As a teenager, Larry Reese was a guitar-playing would-be rock-star. He lived in Bangladesh and got pointers on playing the sitar from Ravi Shankar.
As a young musician, he performed during Procol Harum’s famed concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He also toured North America as an actor in an operatic production of Jesus Christ Superstar — his musical hopes already nudging him towards a successful stage and film career.
Reese eventually landed roles in two Oscar-winning movies, Unforgiven and more memorably, Brokeback Mountain — and he helped launch the film program at Red Deer College.
But music and acting were never the sum of his artistic pursuits: The 57-year-old has also intermittently applied himself as a visual artist — a calling that’s grown stronger in recent years.
Reese explained that he squeezes in time for painting whenever he can; “On Sundays I’ll get up at 6 or 7 a.m. and go out to a field and set up my easel.”
Small wonder that this musician-turned-actor and painter is curious about the links and “overlaps” that exist between different forms of creativity — music, film, theatre and visual arts.
Reese is now set to explore this ephemeral topic in two separate film projects he’s undertaking during a sabbatical year away from his job as head of the motion picture arts program at Red Deer College.
Reese said he intends to “map” creativity — even though this sounds impossible. “I want to investigate the similarities that exist between creative processes.”
One of his projects will include exhibiting his own paintings at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery in the spring of 2010. He will also film an actor creating a role, a painter bringing a canvas to life, a musician composing a tune, and then combine this footage into a documentary in which artists talk about the process of creation.
So far, Reese has lined up interviews with Holger Petersen, a musician and host of CBC’s Saturday Night Blues program, Phil Fraser, a producer and director considered to be “the godfather of Alberta’s film industry,” as well as local painter David More.
Besides filming artists at work, Reese also wants to capture viewers’ reactions to his own paintings, because any work of creativity means something different to each person experiencing it.
This “is something I’ve been thinking about all my life,” admitted Reese, but also an idea that only gelled over the last year, as he’s pondered the roots of creativity.
His second film project deals with similar subject matter: Reese’s friend, celebrated Edmonton jazz saxophonist P.J. Perry, recently told him he intends to perform a June 11 concert in Regina of new music inspired by the art of Ted Godwin, an abstract and landscape painter whose works hang in the National Gallery of Canada.
These compositions will be Perry’s solo interpretations of Godwin’s works, said Reese, who is again fascinated by how one form of creativity influences another.
He intends to film the concert and then talk to Perry and Godwin about their perspective talents and often tumultuous lives. Since Perry has never been interviewed on film before, Reese considers this an opportunity to create something “of historical significance to Canadian culture.”
He believes both projects will reaffirm what he tries to impart to film students at the college. “This is an investigation into what we teach here . . . there are certain aspects of creativity you can’t teach, and there’s no formula . . . but you can inspire and give these students a sense of direction.”
Music is what gave Wisconsin-born Reese direction from an early age.
Another pivotal influence was living in Bangladesh from 1966 to 1968. Reese’s dad, who was then employed at the University of Alberta, had taken the family on a work exchange, first crossing the Atlantic by ship, then Europe by train.
Reese was on the last boat through the Suez Canal before the waterway was closed during the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel.
The teenager aimed to be a rock singer and couldn’t think of a more exciting place to be than the Far East during the “hippie years,” after the Beatles had popularized Eastern culture.
He remembers Bangladesh as being a beautiful, but cruel country. “It wouldn’t be uncommon to wake up and see somebody lying dead in a ditch, because of poverty or illness,” Reese recalled.
“But you could also wake up and see a herd of water buffalo going by, and a boy riding on one, and he’d have a flute and just be playing the most beautiful folk melodies.”
During one of the family’s frequent “R and R” trips abroad, Reese was staying at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta. He was up early one morning, waiting for his parents to come down for breakfast, when he saw a group of men arriving with strangely shaped “guitar cases.”
One of the men turned out to be Shankar, who gave the keen Western boy a quick primer on how to play the sitar, followed by a lecture on how sitar music was not just a fad, but a true art form that should be appreciated as such.
Reese took up sitar lessons when he returned to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and made a point of attending Shankar’s concerts — first in Bangladesh and later in Calgary and Edmonton. He said the famous musician always remembered him and took time to give him a few new sitar tips.
It was Reese’s proficiency on the instrument that got him the 1970 gig at which psychedelic British group Procol Harum played with the ESO. His twangy contributions can still be heard on the song, In Held ‘Twas I, from the live album of the historic concert.
Reese’s band also opened the show — but that performance didn’t get on the album.
“I was just an opening act.”