STORIES OF NOW: Thinking Rock Community Arts (Thessalon, ON)

Vignette – Thinking Rock Community Arts (Thessalon, ON)

“STORIES OF NOW” is part of a project ArtBridges is working on with Judith Marcuse Projects’ ASCN (Arts for Social Change Network) and ICASC. It is about gathering and sharing stories emanating from the field now and about what issues and areas of focus matter.

In conversation with: Miranda Bouchard (she/her), Artistic Director, Thinking Rock Community Arts, November 12th, 2021

If you could tell a story about your community-engaged arts initiative now, this year, what would the story be about? What are the main themes?

MB: The Surfacing the Sault (Sault Ste. Marie) mural project was different in focus and form than we had previously intended for it to be. It has so far gone through 3 phases: 1) a pilot phase, featuring a woven fence mural in the Sault during the pandemic that amplified messages of Mina-niibaanamaadaa / Joyeuses fêtes / Season’s greetings in high-traffic areas of the community. It was well received. People appreciated it, as they went about their business on the outdoor trail or driving by on busy Bay Street. 2) We installed a second mural this summer themed around “community & self love” – a message of love (Gizaagi’igoo / Tu es aimé.e / You are loved) was woven into the fence. We did our first mural activation at Cancel Canada Day, and another on September 30th – the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, or Orange Shirt Day – where we invited community members to tie orange flagging tape in solidarity and recognition of the children and survivors of the Residential “Schools” and their families. We hosted 16 activations from July through October on Thursday afternoons. This connected the community, connected the staff team, and brought us all together for safely-distanced community arts programming. We’d show up, set up a tent, and have jelly roll strips of our green Social Fabric (handpainted recycled cotton sheets) and orange flagging tape (biodegradable!) and we’d write messages of community love & self love and weave them into the fence. Clusters of these messages grew over the summer. We’ll next work in collaboration with community members to sew the strips into the front and back of a quilt of community care over the winter. This will carry the legacy of the murals forward into our multi-year Social Fabric project as a physical artefact of that process. 3) We also hosted 5 youth-engagement sessions designed and hosted by youth staff members through the summer, inviting youth in the community to vision and co-design a third woven fence mural installation. The youth shared their dreams and hopes for the community – some coming from beyond the Sault, encompassing wider regions of Algoma – and we designed and installed the resulting mural for Ontario Culture Days this year. The message of this third mural is Giganawenindimin / Chal-heureux / We keep each other warm.
Surfacing the Sault became an exceptional, year-long project with a reach, impact and new partnerships we hadn’t initially imagined and a different approach from our original project plan: we had pitched the project pre-pandemic as a one-time installation. Through the pandemic and with feedback received from folx about how good the mural’s messages made them feel, the project became an interactive message board, a place to leave love letters for and from the community.

What are the main issues your community-engaged arts initiative faces? (e.g., social justice, environmental justice, pandemic-related, operational, financial, HR)

MB: We are a community arts organization that practices creative community building and arts for social change.Our current issues and challenges – particularly throughout the pandemic – are about feeling (and staying) connected to and engaging deeply with our communities across Algoma. Just prior to the pandemic, we had launched our first recurring series of in-person drop-in art-making sessions, but then all programs were cancelled or postponed due to lockdown. The hardest part of this was losing connection to community participants and partners. We had been enjoying that growth of connection, relationships, and enthusiasm for the Social Fabric project. There was uncertainty internally (and across the field) about knowing how to pivot community arts activities online, and how long that might last. In the North, our rural communities are facing, among other issues, a lack of access to technology and reliable internet access and connectivity. Online programming can be inaccessible, daunting and isolating to many in the North, while opening new access to folx who otherwise wouldn’t be ale to attend. We’re a hands-on organization, and this pivot required us to learn a lot – and quickly – about how to adapt, engage and include folks, and carry on. We’re still learning, growing, and approaching these challenges with creativity and care.

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

MB: Through the Surfacing the Sault Mural Project and launching two streams of recurring virtual programming – Social Fabric Online Gatherings/Workshops, and Seasonal Making Nights. These virtual programs foster opportunities to connect artists and audiences, engage Social Fabric artistic team members, and provide online opportunities for participatory art-making. Our Online Gatherings include an artist talk in the first hour, and then an inspired art-making activity led by the guest artist in the second. At Making Nights, we’ll host discussions on topics of conversations connected to project themes or previous Making Nights, while holding space for unstructured creative time: folx bring the handwork projects they have on the go and we invite them to show and share. We’re also hosting a year-long series of online season- and sense-inspired children’s programming, along with skill-building workshops with senior mentor artists. We’re working actively to connect people to each other and to their creativity. With all of our programming, we can pivot to in-person when we’re able, though we will likely always have a hybrid participation option for folx who prefer to join virtually.

How has the community of participants that your initiative engages with evolved in the past year (if at all)?

MB: We’re still seeing a relatively similar number of participants overall, but the demographics have shifted slightly. Prior to the pandemic, we were engaging with more children, youth and adults in our in-person drop-in programming. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been consistently connecting with older youth, adults and seniors. There are certain folks we’ve been missing who haven’t rejoined our virtual programs due to tech access issues and poor internet connectivity. We have tablets that we can loan out to folx wanting to join our programs, and staff are able to provide training to community members for connecting via online platforms on demand. We’ve noticed that more folx are joining from outside of the geographic region of Algoma, which is also expanding our ideas of community. Prior to the pandemic, our mandate was focussed locally and regionally. Now, we’re connecting with folx from within Algoma and well outside of the geographic region, and it has been enriching and exciting to witness people coming together.

How is your organization engaging with your community right now? (Logistics, pandemic public health and safety guidelines & policies, changes in the way we gather)

MB: Mostly online. We did host 16 in-person outdoor activation events at our mural site over the course of the summer. We’re figuring out how to open our storefront studio space for public programming. During the pandemic, the space at the front of our building became available, and we’ve rented it. There is huge potential here for working and creative space, as we now occupy the main floor of the building. It’s an exciting, new chapter for us – the biggest space we’ve ever had – and we look forward to welcoming folx in as soon as it’s safe and possible to do so.
Another exciting way we’ve engaged with the community is through the development and launch of a new resource, called Waazakonewinaagan/The Digital Basket. Created by staff member Cassandra Spade, it’s a resource for Indigenous, Settler & Newcomer folx that reinforces the practice of slowing down, putting meaning into work, relationship-building and intergenerational sharing. Each basket strip that participants use to weave with – it’s a participatory art-making resource! – represents different, localized (to the Algoma and Great Lakes region) actions that incorporate the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ (TRC) Calls to Action, and raise awareness about the historical and ongoing legacy of the Indian Residential School Policy (IRSP). Folx are invited to check it out on our website here.

What are one or two new projects your initiative implemented this year?

MB: The Surfacing the Sault mural project, which launched in December 2020; and our online programs (including our Online Gatherings/Workshops, Making Nights + Children’s Programming), which initially launched in May 2020 (Gatherings), and which we’ve been developing and growing since.

What is your initiative doing new–digitally–compared to pre-pandemic?

MB: The Thinking Rockers spend a lot of time online between virtual programming and remote working from home. This year, there were many changes to the staff team, which has grown significantly. We had to figure out how to work together, remotely. We have learned a lot about staying connected to each other while avoiding Zoom burnout. We’ve also had more opportunity to virtually connect with colleagues and partners from across the region, province and nation, and to act as project consultants for groups and organizations within and beyond our community, thanks to digital connectivity.

Is there a recent achievement, wonderful moment, or quote you’d like to share about your initiative or its impact?

MB: Meaningful, wonderful moments of connection with community happened repeatedly during the Surfacing the Sault mural activations. Folx walking by on the public Hub Trail – which runs alongside the mural site – would stop in, add their stories and messages to the mural, and offer words of encouragement and thanks to the Thinking Rockers. They shared about the positive impacts the project was having on their days. It helped me – and I think all of us – understand that there is a lot of power in community-engaged activities regardless of how folx are participating – whether they are hands-on in the making of something, or activating the mural by walking past, reading it, and carrying those caring messages forward. This project reminded me of the beauty and impact inherent in creative processes that unfold over time, with sustained presence and attention that echoes the rhythms of deep relationship building.

In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges

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