Swede and Salty

Christine Owman steams up the streets of Calgary

by Roberta McDonald

Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman

When Sweden’s Christine Owman took the stage at the Arratta Opera centre as part of Sled Island’s Poetry Ocean event, a revered hush fell over the humid venue. Fully in command of the stage, she unleashed her beguiling voice, backed by haunting video installations she assembled from 1920s daredevil cinema.

Then she played a pitch perfect saw, the ethereal melody filling the room. Poets, Sled Islanders, and fellow musicians stood with their mouths slightly agape, marveling at her talent. Sled founder Zak Pashak gestured to the stage and mused how lucky his festival was to have her. The blissed out faces of the crowd mirrored his sentiment.

Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman

After the show, a gaggle of gushing fans lavished her with praise and I took the opportunity to invite her out for some photo play. She graciously agreed and these images are the result of an unforgettable night along 17th Ave. S.W. She’s completely at ease in front of the camera, and helped me discover new ways of seeing. She’s also a total babe. Among the many truisms she shared with me: her passion to create is what provides her with life. It’s not a choice for Owman, she fuses desire with action and the results are extraordinary.

Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman

Owman is touring Europe this summer, with gigs in her native Sweden, then Berlin and Hamburg. Later this fall, she’ll be in New York. Go see this woman.

Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman Roberta McDonald - Christine Owman

The Hungry Ones

by Roberta McDonald

I get all quivery when folks let me stick my camera in their faces, especially late at night. This series documents my interaction with several Calgary artists in various stages of development. They share one common trait: a deep need to create, whether it’s painting, poetry, or performance. Some of them have been friends of mine for years, others are new discoveries. I had one simple request: be real. I didn’t want pretty or staged, just absolute sincerity. Everyone delivered.

1. Angela Dillon

Roberta McDonald - Angela Dillon

Painter, poet, mother, rippling muscle woman - Angela Dillon is a rare breed. Her poetry drips with evocative imagery while her paintings are darkly sensual. She works as a counselor and educator, steering young minds towards creative pursuits. Angela came to my house on a bleak Saturday afternoon, sans makeup, and peeled off her shirt. No pretense, no glamour, just an undeniably raw presence. Her dark Irish eyes hold both sadness and defiance and a shockingly robust understanding of the world. Her poetic approach to life is contagious and she can quote Ulysses at will. She spends an hour per week lifting Herculean weights with her trainer. The lady’s got moxie (and a well defined back).

2. Ben Millen

Roberta McDonald - Ben Millen

Ben Millen is obsessed with how things work. He’ll scour craigslist for vintage tape machines, cameras, and guitars, then inspect the guts for signs of surprise, putting things back together in unexpected ways. He develops film in his bathtub. His favourite bands include Pavement and Sonic Youth. He says things like: “Everything is possible and nothing’s interesting.” Ben is an analog dude in a digital world without being a pompous hipster. His undergrad is in Systems Engineering and Theoretical Physics and he holds a Masters in Industrial Design from the U of C. I like to call him smartypantalones. He just completed the directional design drawings for the Bow parkade, a space he calls “the labyrinth”. It seemed fitting we would explore am empty parking garage on a Saturday.

3. Ben Youé

Roberta McDonald - Ben Youé

I met Ben Youé after consuming three too many gins at the Ship and Anchor on a Saturday night. Gap toothed and disarmingly vulnerable, he agreed to come to my house at 2 am and let me take his photo. His shirt was off in moments and he lay down quietly on my icy bathroom floor, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Ben is a rare combination of intuition and scientific reasoning. One of the projects he’s worked on recently as a Mechanical Engineer is the iVibrate, a prototype that still makes him smirk (yes, it’s a dildo). But his real passion is graffiti art and thumping on his drums. He’s in Costa Rica right now, surfing and studying Spanish and making some huge career decisions. I hope he chooses life as an artist.

4. Heather Setka

Roberta McDonald - Heather Setka

I first met Heather Setka a year ago when she hosted our inaugural writer’s group. It was pretty much love at first sight. She’s a stone cold fox. More than that, she’s a lyrical writer with a tenacious drive to see things through. Heather is also a devoted single mom with a gorgeous daughter. She makes her living as the executive editor at the Emery Weal, shepherding young journalists. Passionate about writing in all its forms, she blogs and writes short stories, some documenting the slippery social landscape of young women. She’s also funny as hell and gives the best hugs in the universe. If Heather were a city, she’d be Austin, Texas. When she showed up at my place, hungover and rough around the edges, she exposed her vulnerability with absolute grace. I’ve never seen her so beautiful.

5. Melanie Jones

Roberta McDonald - Melanie Jones

This shot is the result of Melanie Jones showing up at my house, stripping down to some slinky lingerie, tossing on a beret and some cowboy boots, then hopping up on a shelf in my office. Because that’s how she rolls. Writer, performer, creative coach, Melanie is the epitome of gusto. She’s a relentless believer in the transformative power of creativity. In 2008, she embarked on her JOY (Just One Year) project, focusing her entire being on living as an artist. The process took her to Paris (where she completed a novel) and in-troduced her to CAWST, a non-profit dedicated to providing safe, clean water to developing communities. Last summer, she left the comfort of Calgary for Africa and India as their volunteer writer. She has two degrees in dance and it shows in the way she moves her willowy yet athletic body. At times, she’s panther-like, sleek and slightly dangerous. At others, she’s visual comedy, evoking the awkward experience of riding bikes in a triathalon. She’ll be smack in the middle of Manhattan this March to study with the SITI theatre company. She’s also developing her one-woman show, ENDURE. And yes, she gets shit done.

6. Rick James

Roberta McDonald - Rick James

With his matinee idol looks and cosmopolitan charm, Rick James is a babe magnet. He doesn’t try and play down his famous name, rather jokingly referring to himself as “Rick James, bitch”. When I first met him, he was working as a data management consultant at Nexen, a job that was chiseling away at his soul on a daily basis. He confessed to spending more time on textsfromlastnight than paying attention to the tedium of his job. He was laid off recently, and he’s finally embracing his creative side, exploring the advertising world, taking pictures with his Nikon and thinking about making his own craft IPA beers. If he opens a microbrewery called Rick James, Bitch, I’ll wet myself.

7. Rita Bozi

Roberta McDonald - Rita Bozi

Rita Bozi explores intuitive reasoning to the max. Trusting her gut has taken her to Vancouver, where she lived and worked full time as a dancer, and on epic back-packing trips through Vietnam, Laos, Morocco and South America. She’s working on a story from her travels involving a starving dog and an outhouse that would make Irvine Welsh blush. Her Ramsay home brims with her vibrant personality, and everything has a story, right down to the flooring (recycled grain elevators). She’s a One Yellow Rabbit Alumnus. Her holistic business, Brilliant Healing Systems, targets blocked areas of creativity, and she is the Consultant Facilitator of Three In One Concepts. Rita is also bendy as it gets, an enduring result of studying at the National Ballet School of Canada. She practices yoga and Pilates and it shows in her masterful breathing. Her body image is healthy and natural, and she had zero problems removing her clothes so I could explore her form next to my radiator. She’s 44 but looks 28 and without meaning to. I dropped the L-bomb on her after our photo session. “I love you, too,” she said, before gliding away.

8. Self Portrait

Roberta McDonald - Self Portrait

This shot was taken after an excruciating day of working on my novel, Inappropriate. I’d been writing a savage scene involving rough sex and a PBR can and it rattled me right down to the marrow. Rather than dismiss this new and unsettling feeling, I embraced it, peeling off my clothes, laying down on the floor, and baring myself to the camera. Lately, I’ve realized it’s the only way to live: raw, open, and real. Pretty has its place, but it’s in the stark and the murk and the grit I find what ignites my passion and stirs my curiosity. Sincerity is everything.

Roberta McDonald is a Calgary based photographer and writer with a rabid need to explore the creative experience. Her images have appeared in Swerve, the Calgary Herald, and FFWD Weekly. Her first photo show, Urban Textures, ran for the month of November at Cafe Koi. She is currently fixated on black and white photography and with people who defy all boundaries to express their ultimate selves.


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