CBC arts show In The Making demystifies the genius artist

IN THE MAKING (Chelsea McMullan, Amar Wala) premieres Friday (September 21) at 8:30 pm on CBC and streaming on cbc.ca/watch. Preview at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (506 Bloor West) on Wednesday (September 19) at 7 pm. Free with RSVP. hotdocscinema.ca.

Asking what it means to be an artist in the world may have, at another time, been a romanticized endeavour.

But these days, it’s become more of a reckoning as artists who were long idealized are being placed under a microscope. Picasso’s misogyny is being reexamined in the context of the #MeToo movement and hypocritical ideals about art and mental illness are exposed in the public’s scorn toward the erratic behaviour of Kanye West, who recently disclosed his bipolar disorder.

Part of the issue is the pedestal we’ve come to routinely place artists on, which makes CBC’s new art docuseries In the Making something of an outlier. It doesn’t lionize the eight Canadian artists it profiles nor does it scandalize them. Rather it aims to present an honest, empathetic and intimate portrait, chronicling its artists during the process of creating new work, which just might be the point at which they’re the most vulnerable.

Executive producer and host Sean O’Neill says the series “demystifies the notion of the artist as a singular genius, someone outside of the world we all live in.”

“Rather, it positions the artist as someone who is deeply embedded in, speaking about and affected by the world and offering those reflections back for us to consider,” he continues.

Over five months last year, O’Neill travelled around the world documenting the journey of each artist as they took a risk on new works or closed a chapter on career-defining ones. The first season follows Polaris Prize winner Lido Pimienta to rural Colombia where she’s recording a new album visual artist Adrian Stimson as he collaborates with General Idea’s AA Bronson on an artwork that addresses reconciliation in Alberta’s Siksika Nation and Montreal-based dancer Dana Michel as she becomes the first Canadian to receive the Venice Biennale’s Silver Lion for Innovation in Dance.

Other artists include choreographer Crystal Pite, musician Chilly Gonzales, photographer Shelley Niro and visual artists Curtis Talwst Santiago and Divya Mehra.

With a cross-section of artists representing different provinces, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, the series not only explores what it means to be an artist in the world, but what it means to be an artist in Canada and the impacts of the nation’s history of racism, erasure and settler-colonialism.

In the Stimson episode, the residential school survivor shares a historical connection to Bronson, whose great-grandfather built the first residential school in Siksika Nation, naming it after the head chief who also bears a relation to Stimson.

The episode highlights the intimate access O’Neill has to the artists. At a dinner in Stimson’s home, Bronson’s apology and commitment to reconciliation is tearfully accepted by one of Stimson’s Indigenous guests.

O’Neill took a sabbatical from his role as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s director of public programs and cultural partnerships to produce the series. He’s established in Toronto’s art world, having founded the AGO’s popular First Thursdays. He also hosted the CBC show Crash Gallery, where artists went head-to-head in a series of creative challenges. O’Neill was aware that his reputation and the relationships he’s built make him uniquely placed to engage more deeply with the artists. He’s worked with some of them, like Pimienta, before.

Adrian Stimson In the making.jpg

Courtesy of CBC

Artist Adrian Stimson (left) gives host Sean O’Neill a tour of his home on Siksika First Nation in an episode of CBC’s In The Making.

But he was concerned that his existence in a white male body would take up a certain space that has historically de-centered the existences of Black, Indigenous and people of colour. He calls it the “central challenge” the team faced, particularly because six of the eight artists in season one identified as part of those communities.

“For us, the failure of the show would be if you felt like you were going on a journey with me,” says O’Neill, who respectfully referenced the style of travel show represented by the late Anthony Bourdain, where different cultures were translated through the experiences of a white protagonist.

To ensure the artists’ perspectives took the lead, the team approached each profile with an “ethic of care,” discussing with the artists, at length, the ways their work had been framed by the media, what had felt right and what had been painful about those representations.

The Mehra episode exemplifies the show’s commitment to getting it right. The multimedia work of the Sobey-nominated artist often satirizes the impact of colonization. In The Making follows her to Agra where she’s working on a bouncy castle version of the Taj Mahal, her critique of the way largely Western tourists have diminished the cultural significance of the mausoleum by taking selfies and forced perspective shots with it.

Not wanting to participate in a show that would add yet another tokenized image of the Taj to the many in existence, Mehra tells O’Neill and the camera crew that they can accompany her to the monument but they can’t take any photos of it.

“The trap she wanted us to avoid was showing a million beauty shots of the Taj Mahal and not questioning or critiquing what she was there to question and critique,” explains O’Neill.

The team honoured her request, which meant the show ate the enormous cost of sending a production team to Agra only to come back without the money shot that everyone was expecting.

For O’Neill, putting the artist above all other considerations, including financial, is emblematic of the show’s success at crafting authentic stories.

“I hope the artists feel their stories are well, thoughtfully and beautifully told and they feel taken care of and represented with as much depth, intimacy and generosity that they gave us,” he says. “I’ve said to the team so many times that if the artists are unhappy, we’ve failed, even if we think we have the most compelling story in the world.”

movies@nowtoronto.com | @missrattan

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