Mary Gordon and Deb Reynolds have been energized to discover they share an interest in seeing a vibrant community arts presence come to life in Peterborough.
The two connected through the Peterborough Dialogues and have since been holding this shared interest in tension, staying open to the possibilities of what might emerge as a result of their connection and giving voice to their interest.
The Essence of Community Art
One definition of community arts is that it is art by, for and with community members.
“For me, community arts is about connecting, it’s about conversations and it’s about stories,” says Deb.
“The main tenet of community arts is engagement, when the community itself is engaged in the making of the art,” writes Lisa Marie DiLiberto in the Artfare Essentials Companion 2013-2014, Jumblies Studio.
“It is about the process of making this art together with the community and it is what happens to the community when it comes together to create. . . . Which boundaries are crossed? Which bridges are built? Whose voices are heard? Which people meet and greet and play together who otherwise would not? Which conflicts are resolved? Whose lives are improved? Which stories are told?”
Deb has organized a number of art-making activities in the community where she has seen exactly that happen – people bonding, talking, sharing their stories as they create something together that matters to them.
Mary claims to not be an artist and in fact to have a kind of art phobia, but she has been engaged with a variety of art projects over the years. She has even done some art in safe environments.
Art does not lie, Mary says, at least not in the same way that words are so often used to lie. That’s what draws her.
“One of the things that caught me up in the community net immediately after moving to Peterborough was the downtown arts community — all mixed up with small businesses — all these incredibly creative people making art and food and love and music downtown,” Mary says.
“I very strongly feel that I want to tap into the current that exists, and see if my skills can be put to use.”
On the sunny deck of the Silver Bean café, which is noisy with activity, Mary and Deb wind their way through a conversation that includes some word pictures of what some community arts happenings might look like in Peterborough.
“You can have a conversation about place with anybody — where you’re from, how did you find yourself here.”
Mary agrees. “Forests versus mountains versus oceans versus prairies. Big discussion,” she says.
Deb refers to the people who spend a lot of time in the stretch of green along the Otonabee River in the summer, the “river people,” as some have come to call them.
“I’m curious about them, ‘How did you find yourself here in this place, not just in this place of poverty and homelessness but in this (beautiful, Mary interjects) place?’” she says.
Imagine a community arts initiative that invited all Peterborough residents, “all of us river people,” as Mary says, to come and share our stories of place, what draws us to life here in this place at this time.
Mary has studied deep the history of this place, the layers of settlers who’ve called what is now Peterborough home.
She imagines bringing in the brilliant anthropologists and historians and archeologists from Trent University just down the river.
“I’ve only been here 15 years, I feel like I’ve been rooted in rivers all my life, raised on them, lived on them. This is as much my place now as any and I want to know about it,” Mary says.
“I want to relate to what lies beneath. If we can find a way to drill, go way below to the myths and the stories that power this landscape without ownership . . . I don’t know, or would we just be teasing a dragon?”
Imagine a community arts project on “the soul of this place” — that invited people to discover what resonates in that historic/mythic story with their own lives and souls and then to add to, and build on to it, with their own stories, their own artifacts, what they carry from place to place.
“I’m seeing something really visual about the layers of the earth, just like a compost pile — you just add layer by layer and it transforms both what’s below and what’s above,” Mary says.
Those, of course, are just a couple of ideas. As Deb points out, there are 199 possibilities.
In the last few years, community arts have been taking off in places around the world. Both Deb and Mary have been inspired by other places but especially Sudbury, which is home to a 20-year-old vibrant community arts group that grew out of a social change movement.
One of the group’s projects involved the animation of an underground pedestrian tunnel that had become dingy, a hangout for drug addicts and was considered unsafe. Through a community consultation process, it was identified that art could be a way to imbue a new kind of life and spirit into that place. What’s especially interesting is that professional artists were engaged to design the overall “framework” for the art — a largely underwater theme — but then “regular” community members were invited to fill in the frame.
“So it wasn’t just one person’s vision,” Mary points out. “It came out of the consultations that the community had about ‘what lies beneath,’ artists interpreted that and created the overall design and people painted it.
“That’s one of the ways (to do community arts),” she adds. “It’s a combination of what comes out of a community initiative and how artists can animate that and help people express themselves.”
Who Will Come to the Table?
Asked what question, if answered, could help move their community arts inklings to the next level here in Peterborough, Deb says for her it’s, “Who will come to the table?”
Who is energized by the possibilities in community arts for Peterborough? Clearly one doesn’t need to be an expert artist, though both Deb and Mary definitely see a need for those. But “suburbanites,” people “on the margins,” everyone could find a place — perhaps not necessarily in the art making itself, but at least giving voice to what matters most to them and how art might animate that. They might also become connectors, supporters, administrators.
Imagine: art that contributes to making Peterborough a resilient and thriving place.