Sunday, April 25, 2010

(No.89) Maud Lewis & Nena Sanchez, Nova Scotia & Curacao

We didn't know the work of the artist Nena Sanchez when we visited her studio gallery at Landhuis Jan Kock during a trip to the Caribbean island of Curacao in the Netherland Antilles. On seeing her paintings Pat and I were each reminded of the work of the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis.

Maud Lewis was born in Nova Scotia 1903, deformed and disabled, becoming increasingly so because of rheumatoid arthritis as she grew older. After she married in 1938 she shared a tiny house with her husband Everett, a fish peddler, in Marshalltown, Digby County. They sold paintings to passing motorists for very little, paintings of Nova Scotia life: teams of oxen, black cats, horse and sleigh -- all with bright colours.

Indeed it was the bright colours of Nena Sanchez's paintings more than what she calls her figurative style style that called up for us the comparison with Maud Lewis. As Lewis was, Sanchez is a self-taught artist -- but beyond that the differences in their lives are large.

Born in Curacao in 1945 Sanchez left the island in her twenties, propelled by her status as "Miss Curacao" in the Miss Universe contest. She remained abroad working in business for many years, not returning to her island home to focus her special talent on visual art until 1994.

Nena Sanchez's artistic focus is on the island's flowers, native cottages, blue skies and palm trees -- all done in the brightest of colours. They give her art not only a distinctive style but a cheerful verve. Nowhere is it more evident than in her paintings of "blue goddesses" but in all her work she reflects her native Curacao.

She publishes her own art and her work can be sampled by visiting her website at www.nenasanchez.com. Sanchez's life, the artistic and commercial success she has achieved in her lifetime, distinguishes her from Maud Lewis whose fame did not really begin to grow in Canada until near and after the end of her life in 1970.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax has played a key role in elevating the art and public reputation of Maud Lewis. Her tiny home has been restored and moved into the Gallery which is also the leading repository of her art. Paintings she and her husband sold for a few dollars can today command $15,000+.

The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is well worth a visit because it is a fine institution. For anyone interested in Maud Lewis it is the place to go. The Gallery's website at www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca is an excellent starting point; indeed you can take a virtual tour of the Lewis home.

Visitors to Halifax should not miss the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and those Canadians who travel to Curacao should make a point to see the art of Nena Sanchez. And judge for themselves the similarities between these two artists.

As different as are the lives of Maud Lewis and Nena Sanchez you may find, as we did, that their art is equally interesting and rewarding.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca




Sunday, April 18, 2010

(No.88) Financial services: accountability for venal mediocrity?

Goldman Sachs was and still is a premier example of a Wall Street investment bank that put pursuit of profits ahead of everything. But it was far more than that; it was and is the corporate poster child for a defective financial services system.

For years most financial journalists, analysts and, yes, regulators managed not only to ignore that industry reality but to praise its defects -- or at the very least ignore them. For example: try 'googling' Goldman Sachs and review the sort of so-called expert opinion about the firm that was common before the 2007/2008 financial crisis. The prevailing tone: oh how impressive; wonderful, successful capitalism at work; medals all round.

The most charitable assessment one can offer now of all this sort of softball cheerleading among the 'experts' is that it constituted honours conferred on venal mediocrity by ignorance.

On January 1 this year I posted a column to RickardsRead.com in which I commented on the possibility that investment banks central to the Wall Street financial services meltdown were being seriously investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In the run up to the crisis Goldman Sachs, among other firms, had (according to the New York Times) "created mortgage-related securities that were intended to make money for Goldman if the housing market collapsed. And, just as planned, the firm pocketed huge profits when they did turn sour".

I noted that American regulators were -- belatedly -- looking into the creation and peddling of these unregulated securities known as CDOs (synthetic collateralized debt obligations). As the Times put it, the regulators were "looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them [thus] setting up their clients to lose billions of dollars if the [sub-prime] housing market imploded ..." and of course it did.

I went on to observe that this activity and pattern was just one more manifestation of the obscene greed and lack of ethics of so many in financial services leadership. To me it is strikingly reminiscent of the approach taken by too many of those responsible for life insurance companies in Canada during the hustling to the public of, in particular, the first generation of a Term-to-100 product which at its core was a bet by the company against the client. [For my extensive commentary on this aspect of T-100 policies see column No.71 on RickardsRead.com.]

Now, as of mid-April 2010, the SEC has filed civil fraud charges against Goldman Sachs. Why and why now?

I think there are several factors involved. Among these is the fact that the SEC, having completely dropped the ball in the multi-billion dollar Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, wants to demonstrate its competence and newly rediscovered aggressiveness; in part it reflects a U.S. government desire to focus on and publicly demonstrate the need for the financial regulatory reform the Obama administration is proposing; and in part the Goldman action demonstrates to the public and to Wall Street that the big boys are not going to escape entirely at least some formal responsibility and legal accountability for the calamity they caused.

And what do the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs involve? They focus on what I referred to in my January 1 column: i.e., betting against clients through Goldman involvement with a hedge fund scheme selling CDOs to investors.

As for the Canadian life insurance industry's sometime love affair with the sale of lapse-supported Term-to-100 policies, the industry was betting against its clients and -- as I argued both privately and publicly after they appeared and ever since -- this was ethically dubious. The fact that it was legal did not justify that activity any more than a theoretical legality justifies the greed and incompetence of the financial services CEOs who came so close to creating a complete financial services meltdown -- and then sought to pay themselves huge bonuses while employees, shareholders and taxpayers suffered the negative financial consequences.

It is worth noting that not one of the most important U.S. financial services firm players who should be held to account individually for the crisis has yet been charged with anything.

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Those readers who wish to be automatically notified when I post a column to RickardsRead.com can make use of a free service offered by the search engine Google. It is called "Google Alert". It is easy to use (see below) and can send an email 'alert' to you you whenever there is a new post.

How to create a Google alert:

1. access Google.ca or Google.com
2. top left, click on "More", then on "even more"
3. top left, click on "alerts"
4. under "create a Google alert" enter --
beside "search terms": enter RickardsRead.com
beside "type": choose an option
beside "how often": choose an option
beside "deliver to": enter your email address

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Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

Monday, April 12, 2010

(No.87) Teddy Boys & SS costumes

Pat and I recently attended three plays: two at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario and the other at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

At the Shaw we saw preview performances of this season's production of Mary Chase's play "Harvey" and Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband". At the Grand we attended a stage version of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice".

"Harvey", a 1944 Broadway production which ran for more than 1700 performances, is perhaps most widely known because of the 1950 movie based on the play starring James Stewart. "Harvey" is a whimsical comedy about a gentle, mid-western eccentric named Elwood P. Dowd whose best friend, Harvey, is a 6 foot white rabbit only Dowd can see.

The Shaw production of "Harvey" is directed by Joseph Ziegler and performed in the 268 seat Royal George Theatre, one of the four Niagara-On-The-Lake venues used by the Shaw Festival. The play is a delight featuring strong performances by the entire cast, particularly by Peter Krantz as Dowd and Mary Haney as his sister. In the hands of director and cast this gentle comedy holds up well and provides a rewarding time in the theatre.

"Harvey" runs until Oct 31 at the Royal George.

Between 1891 and 1895 Oscar Wilde wrote 4 plays, all of them society comedies of contemporary England: "Lady Windermere's Fan", "A Woman of No Importance", An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest". He wrote no more plays prior to his death. Having been tried and convicted in the latter 1890s as a "sodomite" and sentenced to 2 years hard labour, Wilde afterwards went to France where he died a pauper in 1900.

Wilde is one of our favourite playwrights although "An Ideal Husband" is not my favourite play of his -- "The Importance of Being Earnest " is. I confess that we cannot resist attending any production of "Earnest" we come across like last season's production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (see column No. 35 on RickardsRead.com). I recall in particular a production of "Earnest" we attended in London's West End with Maggie Smith playing Lady Bracknell. She received an anticipatory standing ovation as soon as she walked on stage.

The Shaw production of "An Ideal Husband" is directed by the Shaw Festival's artistic director Jackie Maxwell. It is presented in the 869 seat Festival Theatre in Niagara-On-The-Lake and also runs through Oct 31.

According to Maxwell she and the Shaw's designers decided to retain the play's "original Victorian setting ... and then just twist it ever so slightly, letting our contemporary sensibilities match what feels in so many ways a very modern play".

This "twisting" manifests itself in a two level set that is all modern pillars, stairs and iron railings (it looked to me like the anteroom of a second tier Las Vegas casino) as well as in a few costumes irritatingly inappropriate to the period. For me it produced the same reaction as I have had to the stage affectation of dressing up Shakespearean actors as Teddy Boys or SS officers.

As in the Shaw Festival series last season of Noel Coward's one act plays, so in "An Ideal Husband": some of the Canadian actors are more successful in carrying off an upper class English accent than others. Indeed it is almost painful to listen to an unnatural and strained delivery of Wilde's lines by some actors; one almost expects Saturday Night Live's Jon Lovitz to pop out of the wings and yell "acting".

The strongest performances were by Catherine McGregor as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Moya O'Connell as Mrs. Cheveley and Steven Sutcliffe as Lord Goring.

Don't mistake my previous comments for a pan of the play itself. The Shaw production of "An Ideal Husband" is worth seeing and overall an entertaining presentation. It also provides, for those who have never read the play or seen it performed but have watched the 1999 movie starring Rupert Everett, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore, an effective correction to the movie's distortions of the plot and dialogue.

Those who, like Pat and me, regard Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice with particular affection may well share our scepticism about anyone's ability to mount a stage adaptation of the novel that is worth seeing. To that challenge add the devotion many feel to the already classic adaptation of the novel to the television screen, the one in 1995 that devoted 5 hours to a presentation of the story starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet supported by an absolutely brilliant cast of English character actors.

In fact the Grand Theatre production was brilliantly effective. The Grand's artistic director, Susan Ferley, also directed its presentation of "Pride and Prejudice". She wisely chose a version that had been staged by the Gate Theatre, Dublin. The novel's storyline is made clear to the audience through a very effective use of Elizabeth Bennett as a narrator speaking directly to the audience from time to time.

This production at the Grand Theatre ended in early April but deserves notice nevertheless as a superior effort not only by its director but also by its large cast and production crew.

The Grand Theatre mounts professional stage productions throughout the year. Its schedule is well worth keeping track of at www.grandtheatre.com.

Alastair Rickard

RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca