Over the summer I have seen underappreciated spaces in New Westminster become increasingly more exciting, personalized and playful. Three new artworks that are contributing to what I last called the placemaking of our city’s public sites include the “Stop and Stare” portraits in the New West Skytrain station, the Eco-Art works in Moody Park, and the Columbia Street mural.
What ties these three works together is the involvement of members of our community in the initiation and process of creation. Each project allows residents and people who populate the space to gain a new perspective on our environment and how we might activate it in a positive and creative way. They teach us how derelict or underused spaces and materials around us can be given new life and interest.
Stop and Stare
In October 2012, Neal Michael called out to New Westies to help create a space of identity and playfulness by encouraging the creation of more Public Art in the unused spaces around us (read his blog here). Neal’s inspiration from the global InsideOut Project has brought about a series of pasted portraits that are now installed in the New Westminster Skytrain Station.
These portraits are not glamorous, colourful or glossy like the faces seen on nearby advertisements. These are akin to small concert posters or personal ads sloshed up along the temporary plywood walls. This immediate use of materials does not take anything away from the Public Art Project: if anything it only separates it further from something that might sell to our desires. It confronts us with its jarring difference. Taking a walk on the concourse level, you might come face to face with a black and white blow up of a familiar face: there are no models here, only community members. This is a series that maps New West as a place built by people, and it presses these very human faces (some passport deadpan, some silly) toward us as an exclamation of tangible civic identity.
Eco Art in Moody Park
Before I came to New Westminster, I was involved in community art in Vancouver with a few projects and initiatives. I have always felt the power of open participation and the importance of engaging everyone in some form of the creative process. It was in one of these initiatives that I first experienced the work of Sharon Kallis, an environmentally responsible Vancouver artist who utilizes many techniques in weaving unwanted plant materials into ephemeral art installations. I remember the revelation I had in seeing the results of her facilitation in the expert weaving of the terribly invasive English Ivy and Yellow Flag Iris that plagues natural spaces in the GVRD. Her work with the Urban Weaver Project in 2012 allowed community members, First Nations and artists to learn traditional methods of weaving plant materials through the Vancouver Park Board’s Fieldhouse Residency. Kallis and her peers had pulled invasives from a site, processed them by hand and shaped them into something beautiful and temporary: from bowls, to walls, to fluid forms. This functioned as a remediation of an environment on several levels: an opportunity to allow space for native plant species to root, and an opportunity for people in that space to see the creative potential of waste.
After a public presentation in June, Kallis and organizers Corbin Murdoch (Public Arts Coordinator) and Shelly Schnee (Recreation Programmer at Century House) delicately steered and guided five groups of New Westminster community members over two months in the creation of their own Eco-Art installations. Kallis has commented on her work as a facilitating artist to this group: “I have to say how impressed I was at the quality of work and level of professionalism everyone brought to both the pitch session and the final works created. One of the participants referred to another in her group as being the ‘real artist’ and I gently corrected her, reminding her that she was now working as an artist, with perhaps a more senior artist as collaborator… [what an] incredible opportunity for someone to have as their first steps into the art world!” Her description of this collaborative creative process as a learning opportunity for any person, regardless of their skill level or professionalism is a major component of this type of work where process is as critical as the end result. The people who create the work are shaped by this process, just as they manipulate their materials that are in turn re-shaped by the natural process of decay. After the public reception for the project last weekend on the south side of Moody Park, the artist-facilitator congratulated our city on this exciting step further into the realm of community-based Eco Art: “I hope this is just the beginning to what could become a strong tradition for New Westminster parks and community members! What a treat to get to play a part in it all.”
Columbia Street Mural
On the weekend of the New West Culture Crawl, the dull grey wall to the east of the Army and Navy on Columbia Street received some special treatment. Members of the community were invited out to help paint a mural designed by local artist Gillian Wright. While at a barbecue a man showed me photographs he had taken of his wife and one-and-a-half year old daughter leaving their mark, and it felt like a glimpse of a special heirloom. This project, funded by a Vancouver Foundation neighbourhood small grant, is an example of what community members like Councillor Mary Trentadue and Nadine Nakagawa can do to with a sense of playfulness, some sleuthing into property ownership and a vision of how we might make our city into something more inclusive, creative, and enjoyable to walk through. So many New Westies will have stories to share about the day they left a painterly stamp on the prominent wall.
I know in my walks past these spaces that they are getting some notice. I know from colourful Instagram feeds that participants in community art are having fun. My hope is that these works are only the beginning and that they inspire others to start a project or think of other creative ways to utilize our public space. Small neighbourhood grants are a great way to execute ideas for improving spaces that need love. Even ideas can be shared with the city: If you see a space that looks like it might be ripe for some artistic interference you can always recommend them to the city or send them my way to share with the Public Art Advisory Committee.