BINGO! Artist Stella Walker’s latest inspiration

To say Stella Walker is a multi-disciplinary artist is an understatement. And understatement is not her style.

Yes, her beautiful figurative and landscape paintings are introspective and dreamlike. She’s a classically trained singer who sings in multiple languages, has specialized in Yiddish art songs, and now writes her own music.

But that’s just the beginning. As an actor and singer, Stella Walker can be a ham.

“Life is a mixture of things, so why wouldn’t art be a mixture of things?” says Walker. “It has its tragic and comic elements.”

A perfect example is her new YouTube music video ‘Under the B – Busted.’ It’s a campy, operatic-style performance about her failure to win at bingo. You can see it here.

The video is a collaboration featuring her friends’ talents — on, off and behind the camera — including Stephen Granger’s work. He shot, directed and edited it.

He normally does corporate work, but lent his skills to this production after Walker performed her bingo song to him in a café. They storyboarded together, and shot the video in four hours at the OWL’s Club on Dovercourt Road. Walker provided additional video elements, including drawings of imagined winnings, like a Winnebago.

Central to the video is a dress made out of 300 bingo cards, all paper, created by Alison Conway — a costume designer whose credits include the Stratford Festival.

“Paper is so fragile, it would be easy for the dress to be a disaster,” recalls Conway.

She wanted the bingo cards to move, and not appear like armour. As she researched solutions, Conway learned of a costume made out of feathers in The Magic Flute (read about that very costume in Backstage at the Opera: The Art of Costumes).

“If you can make feathers float, you can make bingo cards float,” she says.

With fittings and adjustments, the dress took a month to finish. Conway was pleased, especially with Walker’s reaction.

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Stella Walker’s bingo dress may be made of fragile paper, but is now immortalized in video.

“Bringing someone’s vision to fruition is very satisfying,” says Conway.

After performing ‘Under the B — Busted’ in the dress on stage, Walker hoped to give her friend’s work permanence. Hence the music video, a way to preserve it visually.

But what prompted Walker to want a bingo dress in the first place?

Cree class, Walker explains. Naturally.

Walker doesn’t just sing in multiple languages, she’s also multilingual. She’s studied the Cree language in Vancouver, Saskatoon and now at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

One day, she bought a $3.99 bingo game as a gift for her Cree teacher, Susan Hunter. She thought it would be a fun way to learn Cree numbers from 1 to 75. It was so popular, it turned into a monthly bingo game in class.

She was flooded with inspiration — for the bingo dress, and for an interactive performance in which Susan Hunter would call out the numbers 1 to 75 in Cree for the audience, playing bingo. All that led to the music video, which features Hunter as caller, and many of Walker’s friends, including classmates, playing bingo.

“They were all volunteers,” notes Granger. “We had a lot of fun.”

While Walker’s dreams in the video are all fantasy, she really does want to travel. She’s developing a theatrical production — Stellavision: The 3D World of Stella Walker — and plans to tour it someday.

Part of the cost of the production is a $714.95 license fee for a composer. She’s selling one of her acrylic paintings for exactly that amount.

The painting in question is of a bingo card … of course.

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Proceeds from the sale of this 30 x 30-inch acrylic painting (‘Bingo Card #2435608’) will go toward funding her next production — Stellavision: The 3D World of Stella Walker

For more information on Stella Walker and her work, go to her website at stellawalker.com

Discovered: Pianist Jean-Michel Blais

It started with a conversation at work in September. My colleague Deena asked if I’d heard of pianist Jean-Michel Blais.

She’d heard him on the CBC radio show q. She described his experimental style, a mix of classical and improvisation; Deena was impressed. I listened to a sample of his music on YouTube. His style was experimental, yes, but also warm and melodic.

Within minutes, we’d bought tickets for Deena, me and our friend Sam for a November concert at The Great Hall in Toronto.

Other than listening to that one piece on YouTube, I was going in naïve, as was Sam. I have to admit that’s how I enjoy a lot of art. Like an explorer making a new discovery.

Blais is all about exploring and discovery himself. He’s travelled the world. Born in rural Quebec, he’s lived in Guatemala and Germany, and speaks several languages.

Now based in Montreal, most of his exploration is of a musical nature. He experiments with the piano itself, plucking the strings so it sounds like a harp, or a balalaika – or using it as a purely percussive instrument. It can sound like a whole orchestra.

He maps the expanse of human emotions, taking his audience on inner journeys through melodies and silence.

“It’s so evocative,” I whispered to Sam. “This could totally be a film score.”

“Yeah!” she whispered back. “I was thinking the same thing. He should be writing scores for movies.”

We had discovered Jean-Michel Blais.

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Jean-Michel Blais photo by Isis Essery, courtesy Arts and Crafts

He’s used to that. He’s been discovered throughout his life. Self-taught in piano and later studying with a teacher in his hometown of Nicolet, he was such a natural that at 17, he was given a place at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Trois-Rivières. A true innovator, he rebelled against rigid instruction, and left to explore.

He was discovered ten years ago at 21 by Quebec playwright and film director Robert Lepage, who loved Blais’ compositions. The pianist continued experimenting, but held down day jobs working in special education and as a CEGEP professor in Quebec, helping students prepare for university.

Then he posted some of his music online on at Bandcamp. As an interview there relates, Blais was discovered again this year, by Cameron Reed, another minimalist pianist with the Arts and Crafts label. Reed introduced Arts and Crafts to Blais and they signed him.

Their discovery of him was a turning point. As he told us at his concert, he can now devote himself full-time to composing. And he’s loving it. Just four weeks in.

With a major label behind him, the world is going to discover Jean-Michel Blais.

Blais’ album Il is available now. Go to his website JeanMichelBlais.com for more information.

Special thanks to Samantha (Sam) Emann for the featured image in this post.