The following is the August Blog Post by our John Howard Society Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more about Johnny’s Residency, click here.
“It takes a community to build an artist.” I say this every time I step to any microphone. This past weekend, many amazing people came together so that a community could have their art realized. From Aug 9-11, the Community Arts Council of Vancouver produced the third annual Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival.
Over my last few posts I’ve mentioned that, though the workshops within the artist residency at the John Howard Society Lower Mainland is process driven, we’ve been building up for a showcase performance at the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival. This performance represented a culmination of exploration, development, and rehearsal with the participants of the artist residency program over the last 3 months.
I had the privilege of being the MC for the final performances which included: samples of my individual work, 4 pieces developed in the workshops, a mini performance by guest artist- Kimmortal, a curated open mic in partnership with the Vancouver Poetry House, performance by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe- 2019 BC Culture Days Ambassador, and a closing feature by poetress/loop pedalist Anjalica Solomon.
There were various challenges along the way, no good story exists without some suspense, but through these challenges were personal successes for every participant. For all the wins, I feel like the proudest coach from the sidelines, one inclined to use words like “incredible” and “unbelievable”… but these successes weren’t a surprise, they weren’t implausible… more than anything they were transformative.
The John Howard Society has created a space in the CSO that tries to be accessible, welcoming, and supportive to the communities it serves. Participants, over time, develop a strong relationship to the space. Their agency grows as they take on more ownership of the space, and their barriers decrease as they build trust with the other folks at the CSO.
Over a year of workshops, alongside all the programming offered at the John Howard Society, has fostered a strong foundation for participants who come to the CSO. I was nervous about taking participants from a cultivated space of comfort and familiarity, inviting them on stage, in a new space, in front of an audience. Truly, we were not sure who would show up on the day to participate. Many familiar faces did show up, some were missed, and there were some welcome surprises as well.
I’ve mentioned it more times than I need to, that my own writing, sometimes, can be a drag. I question who my audience is, and it’s efficacy in the workshop spaces when I do share. A transformative moment for me was being able to be an artist in front of the participants, and having them know more about me by experiencing my work. It was an opportunity to present a more holistic view of me, share a side of me that they really hadn’t seen before. The support from the participants was resounding.
The real stars of the day were definitely Louis, a participant who is an absolute virtuoso on the guitar, and equally gifted, Walter, our practicum student. The two of them on guitars, myself on keys, formed a trio of sound that supported participants as they came up on stage to freestyle, sing, and play instruments.
I talked to the audience briefly about how the art that we make… the art that marginalized folks make often starts with some testimony of struggle. Sometimes our work is reduced to sad sob stories and personal catharsis. There is room for that, and for some folks, that needs to happen. For some presenters, Sunday was an opportunity for that.
But my goodness, for every challenging story, there was a beaming smile, unbridled joy, and a true sense of play on that stage. I’m finding it challenging to write the blog post, because I’m having a hard time articulating the significance of each person that attended that day.
Tim is a regular participant, generally bringing with him a positive disposition, repetitive gratitude, and a pleasure to be around. He continually asked if it was his turn to get on stage, waiting to ignite the space. When he joined the ensemble, he did something that he’d never done in workshops before, he started freestyling, dropping bars on the microphone. It was an intensely meaningful moment for many of us. Over the past few months, Louis has shown so much growth in learning to listen, take leadership musically, and collaborate more when playing. In workshops, with some conduction and opportunities, he found moments to really shine and shred on his guitar. On Sunday, the adrenaline of performance led to some balance issues with the volume, but within a few minutes and support from our very skilled sound technician, we were able to find our stride as an ensemble. Phillip was one of several participants who had submissions as part of the group show, he’s been wanting so much to share his work, get it out there, and he sold one of his pieces. He jumped on stage and started playing with the team. Lee and Rebecca who’d only come to workshops a couple of times, also came, shared their work, made connections.
The entire line up for the VOAF performers was top notch. Kimmortal shared a couple of their pieces, and the poets from Vancouver Poetry House, Spillious and Mika Pierre, were both grand slam champions. What inspires me most from this experience, and from VOAF, is that we all shared the stage as equals.
VOAF has demonstrated possibility and accomplishment for many participants of the program. It’s provided momentum for upcoming workshops, helping participants recognize a sense of achievement both individually and as an ensemble. The ensemble is so much greater than the participants, just as our community is greater than the number of attendees each week. For this success to have happened, so much gratitude has to be given to the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival production team, led by Eric Rhys Miller, Lisa Goebel, and so many volunteers. Thanks to the John Howard Society staff, from senior management to outreach workers, who helped get participants to sessions, transport their art, and coordinate the exhibition.
While on stage I talked about the goals of the artist residency: reducing isolation, combating stigma, and bridging relationships with the greater community. Being able to share, and having diverse audiences hold space for each other really moves us further towards that goal. I referenced Richard Wagamese’s famous quote, “All we are is story.” and his belief that we share in creating it, by sharing our stories with each other, and writing our stories together. VOAF in some ways completed one chapter of work with the artist residency, and I’m looking forward to our next chapter together as storytellers.