STORIES OF NOW: Wonder’neath Art Society

This photo is of our Open Studio program adapted in the fall of 2021 to support our all ages participants.

VignetteWonder’neath Art Society (Wonder’neath), Kjipuktuk (North End Halifax), NS

“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: Melissa Marr, artist/facilitator/co-founder of Wonder’neath, co-executive and artistic director, November 26th, 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?

MM: Through an initiative that was meant to be a temporary measure, we stayed connected with our community and worked with artists to create free, themed, weekly art kits. These kits became a lifeline for not only families in the area, but for us as artists – working safely together in a time of significant isolation. 

…For one of our art kits, an artist was invited to design a clay project. People love clay! – it feels extra special. Although we designed the kits as a team, this artist was determining all the logistics and we were aware that we might run out of the kits (although we were making hundreds to share). These kits were an offering to the community and were consistent, week after week. So on that day, people lined up early, in a long line, for the clay resources. We were entering our 3rd wave of lockdowns. None of us were prepared for it; people came through the entire day and we did run out. We were seeing small children not having enough of what we had hoped to give them and we had to improvise, handing out a bouquet of flowers that was part of our display, and other things to demonstrate our extraordinary amount of care! But the artist who had designed the kit was devastated, not realising there wouldn’t be enough…

…As a theme, really it was how vulnerable we all were – and especially as artists. This is something we’ve seen and tried to provide as we go forward: overall care and advocacy for artists. How much they sacrifice to do what they do. People’s resilience shifted during the pandemic.  Resources were really unknown and this was hard for the artists. There was no insurance for lost income. We were thinking about mental health and care for everyone – for ourselves and for the artists. We continued responding to the need, making kits for a year and a half before our first break. Looking at this period, we’re still in recovery, we’re not as we were going in.

 Kit production and our community lining up outside our facility to collect kits. 

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

MM: …Health and wellness. 

…We’re all looking at the environment differently, too. And understanding the resources around us, and what feels right. We’re looking at sustainability of resources and materials. 

…Most arts orgs will be looking at financial needs, which are a major concern. In our province, we’ve been lucky to be in dialogue with funding bodies in our province about core operational funding and how to create reliable programming, staffing, etc. It felt good to have real conversations about needs coming from across the sector. Hopefully from this feedback, there will be some changes. 

How has your initiative been addressing these main issues?

MM: …The pandemic changed the tone, people started to speak from the heart. 

Overwork is a challenge.

…Being under-resourced, there are more articulated needs in the neighbourhood. We’re seeing a level of care needed in our organization that’s beyond artistic support. 

We’re sharing stories and communicating more honestly in grant reports during the pandemic. We’re seeing our coordinators being pretty challenged. Impact per dollar- there are different conversations now with the Board, because of the level of need. Recognizing people unseen in our society, needing to access dialogue and support. How do we figure out projects to be realistic and responsive? We are currently assessing our core programs and how effective they are. 

…We have Open Studio again, for instance, but it’s more restricted though.  We’re seeing different scenarios about who’s coming now. We’re no longer at full capacity. As a society, we’re having to be more accountable. Participants cancel if anyone in their group has a sniffle and there’s generally more anxiety. We expected to be overwhelmed with people coming in, but we are having to rebuild trust with people – and that’s significant. We’re not doing kits right now – they’re on hold, as the cost is very high, but we’ll get ready to have kits again if we need to. They will be Immunizing children in the next few months, we’ll have to check for double vaccinations. Will see how it works. In the meantime, compared with kits, we are enjoying how simple it is to invite people in, make art together in masks, and wipe down tables. 

…Coming out of the pandemic, our organization needs to be sustainable. This is at the forefront of our minds. We are very driven and need to be more balanced.   -Succession – what would that take? and how? So really spending time analyzing how we are working so that we know how to do this work that is being asked, and how we would, down the road, invite someone into the organization where they would be inspired, rather than overwhelmed. 

Wonder’neath’s artist team developing a pocket quilt kit!

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

MM: There’s more vulnerability. As people have had to be so physically cognisant of themselves in relation to others, we are noting that some people are less aware of their own boundaries emotionally. There’s over-sharing. We’re working on how to navigate through this. It’s different talking with facilitators vs with neighbours. There’s a level of care invested by facilitators. They’re thinking: do the participants have the support they need? There’s a re-learning about how to be with each other that is very real. Our facility is a good place to practice, we’ve only been open since late September. People seem to be comfortable sitting side by side and sharing materials. That’s a surprise. There’s also more reliance on us to create context for starting conversations. People are sticking closer to home.

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

MM: We’re running our Open Studio and we’re programming within a lot of new guidelines. We have a sign-in system, but knowing that many people don’t have access to computers, we leave 10 spots for people to sign up and 10 for drop-in. We try to pre-plan to anticipate as much as possible, and currently we can have 20 people in at once or 60 a day for 3 workshops. We have 2 staff for every 20 folks coming in. The artists are well supported. An additional staff person plays a senior role. Also, now we’re checking on safety i.e.: masks on, and hand sanitizing. We started off more at a social distance, but we’re not seeing people needing it. Some can self isolate in a quiet room. Sometimes we pull tables apart as needed. The building is locked. People do sign-ins for contact tracing. We offer masks. Participants have to be double vaxxed to come in – this is a public arts org mandate – to check for vaccines and proof of identity to let people into the building. There’s a fair bit of control for people coming into the space. We do need extra staff. We’re not able to serve food or coffee, but people can bring their own water. There are vulnerable immuno-compromised artists. We need 30 artists to access space for livelihood. This is the model – there are artist’s spaces, a gallery, an open, shared studio for programming and kitchen. It’s a multi-purpose facility that is always adjusting with guidelines to try to stay healthy and safe. 

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

MM: …Realizing a grant called “Reimagining Access” and moving into this new facility in this pandemic time. We’re asking – what does it mean to access the studio space? We’re looking at access and inclusion needs; we can’t just go back to programming as it was, we need to rethink access. Within disability communities, what does it mean to access our studio – during Covid and beyond? What do we need to think through re: the physical design, light, systems? 

Sample kit from improvised materials sharing with folks a range of art ideas to try at home. 

…The Art Kits started in 2020. We’ve given out 12,000 kits through the pandemic! This ended at the end of August. The kits had the biggest response. 

…We adapted Art Bikers, a mobile public art program, to move between communities, and partners.  This looks different now. What does it need to be? to honour its history? How to respond to public parks, colonialism? – A lot of new info to consider about how we gather that has been amplified during this Covid timeframe. 

…We’re looking at artists’ needs, including subsidizing studio space. We’re having dialogues about resources and even more check-ins with studio artists about struggles. …We’re working with artists within the BIPOC community, and particularly artists who are part of the African Nova Scotia community with historical ties to our neighbourhood, to understand the experience of accessing studio space in general, and in our facility. 

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

MM: We are paying more attention to our website and social media to share what we are doing. So many programs and celebrations were delayed, like the textile map, a commissioned piece and a celebration of 15 years of the Art Bikers program called ‘Tracing Roots’ – this got created during the pandemic and we presented it on the website, digitally, instead of in person, as we couldn’t have live events. This helps to hold the history more than if it was presented in a one-day event, and opens up who can see the work. 

Our Sow Thread Unfold Project had to be completely adapted to work within Covid restrictions this summer, and that ended up being a dynamic website that showcased three artists who were commissioned to create socially engaged art, using their particular media as a vehicle to expand community narratives in Kjipuktuk (Halifax).  They were asked to approach the work as an artist and a field researcher, visually documenting their collaboration process. It’s like a giant map of how artists research and create. We’re getting ready to launch and that’s all digital. We see a lot of emerging artists at different stages of their careers and are supporting the legitimacy of the artists – and the website can help show this. 

We have also worked over zoom in a relaxed way through pandemic, and that’s really benefited some of our participants, especially a small group of artists from the Down Syndrome Community. 

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

MM: We won the Creative Community Impact Award through Arts Nova Scotia! It was peer-juried and there have been beautiful testimonials – people are saying it was so well deserved. 

One remarkable change is that people are valuing arts differently through the pandemic. We’re getting a huge response from teachers, social workers and community leaders – they’re saying that Wonder’neath is part of health and wellness for youth and that art is so relevant. The arts are now prioritized, especially in relation to health and wellness. We’re not having to prove the value of arts – with what we’ve lived through. 

 In conversation with Seanna Connell, ArtBridges, sconnell[at]

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