Midway through my first year of graduate studies at The University of Western Ontario I became interested in expanded and unconventional forms of artistic production. This lead me to examine how art making could ultimately become a collaborative and inclusive activity. Within this dynamic the traditional role of the artist would actually merge with the traditional role of the art “viewer”. Ultimately, this would mean that the viewer would take on a participatory role with the artist where both could produce and view art in a collaborative fashion.
These and several other implications ultimately served as a springboard for the conceptual framework of The New School of Colour.
There is no doubt that any image created in a medium such as painting, collage or photography requires a certain amount of artistic endeavor. Similarly, objects sculpted or built out of materials like wood or stone also require an artistic endeavor. The endeavor that I am referring to is really more or less a kind of creative process.
The creative process combines the materiality (i.e. canvas and paint) of artistic production with the artist’s own ideas or concepts. However, passion and happy accidents also inevitably work their way, however unquantifiable, into this process.
This begs the question, if an artist can produce an image or an object through some kind of creative process, then surely an artist can create something beyond image and beyond object that is both tangible and intangible.
This line of thinking opens the door for artists like myself who create situations or social spaces through a creative process of its own right. In other words, if art, and with that artistic production can be defined as a form of image making and object making, then why can it not be defined as the making of a situation, an event, or a social space? Moreover, why can’t this type of artistic production rely on the active participation or collaboration of the art viewer or audience?
Actually, I prefer to use the term space of sociability to describe this kind of artistic collaborative production. It may sound a little wordy, but I feel that this term really underlies its essence.
The idea of an artist or a group of artists creating a situation or a space (either a physical space or virtual space) is certainly not new. In the late 1950’s the European artists collective The Situationists, attempted to create social situations.
They sought to set up experiences of life, which were alternative to those promoted by the daily grind of the buying and selling of advanced capitalism. They also sought to set up experiences of life, which were alternative to established institutions such as the art world and the university, both of which were enclaves of high academia.
They set up such situations to encourage new and authentic experiences predicated on creativity and social interaction. Interestingly, the art viewer or audience would in fact become a co creator or co artist within the situation, event or space.
A contemporary example of an artist group who set up environments, which require the creative collaboration of people within a given community is the Austrian collective known as WochenKlausur.
Their projects ultimately aim to pragmatically and creatively solve localized problems and alleviate points of contention within a given community. To do so WochenKlausur creatively enables an arena of dialogue and discussion between diverse community members. They often construct an environment or space of sociability as a way of bringing people together. Thus, while WochenKlausur may establish some kind of material and conceptual framework, it is up to the viewer, participant or audience member to create the meaning and significance of the art project.
And so,.. in January of 2010 I decided to put my interests into practice. First and foremost, I wanted to develop relationships and work with people who could not afford to make art. I wanted to establish a safe, supportive and creative space for people who did not otherwise have access to such. This imperative, which is very personal, derives from my belief that cultural production should and must be made available to everyone, despites ones socio economic background.
Cultural production as made manifest in galleries and museums are by and large created by and serve the interests of the dominant class of our society. If we look to Western art history for instance we can see that the images and objects which have been traditionally venerated and celebrated have come from the patronage of society’s dominant class. This is true of Michelangelo’s David through to Jackson Pollock’s highly innovative abstract drip paintings. David served to promote the status of the wealthy Medici family of 16th century Florence. In the 1950’s Pollock’s work (and many of his contemporaries who were actually living in poverty) was packaged and promoted as 100% pure American, as an art form which celebrated the unfettered creativity of a capitalist society vehemently opposed to alternative economic systems like socialism and communism. Author Frances Stonor Saunders writes about this in his book The Cultural Cold War – The CIA and The World of Arts and Letters. He details how the CIA financed and organized the promotion of American abstract expressionists as part of cultural imperialism via the Congress for Cultural Freedom from 1950-67.
This means that the narrative of Western society’s cultural history (and I think that this applies to every society in the world) as channeled through the term “high art” has been written largely by a singular voice of society’s dominant class. Cleary non-dominant voices and cultural expression has been excluded from the historical cannon of cultural production. We do of course see vestiges of non-dominant cultural production through a filter of what is commonly termed and institutionalized as “folk art” or naïve art. Yet I cannot help to wonder how contemporary thought and cultural production would have actualized if the voices of the many instead of the few were manifest in a more broad and fair way. What sort of narratives, stories and alternative forms of knowledge would have come to populate our cultural landscape?
These questions lead me to The Ark Aid Street Mission (696 Dundas Street, London Ontario). As an artist arriving to London From Calgary I immediately engaged in a form of social and urban mapping. I wanted to know what London was all about. I studied its history and personally talked to many members of the business, religious, civic, social service and cultural communities. My research drew me to The Old East Village, a very old and historically rich community of London. The Old East Village is actually a paradoxical community. From the early to mid twentieth century it was the economic and cultural center of London. Then in the late 60’s a slow and steady declining economic shift began. This was the result of the emergence of a mass car culture, large-scale suburban development and poor urban planning. Many stores closed down and many businesses could not survive. Local grocery stores, and small specialty businesses such as bakery’s and hardware shops could no longer compete with larger big box enterprises situated in the suburbs. Moreover, because The Old East Village was London’s smallest ward with the least power in city council many social service agencies were soon clustered along the main street (Dundas Street) of the community.
Within time The Old East Village became a staging ground where countless urban renewal and gentrification projects collided with localized societal problems ranging from drugs, prostitution, mental illness, poverty, homelessness and crime. Currently, this community is committed to a new and robust program of renewal and gentrification. Due of the price of real estate many young families are moving into this community. Many new businesses are beginning to come back. There is a thriving visual arts community and music community in The Old East Village. There are also many innovative social service programs that are being introduced.
I can’t exactly say why I chose The Ark Aid as an agency to work with. After all, there are several agencies in the community who cater to the needs of those who are living in poverty or are dealing with affordable housing issues.
However, I knew that I wanted to establish a space where I could offer art instruction, and with that an open and free studio to people who could not otherwise afford or have access to such an enterprise. I wanted to establish a creative space of sociability where I as an artist could work collaboratively with people who could in turn create a genuine site of meaning and significance.
In January 2010, Douglas Whitelaw, who at this time was the newly established executive director, was quite receptive to my idea, and in fact encouraged me to develop a close working relationship with The Ark Aid’s constituency. This too would ultimately form the operating basis of The New School of Colour.
Whitelaw basically opened the door for me and cleared a space in a room inside The Ark Aid Street Mission; the creative space of sociability.
It was a humble, small, yet exciting beginning. From the very first session back in January 2010, several people took interest, and before I knew it, several others and myself were making paintings on top of a billiard table covered with a tarp. At this time, the whole program was very makeshift and provisional.
Yet, fortune would arise. I was able to receive a bit of funding from The University Of Western Ontario’s visual arts department. And I would like to extend a thank you to Patrick Mahon for making this possible. Such funds went towards the procurement of supplies and materials. Furthermore, brushes and canvas became more freely available to the participants of this program due to donations by local artists like Axl Earnst. A long term volunteer of The Ark, Robert Docherty, also formed a partnership with Para Paints in order to supply the program with gallons of house paint in a multiplicity of colours.
As momentum slowly rose, Douglas Whitelaw directed a convergence between The Agape Foundation and the newly developed art program in order to secure further funding and growth opportunities. As such, fortune arose again.
Whitelaw and myself procured funding through the generosity of The Agape foundation. In June 2010 The Agape Foundation awarded The Ark Aid $3000.00 in order to build a fully functioning basement art studio which could address the needs of its creative constituency. Thus a path was set for a more fully supportive and safe space of sociability and creativity.
Robert Docherty took the lead in transforming a once uninhabitable storage room into a spacious and warm studio. His tireless effort ultimately created an art studio, which could accommodate many more people. It was at this time when I really started to notice something very interesting and basic. The participants, who had been coming week after week to make art were very interested in playing with and experimenting with colour. After all, we had gallons of different colours to play with. Furthermore, I started noticing that, in a very organic way, all of us, myself and the participants, were teaching each other different ways to paint or draw,… or how to look at and think about painting or drawing.
Just then it hit me. This place, this space is The New School of Colour.
As an artist I felt like I had achieved my goal in way. With the help of many people from all walks of life and backgrounds, we had created, in a collaborative fashion, a creative space of sociability.
The New School of Colour is a collaborative artwork. In its totality, as a site of meaning, as a space, it can be thought of as a Gesamtkunstwerk. A pretty unusual and heavy word,……… my Mac can barely handle it. This is a German word in origin, and is used as a term in aesthetic discourse. A discourse, by the way, is a specialized kind of conversation. It is an ongoing dialogue within specific micro communities or between larger cultural and political institutions.
A Gesamtkunstwerk is translated as a total work of art or a synthesis of the arts. It denotes artwork that is comprehensive and all embracing as a form because it makes use of all or many art forms.
The meaning and significance of The New School of Colour is entirely dependent on the people who comprise its makeup.
For example, The Ark Aid Street Mission, the many volunteers who donate time and materials to The New School of Colour, myself and many others who come to make artwork in the studio space essentially establish, in flux, a relationship with each other, the immediate and the broad community of London.
This also means that cultural production especially as it relates to the narrative of The Old East Village, can now also be composed by marginalized voices. This modality of cultural production adds a new and alternative current within more dominant mechanisms of such production like The London Free Press, The Old East Village Community Association, The Old East Village Business Improvement Area, The Palace Theatre and Aolian Hall.
Cultural production from The New School of Colour also adds, more broadly, to the cultural spectrum through out London, which is for the most part provided by institutions like Museum London, The University of Western Ontario’s visual arts department, Forest City Gallery and London’s commercial gallery system.
From the very outset, I have endeavored to establish The New School of Colour as a vehicle to foment and sustain community. This is extremely important because austerity measures promulgated by the provincial and federal government have and will drastically continue to cause severe affordable housing shortages and proper care for those who are dealing with mental health issues. It is also no secret that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, which is an indicator of an ineffective and irrelevantly controlled economy.
It is of my opinion that building a community like The New School of Colour, based on respect, openness and inclusivity can combat, pragmatically, the effects of austerity. By bringing people together based on the most basic human virtue, creativity, innovative and imaginative support systems can be created.
For example, in January 2011 I was approached by Sylvia Langer of The Unity Project, a transitional housing agency, to help with their annual fundraiser. Langer made many connections with the arts community of London to design an art silent auction in order to raise much-needed funds for the operation and renovation of The Unity Project.
Langer generously donated art materials and funding to The New School of Colour so that constituents of The Unity Project could also make art in The Ark Aid’s basement studio. For several months’ folks from The Unity Project created artwork beside people who access the services of the Ark Aid. This was a very significant development because it marked a real convergence between social service institutions in the community. To this day, people who access the services of The Unity Project come to The New School of Colour at The Ark Aid and a fruitful relationship continues to ensue between these agencies. In fact, The New School of Colour and The Ark Aid will work with The Unity Project this year for their next Fundraiser in April 2012.
The art silent auction fundraiser benefits the constituents of both the Ark Aid and The Unity Project who participate in The New School of Colour in several ways. For one, it allows them to engage in a broader cultural apparatus. Framed as an inclusive cultural event, their artwork is displayed and potentially sold along side the artwork of professional and semi professional artists within the community. The fundraiser also invites participants to learn new skills based within the visual arts over an extended period of time. Quite often many participants spent several weeks designing and executing several paintings, which were subsequently exhibited.
The New School of Colour has also formed a fruitful relationship with The London Intercommunity Health Center. The London Intercommunity Health Center caters to the needs of people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness and mental health issues. Kelly Bradley is an outreach worker who recently started a writing group and journal called Grit Uplifted. This journal is published twice a year and contains poems and stories of the constituents of TLIHC. The New School of Colour provides the visual art within this journal. As such, participants of The New School of Colour have had their artwork (along with a brief descriptive outlining the concept or impulse of their artwork) published and circulated within the mechanism of Grit Uplifted.
Grit Uplifted is a cultural journal created by marginalized voices. Its publishing and subsequent dissemination allows these voices to enter into a larger cultural realm controlled by the dominant class of our society and our community. Grit Uplift gives an opportunity for marginalized voices to contribute to cultural production. It is a mechanism that can shed light of the marginalized to a wider audience. In this sense it has the potential to give a new face, a creative and human face to the marginalized community of London. This is powerful, because it can serve to break down stereo types against the marginalized. This is also very significant because this is being done through cultural production.
And this gets to the heart of The New School of Colour. Yes, it is a total artwork, a Gesamtkunstwerk. Viewers of The New School of Colour , that is, those who look at the artwork in the studio space itself, or look at the art work in other contexts are ultimately invited to become artists themselves. The New School of Colour is inclusive. In fact many participants are university students or regular people with regular jobs. From time to time artists from throughout the community will hang out or make art at The New School of Colour.
Participants engage in cultural production through the making and exhibiting of their art work. Many artworks have ended up in businesses, offices and restaurants throughout London. A didactic tag accompanies these artworks explaining what The New School of Colour is and what the artist was thinking about regarding their work.
As of February 2012, four exhibitions have been held by participants of The New School of Colour. These have taken place within the community of The Old East Village. Three exhibitions have been held at The East Village Arts Co-op (757 Dundas).
The East Village Arts Co-op (EVAC) is a cooperative jointly organized and operated by several board members, which includes myself. Every board member pays a certain amount of money per month to pay for the rent and utilities of the space. Art exhibits, music shows, film screenings and art workshops take place at EVAC through out the week. A close relationship has ensued between The New School of Colour and EVAC which, has allowed for successful exhibitions and a Saturday afternoon drawing jam, which is free to the public.
On January 2012 a fundraiser for The New School of Colour will be held at The East Village Coffee House (EVCH). The EVCH is an important space in the neighbourhood because, for one thing, it is one of the few places where one can by coffee and support an independent business. Many different groups with the same interest converge to this locale through out the week. For instance, a sewing circle may be hanging out and drinking coffee amongst members of the Occupy London movement situated around an adjacent table. Dr Linda Wayne, part owner, would first and foremost concur that the EVCH is an active social space which is at the service of the community, and secondly a coffee shop.
These types of engagements and connections between participants of The New School of Colour help to create a close and rich community. I feel that the importance of this impulse cannot be understated as I look to community building as a way of overcoming stereo types and thinking about new and creative solutions to our communities problems.
There are many people who come to The New School of Colour for many different reasons. Some see it as a safe space where they hang out, meet new people, talk to people and perhaps learn a thing or two about painting or drawing. Some people come to seriously work on their art in an effort to develop and foster a creative aspect of them selves. In this sense many teach and learn from each other. Yet, quite often I will lead discussions with groups to help participants reflect and articulate what their work is about and what it means to them in a broader context i.e. themselves in relation to the community or society.
This aspect is quite important and I would say intrinsic to the framework of The New School of Colour. Creativity can play a crucial role in helping us navigate and negotiate our surroundings. For one thing, creativity has the ability to open up our awareness of our relationships with each other and larger institutions. This may have something to do with the artistic process, which enables us to think subconsciously and consciously about what we are making and why. Many times we don’t really know until we stop and reflect in a deep and meaningful way. This reflection comes from discussions and conversations between participants of The New School of Colour.
Ultimately The New School of Colour and its participants can establish their own legacy if they can engage with a greater sense of awareness of themselves and their community and our society in a broader sense. This means that The New School of Colour is actually involved in a broad conversation between its participants, the Old East Village and the even broader institutional realm of culture and economics.
There are also people who come to The New School of Colour because it serves as a kind of therapy. I am not an art therapist or a therapist of any kind, but many participants have personally described to me the therapeutic sensibility that The New School of Colour fosters.
Pauline Shannon relates:
“I stumbled into the Ark after a dark period in my life. I believe I was lead there to be honest. I had experienced personal loss in my life. I was depressed and suicidal. But something urged me to hang on a little longer, fight, don’t give up.
Friends and even family members had spoken of The Ark Aid Street Mission so I decided to check it out. During one of the meals I over heard some one talking about The New School of Colour. It peaked my curiosity. I haven’t drawn or did any form of art for six or seven years due to isolating, controlling and abusive relationships. One after the other. I have neglected my talent for years.
I believe I was meant to find The New School of Colour. The program has provided me with the tools to rediscover the gift I was given. With it, I’ve been using it therapeutically. Since coming to The New School of Colour, I have made new friends, gained support and I’ve been healing and growing as a person. I have learned a lot about myself. I use to feel anger and resentment. But now I am grateful to be part of this new path before me.
Where does it go from here? I don’t know. Finding The New School of Colour has been a blessing that has given me dreams, goals, strength, security and most importantly, hope and faith.”
Marshall C is a participant of The New School of Colour and takes an active role in framing other participants completed artwork. For a period of time he lived on the streets until he was able to attain transitional housing through The Unity Project. Marshall is now apprenticing to be a chef and lives in a stable housing situation. From his experience with homelessness and transitional housing he noted that;
“There are people out there who are homeless or who stay in shelters at night. Some of these people, through events beyond their control are in a situation that they do not want to be in, and are actively trying to find work to improve their situation. Some people who are homeless or who use shelter services in the evening have fallen into destructive behavior patterns like drug and alcohol abuse and continue on this path as a way of dealing with their situation.
Some people who are homeless and who rely on shelters for a place to sleep are dealing with mental illness. Through no fault of their own they have slipped through the system.
Through out a typical day any variety of people in any of these situations will look for a place in public to fulfill a most basic human need, the need to read, relax or hang out with other people they may know. The public library, for instance is a good example. In most environments homeless people are either told to leave or ‘move along’ or passersby gawk at them as some kind of alien.
It is of my experience and opinion that The New School of Colour offers a space where people can go to fulfill these needs in an inclusive, comfortable and encouraging way. But more importantly, offering art instruction within the ‘leisure or empty’ time to homeless people can actually serve to readjust destructive behavior patterns. This can be achieved because it empowers people to be creative. It also enables the same people to learn new skills through art making and develop social skills through meeting new people. This is a key ingredient in adjusting destructive behavior patterns because a new support system has been put into place for them.
This is why I feel that The New School of Colour is so important. Because it can, in many different ways help many types of people who are dealing with homelessness and affordable housing issues.”
So where does The New School of Colour go from here?
It is my endeavor to increase the operational capacity and community outreach of The New School of Colour. But to do so requires a more solid base of volunteer and financial support vis a vi donations and grants. It also means that The New School of Colour will continue to work with many different agencies in an endeavor to help others gain a greater awareness of the relationship between themselves and their community.
The New School of Colour has touched many lives in positive ways but I feel that more lives can be touched in positive and creative ways.
This blog is of course an ongoing journal, which will continue to discuss the many theoretical and social issues that I have outlined. This blog will also continue to tell the story of The New School of Colour along with the many people, groups and institutions who activate it. A blog is also a dialogical tool and thus invites the comments and experiences of readers. Thus this post can be informed by others than just my self as the author, and it is my hope that many authors can contribute to its contiguity.