Community Arts in Canada
Reflecting on an Inspirational Journey
By: Jon Cada
To me, community arts has the the feeling of being a different form of conversation. The connection between community conversation and art is as follows: conversation leads to ideas, ideas lead to plans and plans lead to leadership and development. Community Arts takes this prototype by hosting conversations in the community so that the community can have a chance to explore who they are and where their passion is in their community. The next step is taking those conversations and bringing them to life through art. The outcome here begins to change depending on the artists leading the project and the art forms they specialize in, but the work is not done by the artists themselves. Participants and volunteers in the community come together to shape the art by giving it a voice, a presence and a soul.
One of the things that tends to happen (and I love it every time) is when someone gets involved in a community arts project for the first time. The more they participate, the more they learn about themselves and want to try new things. Dealing with shyness and is something a good community artist knows how to accommodate; they give space to try things like painting, writing down ideas, simple drawing exercises and encourage people to share hidden talents they might have and appreciate their courage to try.
Each member of the Thinking Rock family has contributed to the growth of the organization and possess diverse experience as practicing artists, arts administrators, community organizers and facilitators, but community arts as a field of practice remains a relatively new idea and concept for most of us that we’re always learning about and sharing. Our first community play project, The Rivers Speak, has evolved from the feedback in the communities we work in and has become very much about supporting and empowering the cross-cultural history, understanding, and relationships within the area we share and call home.
Because of this work, we were invited to present at the Tracks: 7th Canadian Community Play and Arts Symposium in Vancouver, BC in May. We were excited (even a little intimidated at first) to be invited to attend as presenters. Our staff and our work is fairly green compared to other participants and organizations that we knew were attending from across the nation. However, we understood that our work means a lot for many people and it deserves the voice we have created for it. We were prepared to share our work, even as emerging artists and facilitators. This opportunity we gave us a chance to meet several West Coast First Nations communities and individuals that support community arts. Our work with First Nations communities in Ontario has mainly been through Ojibway culture and tradition, so we were interested in the perspectives from the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsilhqot’in, Splatsin and Coast Salish peoples.
Jumblies Theatre, our mentor organization, worked hard to get us to British Columbia as part of their incredible Train of Thought tour, and our travel was generously supported by Schools Without Borders, who provided funding for our flights through our work with them as a “Featured Learning Partner”.
Jumblies was looking forward to us learning more about the work happening across Canada and that we may share our project with everyone there and develop connections. Ruth Howard and several key members of the Jumblies family have always been helpful and supportive of the work that Thinking Rock has been doing in our Northern Ontario communities.
For Thinking Rock, I saw this event as an opportunity to show that we are ready to call ourselves the next generation of young artists who are ready to use the arts as a tool for raising awareness of and challenging social barriers in the communities where we live.
The event was a tremendous success and we all got an opportunity to meet some inspirational artists and organizers who shared with us the passion they have for their community.
We hosted a presentation at the symposium to highlight the work being done by young artists and social entrepreneurs in rural communities across Northern Ontario where relationship building and networking are crucial in supporting the arts. This presentation went very well as young people in British Columbia are looking for models of success from young people to base their own projects from. In the same day, we partnered with Dale Hamilton, one of the early practitioners of community arts in Canada, for a project at the symposium. The project involved a life size game board with interaction from the audience to explores and reflects on the challenges of starting and maintaining a non-profit organization in the arts. This opportunity was very exciting for Thinking Rock as it highlighted many of our organizational challenges as a young organization and also demonstrated how we have managed to meet those challenges while choosing to do the work in Northern Ontario.
The Thinking Rock team then traveled with the Train of Thought tour to Enderby, BC to visit Runaway Moon and Artistic Director, Cathy Stubington. Cathy’s relationship with the nearby communities which are of both Indigenous and Settler origin was very inspirational for the work we’re doing in the Algoma District. It’s especially an eye opener to see how much we still have to do, but that we’re certainly on our way there. I cannot wait to see how our work will grow because of that experience.
One thing I found on this trip is that meeting people through the arts is one of the most unique ways to learn about your community. You get a chance to learn how others look at their community and work in it. It also gives you an opportunity to feel more empowered by the community you come from and understanding your role in it. Thinking Rock’s The Rivers Speak project has come a long way already and I look forward to sharing more about this work as the community continues to shape it and learn about where they live. *