Using Art to Work with Community Groups

Identity Art Project, part 1

Last year, I had a terrific artist in residence project, the best of its kind. It had a reasonable budget with an open-minded French Immersion Director who told me, “The budget is approved; do what you want!” It was, for me, a dream project.

The objective was to highlight the students in the Immersion Program, showcasing the French immersion kids in their predominantly English language school. And, ultimately, to create a piece of artwork that would commemorate their experiences throughout the lifespan of the project.

It was a project without set boundaries; absolutely my favourite way to work! But it’s always a leap of faith to trust in my ability to discover the link between the ‘big idea’ and the pathway forward. The first question is always,  “Where do I start?” And then, “How do I get the rest of us on that pathway imagining our common goal?” The first few steps are pretty obvious: introduce myself to all the students and staff and give them an idea of what a project like this entails, and how it might unfold. So in every immersion class I presented a video about my artistic practice and a power point about the community and public art projects I had done in the past that might resemble what we could experience together.

But how would I get to know them? And how could I encourage them to be curious about the project and involved in its creation? I built a rolling cart with sides made of chalkboards, two mailboxes, a folding tabletop, and inside… a mirror. It would serve as a prop any time I needed students to come to me and contribute in one way or another to the project and to share information and fun facts about the project.

Prop in hand, I was ready to get to know the kids. I started with asking them some personal questions.  When you wake up in the morning, are grumpy or happy? What’s your favourite colour? What are you most afraid of? Who’s your favourite band?

Those surveys eventually comprised about 30 questions and continued for six weeks or so until I compiled statistics on 120 students and their teachers. I got to know them, but at the same time they were learning to really know one another.  

Then, as community project often unfold, the French Immersion Director came to me and suggested that my project might assist the francophone Theatre, Inook Touzin in creating a visual environment for the Molière tid bits our students would be performing.

Well, I thought, why not? It certainly fell under the objectives of the project, and being paired with a visual platform that had a built in audience was an excellent idea. However, by this point I knew those 120 students were, for the most part, more academic than artistic, and I only had 50 minutes with each group to get something done. How could we best work with Moliere? And then it came to me in a flash: Moliere already had the answer. His literary brilliance is in the caricatures he creates of his characters. We could learn from the Master; portraits would be the way forward! And as quickly as I solved that problem, my hopes were dashed when I had to admit that portraits are excruciatingly difficult to draw or paint.  

Marvin Mattelson writes a blog he’s titled, “Portrait Painting is More Difficult Than Brain Surgery”. He says that From the moment we’re born, we learn to recognize faces; it’s a lifesaving skill for a young human. As a result, all of us can easily recognize a bad portrait. We instantly know if does or does not look like the model. Then, another flash: but we’re not aiming for realism here. It’s Moliere. We’re going to create caricatures!

So the students drew portraits of one another other. The model sat directly in front of the artist, a vertical sheet of Plexiglas between them covered with a clear film. The artist drew onto the clear film, basically following the outlines of the model as accurately as possible. The portraits, for the most part, took about 20 minutes to draw; then the roles reversed and the model became the artist and the artist became the model. In one 50 minute class every student was caricatured well enough to look like his or her not-so good-looking cousin.

Finally the portraits were projected in the theatre along with the students’ responses to questions I’d asked. “My eyes are blue,” or “I’m most afraid of spiders,” or “If I could, I would put an end to hunger in the world.” Then, parents visiting the event had an opportunity to make portraits using the same technique, realizing how difficult it was to do, yet reserving judgement and, best of all, having as much fun as the kids did.

Stay tuned for my next blog, and I’ll tell you all about the next six months of this project and the creation of our temporary art installation….


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