The following is the July Blog Post by our John Howard Society Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more about Johnny’s Residency, click here.
Over the last 2 months, I’ve been presenting and speaking more publicly about the Artist in Residency Program in partnership between the John Howards Society and the Community Arts Council of Vancouver. There’s been a lot of interest and support of the program, and during presentations, there are even more questions on impact, evaluation, and what success looks like.
Within community-engaged art there is a common framework that aims to “provide a platform for marginalized voices to speak.” I talk about how a lot of auto-biographic, and autoethnographic work is an act of revisiting old stories. Perhaps the goal is to come to terms with them, raise awareness about them, or speak them out for the first time.
My work has always been about getting folks who live outside of those realities to listen, engage, and make a difference. I like speaking to audiences external to the community that I existed in, or perhaps to communities I never felt a part of. For me, it’s about fostering a community built on compassion.
One of the first poems I ever read was good old Emily Dickinson’s “If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking”
““If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”
Dickinson’s poem became a core motto for me. I had this wild belief that if I could prevent or ease the suffering of people around me, maybe they’d end up being a community that I could be a part of, or at least they’d see value in me. Though a bit selfish, and perhaps a bit lonely in my determination, I thought I had a good grasp of what compassion and empathy mean to me. Being at the John Howard Society, working with the participants has taught me so much more.
Recently, the incomparable Kimmortal hung out with our crew, facilitating music making, writing some raps, building some hip hop bars. Kimmortal is an acclaimed mc, spoken word poet, musician, whose work is deeply rooted in decolonization, and positive social change. For more information on Kimmortal’s work, and to check out their latest album, visit: https://kimmortal.bandcamp.com/ I’m excited to announce that Kimmortal will be joining us for a performance at the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival. There, we will be sharing the work we’ve created, do a live performance of how we improvise and jam, and I’ll be sharing a set of my residency work.
The performance is on Aug 11, 2019 at the Roundhouse Community Centre, 1:30 pm. More info at: https://www.cacv.ca/vancouver-outsider-arts-festival-2019/?
When Lisa and I sent out the information that Kimmortal was our guest artist, participants were ecstatic during Kimmortal’s visits. Walter, our amazing practicum student, has been a huge help. Each week, just riffing away on the guitar, creating beautiful sound beds for the participants to build upon and play. We are in many ways learning to collaborate, listen, and share the mic in our improvisations. I have to send so much thanks and love to the John Howard team for putting up with the noise every week.
The sessions have really morphed into a familiar pattern. We arrive, set the snack table, make room for a jam session, put out the instruments, but also grab the craft bin. Always trying to keep options open, and allow participants to take agency in their space has meant that we really take over the space. Last week, we had music jamming on one side, colouring and drawing on the table by the washrooms, and pyrography in the other corner of our area. I am stoked that every week is like a living memory of all the work we’ve done.
I’ve even begun sharing more of my work again. I think I mentioned it in previous blogs, that sharing some of my work with the participants at John Howard has been met with lukewarm response. There was much appreciation for the quality of the work, and it did help build stronger relationships between us, the act of opening up about my challenges in life. Overall, I was reminded that sometimes, when we engage in art and play, it is not so much an escape, but a momentary release of the weight we carry. My poems were sometimes reminders of what they were trying to take a break from. But this revelation had motivated us to facilitate more activities that spark joy.
Recently at the John Howard Society CSO, we had a session where a family was in attendance. It was amazing to see the beautiful dynamic between a parent and a pair of siblings. One of the activities we do at the John Howard is create a playlist- participants offer up songs they want to listen to, we add them to the list, frequently after songs I’ll ask why the song is their favorite. In this instance, the songs were the catalyst to an outpouring of stories. For this family, it was the homes they lived in, life before vs life now, without pity or condescension- the humour of their differing tellings spoke of the amazing resilience that people are capable of. And more than my “heavy” poetry, their joy also helped lift up other participants who shared their successes and challenges trying to rebuild relationships with their nuclear families.
In June, I travelled back to Toronto, back to my old haunts, my alma mater, my family. It’s always so strange to become a visitor in the places where so much of your narrative comes from- places that now seem unfamiliar. It’s like reading an autobiography that you forgot you wrote, or discovering journals from younger selves. I had a lot of heart-to-hearts with my nuclear family. These intense conversations took place over the dinner table, over the graves of grandparents we visited, over text messages… where they told me they were proud of me but they’d never accept me. In these conversations, I discovered that they had forgotten many of the most pivotal moments of our relationship. I was in shock at how differently they remembered my childhood. I admit, growing up was hard. I have lots of baggage, they do too. I had to laugh, because when we do talk, I am bewildered by how they seem to brush things under the rug… now I realized they didn’t even remember any of the things I have been holding onto. I didn’t know you could pick and choose what baggage to carry. But I can’t think of more resilient people than my parents, with exception to the folks at John Howard. I wonder how important forgetting is to moving forward.
Things with my family aren’t great. But, over the past 15 years, I was able to find a new family. I wouldn’t call it a chosen family. I would say it is a found one. I was lucky enough to find one. For many years I tried to reconnect with my nuclear family without the foundation of people who could pick up the pieces when that inevitably didn’t work. Having a found family, a network of real “ride or die” folks in my corner, has empowered me to rebuild with that nuclear family… whether they accept me or not. At least we can rebuild around the impasses. I think of the found family at the John Howard Society… the community I am grateful to be a guest in. This residency, and all the programs here have been able to help empower us all to revisit memories, families, places that may be challenging, that maybe folks remember differently, but wherever we revisit, we have a place to come back to.
I think of the amazing community here. The best gift upon returning from a relatively disastrous trip, was learning that the Artist in Residency Program has been officially renewed for another year. Yay.