February at Strathcona Community Centre

I’m still working on accounting for all the time it took me to come up with some notions of what to actually DO during this residency. My original thought was to lead walks where we pick up cool alley finds and plants and spend time in the studio playing. But when I held this idea up to the light of the people I was meeting, and the reality of the neighbourhood, it seemed a little absurd. It takes a lot of energy to stand up and lead an art project, excite people and get them interested in perhaps stepping outside their comfort zone, reach across language and culture to hearts and minds, and so I’ve always aimed to approach with a concept or idea that already has some appeal. What I was trying to figure out was what that concept would be, if not my original idea; and where a new concept would intersect with what I could offer and get energy from myself.

So I continued to meet with programmers and folks at the centre. I met with Liza and got to hear about the roots of the centre, in the Chinese community and its reputation as a place that welcomes newcomers. Liza told me that up to 50% of the Chinese seniors who come to the centre actually live in other neighbourhoods, but come back to do programming at Strathcona because of social connections. Meanwhile, Liza is putting in serious effort to support families of newcomers through programming, some of which is legacy programming where families who have “graduated” support the program as ambassadors. She says they have a lot of new people who speak Vietnamese and Arabic, and she’s getting to know the cultural dynamics that come into play in program participation.

Then I met with Ronnie, whose big office window looks right over the garden playspace and really made me appreciate the depth of feeling behind the plea to want to “look out there and get a good feeling.” Even in spite of its darker side, mostly known by the grownups, this part of the school yard is the basis of some kids’ fondest memories of their years here. Ronnie catalogued for us the most beloved features: the vines with edible fruits, the plum tree, the logs for stomping. And the dark side: the need for clear sight lines and clear ground, the stolen plants, the thorns.

After the meetings, I spent some time on the phone with my mentors to get clear about the expectations on how the budget was to be spent. What is considered appropriate renumeration for artists in this context? How many events are the funders expecting? One of my mentors encouraged me to think in terms of temporary installations — one to four years, or even six months — things that can be moved, or filmed and shown as a loop on a monitor in the centre — we have that! There’s already a screen in the lobby, usually showing television, and a monitor in the youth lounge as well.

I continued making the rounds, next to meet with Jay Peachy, Artist in residence with Red Fox Society. Jay gave me the impression of street cool overlaying a keen sense of humour and sharp wits, and a strong sense of social and environmental justice. I hung out with him as he coordinated a little ‘creative cafe’ time before the shared meal, and was delighted by the way he improvised and engaged with the kids with the puppets — merry and mischievous, sophisticated and yet accessible at the same time. I saw how the kids loved him, how much time he’s spent building relationships at this centre already, wanted to include him on the residency team.

I also wanted to bring Anna Heywood-Jones, Janey Chang, and Jennifer Brant onto the project team. Anna and Jennifer are dyers and fibre artists who, between them, have tremendous theoretical and practical knowledge of natural dyes, decolonization, cartography, and pedagogy; I thought their approach would be a good way of attracting the artists and intellectuals of Strathcona to the centre. (I didn’t realize it when I thought of them, but they know each other too.) Janey is an outdoor educator and ancestral skills practitioner with deep experience in decolonizing practice; I wanted her on the team for her heart and intuition, and capacity to foster respectful relationships and joy with all.

I think it was talking with Jay that the idea of having mapping as the organizing concept for the work really began to take shape in my mind. In 2018 EartHand had mounted a large B.C. Arts Council-funded Youth Innovations project called Walking, Weaving and Wayfinding: the False Creek Fibreshed, so map making has been back on my mind; and as part of that work, I’d been introduced to Bruce Macdonald’s amazing feat of research and desktop publishing, A Visual Atlas of Vancouver, and spent some time fishing around online and in the archives for references. I grew up learning to read aviation maps and, later, using my knowledge of topographic lines to help me interpret terrain for hiking and orienteering. Most imagery feels overwhelming and cliche to me now, but maps remain fascinating, exquisitely beautiful and rich in details about worlds. What if we made maps of Strathcona that represented what the community loves? The cool spots to hang out, the back alleys that often have good finds, the best places for people-watching? What happens if we use maps to juxtapose worlds: needs and survival with aspirations, past and present. I mentioned map making to Jay and he was enthusiastic, and told me about a community map-making project that had inspired him, Islands in the Salish Sea. Vancouver Public Library has a copy at Britannia Branch, and I checked it out.

Well, that was an education. Community map-making is old news in some circles, so there’s a lot of info about best practices out there, and this book was an excellent source. There was so much information that I decided to write a separate post to record the things that stood out most to me, and seemed most relevant to this project.

I was still thinking about the fact that my concept and plan had not yet been officially accepted by the Board, but I decided to try out some community map making at the Family Day event on Monday February 12 anyway. My plan was to start with a medium that’s easy for people to relate to (paper, felt pens and coloured paper), ask about their lives and present, and find out if people are inspired, what ideas come up, what conversations happen. I spent about eight hours drawing and inking a base map of the streets of Strathcona by hand (because I didn’t want to use Google Maps, I wanted the base map to have a more personal feel, and needed time to process my ideas some more anyway) and photographed it so it could be printed on 8.5×11″ paper. Then I gathered my felt pens and pencil crayons, some table cloths and bunting, made up a couple signs explaining what was going on, and did my OWN map first.

When I set up my table at the centre on Family Day, it seemed like a small crowd; I had about a dozen folks come by and talk with me and make their own maps. The things that stood out most for me were these: the depth of gratitude that one of the parents felt for Strathcona Elementary, where her son is a student, and for the buses that run so frequently up and down Main Street because they allow her to get around with her smaller children; and the range of interpretations that the kids had about what they value most in their neighbourhood– from,croissants at Union Market, to imaginary places to gather and have fun.

After the big ideas of the project and the people were in place, I spent some time with the budget, thinking things through and creating an outline of events for the year. I also checked back in with Gabe Dennis, the centre’s youth worker, about the idea of the youth doing a photo-based project. This was an opportunity for education for me, as Gabe explained that as facilitator for youth engagement, he would put a project idea to the youth council to decide upon, rather than deciding for them. I was keen to have things decided in order to move forward with my planning; at the same time, what he was saying felt in line with my own aspirations for honest and open engagement, so we agreed to earmark the money in the budget, present the youth council with a sort of menu of what the artists would like to offer, and see what they’d like to do.

Finally I put together a presentation for the Board about community mapping, the facets of the project, and the budget. One board member expressed surprise at the breadth of the project; I agree that it’s broad, rather than deep — I wanted to do something that expressed different community voices, uniting us around a theme (mapping), rather than focusing on one group. We’ll see how well it comes together in November, when I hope to mount a little show in the centre, showing the results of the work we do this year.