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Cutting Cranston wields razor-sharp blades

In-Toller-ant artist, former figure skater won't suffer hockey fools, art realists gladly

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Toller Cranston, the Olympian who revolutionized figure skating with his poetic artistry, says guest-judging on the CBC reality show Battle of the Blades could make him vomit.

The outspoken skating legend is in Winnipeg for a three-day show and sale of his artworks -- the first ever held here -- opening tonight at the Manitoba Museum.

Cranston, 61, says he is having second thoughts about appearing Nov. 7 and 8 on the series that matches top female figure skaters with former NHL hockey players and has them compete as pairs.

Cranston, who lives in the artists' haven of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, arrived in Winnipeg Monday and watched Battle of the Blades "for the first and last time" that evening.

"I am sort of disturbed about participating in it," he says while straddling a wide bench at the museum, a pose that brings to mind the split jumps of his heyday. "It's the antithesis of everything I believe, in art and skating....

"I don't know if you're supposed to judge it like a real pair and actually evaluate what you see in figure-skating terms. If I did, I'd probably throw up."

Cranston recalls that he was devastated to be fired by CBC as a skating commentator in 1991 because his comments were too harsh, but he says he has to speak the truth.

"What I think I'm looking for... is honesty and harmony. Do (the paired skaters) work well together, or are they discordant?"

Cranston ends up saying he'll do the show because he believes in taking advantage of every opportunity. "Unless the hockey players beat me up, it probably will be funny."

The flamboyant Hamilton-born skater was the Canadian champion from 1971-76, the 1974 World bronze medalist and the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist. Since retiring from the ice in the mid-1990s, he has concentrated on his successful painting career.

For the large Winnipeg exhibition, a Calgary-based art distributor called Artevo has rented Festival Hall at the Manitoba Museum. The show consists of more than 100 oil paintings and drawings and 13 whimsical sculptures, all created this year. Prices range from about $900 to $20,000.

Cranston, whose Mexican home is a 16th-century walled estate, is so prolific that he has had 350 solo shows. He says there are 70,000 of his works hanging around the world. "I am all about obsessive-compulsiveness. That's also what I was as a skater."

He's not shy about touting his talent and expertise. "I have, like, a Harvard professor's knowledge of the history of art," he says, adding that he has visited virtually every important art museum in the world.

"It's so NOT the typical figure skater," he adds with trademark cattiness. "I mean, do you really think Elvis Stojko is going to be prowling around the Hermitage?"

Cranston's vibrantly colourful painting style is influenced by Russian folk art. He is interested in "readdressing the child in the adult." One of his fanciful new sculptures is an ornately decorated rocking horse (priced at about $12,000) that could be a prop for The Nutcracker.

He has been to Russia 20 times, often paints wintry Russian scenes of skaters or dancers, and feels a great affinity for the country, where he was adored as a skater. "(The newspaper) Pravda said I was more Russian than the Russians," he recalls.

Many of his paintings depict a face topped by an "organic crown" of foliage, fruits, birds and animals. "All my humans are androgynous," he says. "Every figure is me."

Cranston can't stand highly realistic paintings like those produced by Canadian art stars Alex Colville and Ken Danby.

"Ken Danby, he's dead now. He was a really good friend of mine. At least I didn't have to tell him how much I hated his work. I am completely against reality."

Although he talks about skating as something far removed from his life now, Cranston says he did follow the Vancouver Olympics. "I watched with shock and awe and horror. I find the new marking system to be stupendously flawed -- as political and as inaccurate as the former one."

He finds that most Canadians can't name the 2010 female Olympic gold medalist, South Korean Kim Yu-Na.

"It's because the performance, unlike an Evelyn Hart, was not emotionally memorable. It was technically dazzling, but out of sight, out of mind. Technique is just a stepping stone for something far more important."

It's a far cry from his era, he says. "In my day, skaters were stars. But it's so over -- so madly over."

Art Preview

Up Close and Personal with Toller Cranston

Festival Hall, Manitoba Museum

VIP gala with Cranston, today from 5 to 10 p.m., $50 (Email:

Friday and Saturday admission free (call 956-2830 for hours)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2010 D3

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