolling with mistakes and incorporating sponateous events is the nature of these projection shows. I’m working with moving sound, and it doesn’t stop or slow down if I lose my nut.”

Songs of Childhood, November 12 at the Khyber Club, 1588 Barrington, 7pm, 422-9668.

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