The following is the May Blog Post by John Howard Society Inclusive Community Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To learn more about Johnny’s Residency, visit the Artist in Residence page.
In 1997, Jann Arden released her album “Happy?” At the time, I was 16, living a very rigid, obedient life. I was just beginning to learn what resistance was, and how much I would have to fight to simply exist. I remember the album, because at the age of 16, it was probably the 6th record that I owned. My parents were very strict with our money, even my part-time fast food pay cheque was oppressively monitored. My extensive collection of cassette tapes and cd’s consisted of:
- Dance Mix USA
- Fiona Apple – Tidal
- Edwin McCain – Misguided Roses
- Alanis Morrisette – Jagged Little Pill
- Sara McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstacy
- Jann Arden – Happy?
My discography is a total indication of how cool I was in highschool. While struggling with coming out, bullying, contemplations of suicide, the lyrics in these albums vocalized the thoughts I could not. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the story behind Happy?- specifically the song, “Hanging By A Thread.”
“All salt inside my body ruins
Everyone I come close to
My hands are barely holdin’ up my head
I am so tired of lookin’ at my feet
All the secrets that I keep
My heart is barely hangin’ by a thread
Hangin’ by a thread
I miss you all
I wish I was with you now
I wish I was.”
– Jann Arden.
Years prior to Happy?, Jann Arden’s brother was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The song, “Hanging By A Thread” was penned in dedication to him. Jann has often referred to it as one the saddest song she’s ever written.
In the recent CTV special, Songs & Stories, Arden talked about her brother, how the experience affected her family, her belief in his innocence, the impact the murder had on the victim’s family, and how she carries on. I was moved by her compassion, honesty, and vulnerability. More than moved, the interview provided insight on my work as I continue my artist residency at the John Howard Society.
I inherited this residency, at the outset, I simply continued the practices of my predecessor. I wanted to provide consistency, and familiarity for the clients. As the weeks progressed, I began introducing more of my practice, partially to see what resonated with the clients, but also to discover how my practice would manifest in this space.
I was more focused on providing art practice as a service, and meeting “deliverables” set by the governing organizations. As relations began to form, I allowed myself to explore how I would develop as an artist, questioning what parts of this work would reflect my practice. I was really asking, how can my mediums tell my story, and support the storytelling of the clients.
I should clarify here, because I don’t want this to sound like a one-person army. The “governing organizations” is actually the amazing partnership between the John Howard Society and the Community Arts Council of Vancouver. In early discussions, we recognized that we’re trying to affect change to the system, but we’re still working in a system. Though this post is more centred on my wayfinding, it’d be callous to disregard the team of staff, outreach workers, volunteers, clients, and management who support this work and want to recognize its value. That kind of support is something artists dream of.
Back to the poetry… so I began sharing my spoken word with the clients. During our open, art-making workshops, I’d share a couple of poems a week. To be honest, the work fell a bit flat with the participants. The quality of the work was fine, but I realized that I was presenting work that wasn’t written for the clients. My writing is often for audiences who experience more privilege, and often a call to action for allies to change the system. My writing is often heavy, expositional, speaking from a marginalized voice. My writing often addresses issues of race, queerness, housing, substance use, and mental health.
At the CSO, though impactful, my work was like an unnecessary reminder of what the clients live with everyday. For many clients, there are amazing services and programs offered at the John Howard Society that support their basic survival needs. The Artist In Residency program offers opportunities to share company, create art, enjoy snacks, and create joy. This program provides the opportunity to experience a greater fullness of self through expressing oneself through art.
It made me realize how often marginalized voices are almost expected to lean into their traumas to produce art. Writer, performer, Vivek Shraya recently wrote an article, “How did the suffering of marginalized artists become so marketable? “
Shraya writes, “The more the pain of people from marginalized groups is repeatedly and consistently consumed as a form of ‘entertainment,’ the less potential these images have to effect necessary social change.”
It helped me recognize that the Artist in Residency program at the John Howard Society has several important facets including:
- Providing an opportunity for clients to find joy expressing themselves through art, and building community by engaging in dialogue through art
- Help overcome systemic challenges of stigma and isolation, by creating work that can be communicated to audiences outside of the John Howard Society
- My own practice of creation, being inspired and integrated by the John Howard community
It made me question:
- Is there an ethical way for my to use my experience at the John Howard Society, and the stories that I hear in this space to create work that I call my own? The answer is yes and no. The reality is that I need to create work that provides a means for the clients to create work. I also need to be empowered to create my own work as part of this process.
- Whether it’s a good day, or a bad day, how do I create work when workshop attendance fluctuates drastically? The key here is creating a framework where there are no hard expectations for outcomes. Creating non-sequential practices that allow for participants to drop-in whenever they can, and not feel like they have missed too much or feel behind.
Reflecting back on this post so far, again, I have to give a shout out to the team that supports this residency. These questions have come up, and come from the meetings, presentations, and check ins with the members of the respective organizations. One key facet that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post is trusting the experts. Both the John Howard Team and Community Arts Council of Vancouver team have long standing history in supporting the clientele. The success of this work is due to the support that we build together, and support for me, so that I can effectively hold that space and create with the clients every week.
I want to bring it back to my art practice. So listening to Jann Arden’s music, and watching her interview, exemplified for me, how an artist is able to locate themselves in relation to the stories of other people. It demonstrated how an artist’s work can stand alone, and their art practice be used as a vessel for other voices.
This month at the John Howard Society, we are bringing in musical instruments. We have a room full of creators who are slowly building up the courage to jam, improvise, make noise, and make music. I’m excited to announce that next month, renowned hip hop artist/musician/spoken word poet, Kimmortal, will join us to create some music as part of our residency project.
In my role, I’ll be facilitating the learning, creation, and play of the clients. After which, some of our creations, and processes of creation can be shared with the public. Personally, I will be creating a chapbook of poems based on how I locate myself in this work.
Below is the first piece that I’ve created in this upcoming series. The references and metaphors reflect my own experiences. They represent the points of intersection where my life story resonates with stories from various clients. It is a somber piece, but my intention is to lean into these stories to eventually move through them, celebrating the joyful stories as well.
This poem is titled, “Stepping Up To Bat”
It feels the bottom of the 9th
Bases loaded, and I’m at bat.
With just one swing I could save the game, be the hero,
But Reality is more like the 6th,
I’m branded the villain,
The bases are labels of everything I’m living with and dying from…
And I don’t play baseball.
When I’m in this manic place
When the adrenaline is pumping
When the serotonin is flooding my brain
It feels like the end of the movie
But I am nowhere near the finish…
Privilege is the possibility of happy endings.
I don’t blame privilege for my limited state..
I don’t blame society for my mistakes.
I don’t blame class for the choices I’ve made.
I take the blame and someone has to pay.
So I’m sitting in rooms full of redemption and regret.
Where baseball bats swing on broken shins
And boundaries are like border walls,
Invisible to the naked eye, but thick with guilt and stigma.
So I’m in Assimilation’s waiting room,
Where conformity is the best strategy,
But my playbook is filled with tragedy,
In a language I do not know how to read,
Let alone make the play.
So I’m sitting in a room that’s supposed to have no judgments,
Dreaming of sports I don’t play, or maybe would have played…
If it wasn’t for the ….
If I just hadn’t ….
If they ….
If she …
If I could have lived the what if’s…
I can’t slow down.
I’m told to just start with today.
I read somewhere to be grateful for today.
I agreed somewhere that it’s ok to have a bad day.
I’m meeting my friend who showed up on time.
We’re going to watch a baseball game.
Today I’m blessed with an easy decent.
The manic subsides like an easy slide of stolen bases,
But I look and see that they’re still loaded:
Victim on first,
Abuser on second,
Faggot on third,
And I wonder what home I’m going to.
It feels the bottom of the 9th,
Bases loaded, and I’m at bat.
With just one swing I could lose the game,
I’m so used to swinging and missing,
But someone is cheering.
It feels like the bottom of the 9th of the last game I lost.
But it’s really the 6th of the next game I’m losing.
But people are cheering,
And someone is rooting for me,
And there will be another game,
And then I’m back in first, trying to get to first, trying to get there first,
Because I’m still wondering what home I’ll go to.