For more information on community-engaged arts and to download Framing Community, see: Resources for community-engaged arts.
In these interviews, artists Maggie Hutcheson, Emmy Pantin, Angola Murdoch and Cheryl L’Hirondelle describe their experiences in creating community-engaged arts projects. Topics discussed include how to approach collaborations with community members, the evolution of projects over time, and outcomes – both for participants and for themselves as arts practitioners.
Maggie Hutcheson, community-engaged artist, educator and consultant
Speaker: Maggie Hutcheson
[00:00:00 to 00:00:44]
My name is Maggie Hutcheson, and I'm a community-engaged artist, educator and arts consultant based in Toronto. In this short presentation, I’ll introduce some of the core principles of community-engaged art. I'll also offer some useful tips on what to think about when planning a community-engaged project and suggest further resources for artists and institutions working in this field. This presentation may be particularly useful if you are a first-time applicant to one of the Ontario Arts Council’s Artists in Communities and Schools project grants. It may also be of interest to galleries and cultural institutions looking to work with new communities or to non-arts institutions who are considering working with artists, and finally, it may be useful to artists who want to make art in non-arts settings like schools, hospitals or parks.
[00:00:45 to 00:01:09]
Throughout this presentation, I'll make references to Framing Community, the Ontario Arts Council’s community-engaged art workbook. Framing Community is an online resource that includes a longer discussion of the history and principles of community-engaged art. It offers more tips, suggestions and resources, and it features 10 inspiring examples of Ontario-based projects. It can be downloaded for free from the OAC website.
[00:01:09 to 00:01:30]
To start with, what is community engaged art? The short answer is that it encompasses a very broad range of artistic practices. Artists collaborate with communities in all sorts of different ways, responding to the specific context they find themselves in and developing creative processes that are meaningful and feasible in those contexts.
[00:01:31 to 00:02:00]
The only really defining feature of community-engaged art is that in this field, professional artists and community members undertake a collaborative creative process. Ontario artists have worked with local communities bringing residents of particular neighborhoods or regions together with communities of workers, such as nurses and palliative care hospices or migrant workers, and with their own cultural communities. They have also created new communities through their artistic practices drawing in individuals who have common experiences or concerns.
[00:02:01 to 00:02:15]
A common element of community-engaged art is that participants play an active role in the artistic process. Ideally, everyone can contribute in a meaningful way, whether they are the artists leading the process or a one-time participant. No one can do this work alone.
[00:02:16 to 00:02:44]
Community-engaged art can be about making something that emerges from the collective skills and knowledge of the group or about participants learning new skills and applying those skills to work they create either individually or as a group. For example, in Ontario artist Sarah Febbraro’s project Kitchen in the Basement, she asked Italian-Canadian seniors in her community of Sault Ste. Marie to teach her their traditional cooking and food preservation techniques. You can read more about her project in Framing Community.
[00:02:45 to 00:03:26]
Another common feature of community-engaged art practices is that they take a long time. In this field, process matters. Not only are you creating something collectively, but you're also building relationships with one another and arriving at new forms of mutual understanding. You can typically expect a community-engaged project to take considerably longer than an individual artistic process or than a project that is tightly directed by a small team. When you're planning a community-engaged project, it's useful to allot time for the unexpected and for social interactions, like eating together. New ideas will inevitably emerge through the process of co-creation, leading to new themes and to new artistic outcomes.
[00:03:27 to 00:04:33]
We also want to touch briefly on some misconceptions about community-engaged art. The first misconception is that community-engaged art is solely about teaching techniques or about skill building. Artistic training in which a professional artist trains non-professionals is not community-engaged art unto itself. Community-engaged art practices are an exchange of skills and knowledge in which everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Of course, that doesn't mean that all participants have the same skills or that professional artists don't teach techniques during the process. What it does mean is an acknowledgement that everyone brings something valuable to the table. For example, professional artist, Jo SiMalaya Alcampo and Althea Balmes collaborated with Filipina migrant workers to create Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love, which is a community-based comic book. Alcampo and Balmes brought their writing and illustration skills to the project while the women they collaborated with shared their life experiences, their stories and their perspectives. Later, they offered feedback on each draft of the comic. You can also read more about this project in Framing Community.
[00:04:34 to 00:04:58]
Another misconception about community-engaged art is that it only involves a process of art making with non-professionals or that it's solely about giving communities access to artistic materials; outcomes matter in this field just as they do in other practices. In this field, a collaborative process is a way of arriving at new insights, creating new questions and making something powerful together.
[00:04:58 to 00:05:29]
I'm now going to speak briefly about things to think about when planning a community-engaged project. The first is to think carefully about the community you intend to work with. What is your relationship to this community? Are there tensions, power differences or different cliques within it? How is the community internally diverse? Perhaps most importantly, if you're an artist or if you work for a cultural institution, it is useful to think about why you want to work with this particular community and how the work might benefit them.
[00:05:30 to 00:05:52]
Another set of questions to consider when planning a project pertain to the art making itself. What will your artistic practice bring to the process? Who are the artists in the community, be they professionally recognized or not, and how might they contribute to the project? What cultural forms will resonate with this community, and if they are not cultural forms that you have expertise in, who could you bring in to help?
[00:05:53 to 00:06:38]
Finally, it's important to think about the roles that different partners on the project will play and about how project partners might work differently from one another. Who are the experts, including cultural experts and community experts? Does one partnering organization have more funding than the other? Do any partners have particular rules or mandates that need to be integrated? There may be cultural differences between project partners or different assumptions about how you will work together. Having conversations about these differences in advance will ultimately strengthen relationships between project partners and will prevent headaches down the road. Understanding each other is particularly important when you're initiating a community-engaged project on behalf of an institution that has more money or more profile than the community it is working with.
[00:06:39 to 00:07:25]
To learn more about what we've presented here, you can read the OAC’s Framing Community: A Community-Engaged Art Workbook, which can be downloaded for free as a PDF. In the workbook, you'll find inspiring examples of Ontario-based projects, a list of other granting agencies and dozens of other resources on community-engaged art. You can also follow the links to hear community artists speak about their own experiences working in this field. If you have further questions after reading the workbook or listening to the interviews, you can always get in touch with Ontario Arts Council program officers to learn more about specific funds for community-engaged activities. The OAC’s website can be found at www.arts.on.ca.
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Emmy Pantin, Co-Director, Community Story Strategies
Speaker: Emmy Pantin
[00:00:00 to 00:00:38]
My name is Emmy Pantin, and I'm the co-director of Community Story Strategies. From 2010 to 2012, I worked on a project with Jennifer LaFontaine called Journeys to Health at the Four Villages Community Health Centre in Toronto. Journeys to Health was an arts residency where we used media, storytelling and arts to explore health. When we came together, we actually worked out the premise with the staff. Okay, so we're here—what would you like to do? How can our artistic practice work in your sector and in the work that you do already? Together, we actually named the project.
[00:00:39 to 00:01:12]
Our core artistic practice is digital storytelling. It's community-based media art where people come together and tell individual stories and then in a workshop they create these videos out of those stories. We also branched out and looked to the community and asked them: “what do you want to do?” Together with the participants, we made a hundred digital stories, a knitted map installation, mandalas, a knitted tree, audio stories, photographs—all kinds of stuff.
[00:01:12 to 00:01:52]
We had the luxury of doing two years at the Four Villages Community Health Centre. What it meant is that in the second year, they saw how it could work in their work. And when the health centre became aware that there were certain people that were not coming to the health centre, they said “let's go to them,” and they created the home visit arts project. We actually sent the staff who do home visits to the home to record stories, so we actually trained them to record and gather the audio and the photographs and then come back with that content to add to a place-based map of the neighbourhood, a knitted map of the neighbourhood.
[00:01:53 to 00:02:34]
For the Four Villages Community Health Centre, they saw the value of our arts practice as a tool to help break isolation, which is one of the social determinants of health. One of the most exciting things was this knitting group. One of the staff social workers and myself [sic] are really into knitting, so we thought, let's start a knitting group and let's knit a map of the neighbourhood. And they knitted little tiny houses and little markers of the neighbourhood. We actually mounted the map on the wall, and the houses became pockets that held audio stories of people's relationship to the neighborhood and to their health and to the idea of home.
[00:02:34 to 00:02:52]
It was the impetus for this knitting group to knit this map, but the knitting group keeps going. It is this tool to break social isolation for people, to gain leadership skills and confidence because people, as they become better and better knitters, they start to teach each other and then they become leaders in that community.
[00:02:53 to 00:03:15]
Working with the Four Villages Community Health Centre, what worked so well for us was that they gave us time to design the project with their staff. They know their community best, and we know our arts practice best. So, only by working together do we come up with a really great project.
Angola Murdoch, Founder and Artistic Director, Lookup Theatre, and circus artist
Speaker: Angola Murdoch
[00:00:00 to 00:00:30]
My name is Angola Murdoch, and I'm a circus arts performer and a circus arts educator in Ontario. I work a lot in Toronto and also in Grey Bruce County. I have a company called Lookup Theatre, and one of Lookup Theatre’s programs is called Talk to Youth Lately (TTYL) and that's our social circus arts program for youth, ages 16 to 29, who have lived mental health experience.
[00:00:31 to 00:01:11]
In TTYL, we have three main parts of our process. First is the skill building, and that's where we do trapeze, silks, hoop, hula hoop, tight wire, balancing, clown and a bunch of different circus skills. We eat as well together and we do a sharing session. The second part is our creation, and that's where we ask youth to use metaphor and to use their true experiences. All the things that we share on stage are true experiences. They get to create the program, and I'm there to help facilitate that and to find funding and to administrate the program. And then the third part is putting the show on.
[00:01:12 to 00:01:37]
If you ask anybody who has been a part of TTYL, the first thing that they're going to tell you—the reason that they do it—is because of the community. Coming together once a week with friends and other people who understand what people have gone through, with lived mental health experience, is very, very important to them. We're a family. We're a circus family at TTYL, and each participant will tell you that.
[00:01:38 to 00:02:28]
A huge outcome for the participants is that they have gained this community where they know that they can come and be themselves. What the participants gain individually from TTYL is communication, teamwork, how to be positive, how to express themselves. They learn how to do all of that by doing the circus skills. For instance, if you're working in a group pyramid and you're standing on people and climbing up, you have to communicate because that might be hurting you physically, you might be in the wrong spot, you might be able to do the pyramid in a better way if the person shifts. So, we learn a lot of life skills physically, which then resonates in the participants' lives.
[00:02:29 to 00:03:01]
People who come to the shows don't know what they're going to expect. They don't know what they're going to see, and they have a huge appreciation for the participants because they see how hard they're working and they see how hard circus is. Often, professional circus artists make it look easy, and it isn't easy. And so when you see someone struggling to do something, and they're also talking about how they struggle in life—maybe to get out of bed in the morning—then it can resonate with people.
[00:03:02 to 00:03:23]
When you work with a group of individuals that don't have a good idea of what circus is, the things they can create are pretty awesome. Often they come up with these ideas that I would never because I have this preconception of what circus is. They really do affect my own arts practice because of the ideas that they bring in.
[00:03:24 to 00:03:39]
My advice to artists and communities who want to work together is really it's about the planning, making sure that everything is planned well in advance, and also the communication—just making sure that everybody is on board for the same thing.
Cheryl l’Hirondelle, interdisciplinary artist, leader of “Why the Caged Bird Sings”
Speaker: Cheryl l’Hirondelle
[00:00:00 to 00:00:25]
[Speaking in Cree] Cheryl L’Hirondelle nitisiyihkâson. âpihtawikosisân niya ôma – nêhiyaw-iskwêw êkwa mistikôsi-iyiniw. Alberta êkwa amiskwaciy-wâskahikan êkwa Papaschase ohci niya, mâka Toronto mêkwâc niwîkan. [Speaking in English] So, I said in my language, which is Cree—I told you my name and where I'm from and that I now live in Toronto.
[00:00:26 to 00:00:45]
I'm an interdisciplinary artist, predominantly songwriting, integrating media art with singing, performance, but more these days sort of the performative activities to create work as a process. I also curate and do a bit of critical writing as well.
[00:00:46 to 00:01:40]
One of my probably best-known community-engaged projects is called Why The Caged Bird Sings. Why The Caged Bird Sings is a participatory and community-engaged five-day singing, songwriting and recording workshop. This project started in 2008 and is focused on working inside correctional institutions—federal, provincial and detention centers. As soon as you introduce the notion to a group of people who, one, have never written a song before, and two, are in a system where they're being silenced, there's something really magical that happens when you say you're going to write a song, it's going to be in a popular song form and you know it's something that you've composed. The song lyrics are created by the participants.
[00:01:41 to 00:02:15]
I usually start out by telling them that joke, you know, what do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get back your house, you get back your car, you get back your wife, you get back your dog, you know. So, really the challenge is to write an uplifting song, not negating their life experiences, but in some way from themselves coming up maybe [with] a solution or creating a new narrative. There's so much about the process of the project where it's to empower everyone.
[00:02:16 to 00:02:34]
What else I noticed is the power of having one's own song. It’s kind of like having your own theme music for your life, and it’s yours. It's not some famous rock star that you'll never meet; it's your own and no one can ever take that away from you.
[00:02:35 to 00:03:29]
Each time I've done the project, my co-writers, they give me ideas on what would be things to incorporate in the project. I do work people hard. It's not babysitting. It's important for anybody who's going to work inside any sort of institution to sort of figure out what is the structure of that institution and then make their project work. I think if somebody has got an idea about working inside an institution, it should be based in something that's quite real. It shouldn't be based in, oh, I watched Orange is the New Black and I think I want to work in prisons. That's interesting, but that's not based in reality. So, it should be, I think, probably from a place of empathy, where you really have a sense of “I feel this” as opposed to, “oh, I want to go and do good” or “I'll tell them what they need.” So, I think that would be really important.
[00:03:30 to 00:04:00]
For instance, if you wanted to work in a correctional institution, meet somebody who works in a correctional institution, you know? Reach out and just find out what are some big issues that are going on. Everyone can see there's a problem, but it takes an artist to come up with at least two solutions. So be solution-based and don't be something that you're trying to put a Band-Aid on or you're trying to fix without actually understanding and resonating with what the issue really is.
[00:04:01 to 00:04:13]
What I've witnessed working inside correctional institutions is that everyone that I have worked with are the most remarkable people, exceptional and remarkable people.