The following is the December blog post by John Howard Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more on Johnny’s Residency, click here.
It was December 19, 2018, I walked into the John Howard Society Lower Mainland for the first time as incoming artist in residence. I vaguely remember Lindsay brought some vegetable chips and a box of mini chocolate bars. Around the table, 3-4 participants were colouring, it was like a gathering of old friends, a sweet denouement. The intention was to introduce me to the participants and help smooth the transition between Lindsay, my predecessor, and myself. I remember leaving the session with mixed feelings. I was excited by the opportunity, and curious about what I would bring to this space and its people.
December 10, 2019 marked the last session of the year. Not to fret, we’re back in January 2020. It has been quite a year. I’m really appreciative of how the duration of this residency has provided a real sense of the rhythm of the Client Services Office. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off so I can reflect on the process, and compose next year’s plan.
Admittedly, leading up to our season finale, I had a bit of trepidation. Since Thanksgiving, there was a sharp dip in attendance, and it seemed that engagement had regressed. Some days, it felt like I was on the road again, playing small gigs in random venues, hoping people would show up. Some days there was a disconnect between what I had planned, and what the participants wanted, like you’re playing original music, but your audience just wants classic rock. Funny enough, this literally was the case. During our music jam sessions, we devise new music based on genres, chord progressions, and other prompts. This appeals to many, while others just want Bon Jovi, Clapton, and Hendrix. At our last session, we did end up playing an impromptu cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” it brought me back to dorm room jam sessions back in university. The original plan was to do holiday carols, have a sing along, and share in holiday treats.
For the last day we made holiday ornaments with glitter clue, felt cut outs of stockings and snowmen, and stickers galore. After a few weeks of trying to engage through textile art, I wanted to return to some of the craftier, and more accessible activities that people seemed to enjoy. Many requests were made for what we’d nibble on, and I delivered the promised eggnog, hot chocolate, and Christmas cookies.
What was most reassuring was that on our last day, attendance picked up significantly, and all the familiar habits of having a large gathering were realized again. As I looked around the group, it was bittersweet to see where people were at. As a community, as an ensemble, there’s been so much growth. For many months, my blogs have continually extolled on the many breakthroughs our participants have achieved. And like any community, there’s been personal challenges for committed members. Miguel fell into relapse on multiple occasions, and I haven’t seen him in a few weeks. Jessica has grown a bit distant, focusing on other activities that take up much of her energy. This isn’t a bad thing at all, we just miss her. And her absence is a reminder that folks only have a certain capacity to engage. I guess that’s one thing that brings the tinge of bittersweetness, as I look around the room, I also see the vacant seats.
Amy recently had a psychotic episode related to substance use. Over the last few months, I was able to witness a decrease in conversations with the voices she heard during our times together. Since her episode, it’s clear that the frequency to which she visibly engages with the voices has increased. She does however continue to reconnect with the group of participants.
Fred and Jimmy are ever present, they come every week, ask about the following weeks, anxious to know that the residency will continue next year. As much as there are moments of sadness, and unfortunate circumstances, there is an incredibly powerful sense of resilience in our wee troupe. I’m most grateful for the ability for us as a collective to come together and build community through art.
I’m excited for next year because of all that we’ve learned this year. Reflecting back, I am eager to explore how this model can apply to other spaces and organizations. I’m excited to pass on this knowledge, and hopefully support other community-engaged artists in their work.
Though community based work is something I do professionally, there was a significant period of time when my focus was on outreach, and administrative roles. This experience has reaffirmed many of my passions within this practice. It has also validated the knowledge I have, and instilled in me a greater sense of confidence in my ability to do this work. This personal growth for me could not have happened if it weren’t for the continual support from Eric, Andrea, Teddy, Lisa, Brienne, and David who have really supported this work, and made this program possible. Most of all, I need to recognize ALL the participants who have walked through those doors to be part of our weekly gatherings. Whether they are service users, or staff & outreach workers, or volunteers, being in the space, and choosing to engage when your life is full of other burdens takes a great deal of generosity and compassion.
So to my participants, and to you, readers,
Happy Holidays, and may your days be filled with wishes that can come true.