The following is the September Blog Post by our John Howard Society Artist in Residence Johnny Trinh. To read more about Johnny’s Residency, click here.
In 2007, comedian, Mo’nique filmed a comedy special, “I Coulda Been Your Cellmate.” at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. A penitentiary where 80% of the women had a history of abuse, mental illness, and substance use. At numerous points in the film, inmates were featured through a series of vignettes, highlighting their stories and experiences within the justice system.
Throughout the film, Mo’nique had a continual message that too often, people with a history with the criminal justice system were thrown away and disregarded. Her goal was to bring these stories to life, and help make these people visible in the mainstream. She wanted viewers to recognize that these women are human and worthy of love, laughter, and kindness. Her message to the women in the prison was that they deserved a “few moments of laughter, and good times.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how easily people are dehumanized, how we see each other as something less than, or other than human. Whether it’s tied to an identity that we choose, or one that is chosen for us, I’ve been wondering about the hurdles we overcome to be recognized as more than the labels put upon us.
It’s been a month since the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival. Things at the John Howard Society have calmed down slightly, at least in terms of the artist residency program. There is the general bustle and buzz of September. There are various training sessions taking place in the centre, and a transition of team members. With a grateful, but heavy heart, we bid farewell to Walter, our practicum student who was integral to the success of the program this past summer.
Walter is moving onto new adventures, but continuing in the field of support work for folks in need. Practicum student was a label that I never really held onto while working with Walter. His willingness to share his art both as a musician and as a visual artist could only be described as a collaborator. I look forward to working with him again if future opportunities arise.
This month, there’s also been a slight shift in attendees. Over the past few weeks, a few new faces have slowly joined our ranks. Often after big workshops/events like terrarium making, special guests, the VOAF performance and festival, there’s a dip in attendance. I recognize that high energy events can be draining and folks may need time to rejuvenate, reflect, and find equilibrium. Though there were a couple slow weeks at the centre, these quiet sessions offered opportunities to engage deeper with the folks who did participate.
One of our participants, Michael, loves to come and jam. There are weeks when he arrives several hours before the session begins, and patiently waits for us to begin. There were many times, early on, where he’d only be interested in playing music. If we were having conversations, or leading other activities, he’d disengage. The transformative moment, for me, was witnessing Michael engage beyond the musical instruments, sharing stories, talking about experiences, opening up.
These seemingly small, casual transformations represent a larger movement of continual growth. There are always recessions, steps backwards, but gradually we take stride to move in positive directions. This month has been full of small wins. Michael’s increase in engagement was significant. We had a couple more that I want to highlight too.
Jerome, one of our newer participants has a habit of not sharing. He tends to take advantage of the snack table. There were a couple moments where his support worker, and myself, would gently suggest the idea of sharing with others, being more considerate. This wasn’t always successful. But last week, without any prompting, he was mindful of others in the room. By no means am I taking credit for any of these transformations, or implying that this was the one and only time he’s demonstrated a sense of consideration for others- I’m sure he has often. For me, it’s the way he did it, in our workshops, with other participants.
Francis, who’s been coming regularly over the past few months, was so inspired by our work, and is so supportive that he went and bought a bass guitar, to learn it, just to be able to jam more intensely with the group. For someone to find the time, the means, despite struggles with work and income, to make the effort… it speaks to the dynamic of this community we are nurturing.
Patrick, another intermittent member, he brought in an extra amp, because we’ve run into situations in the past where we didn’t have enough amplifiers for the instruments. All these folks… they’re coming to connect. They come to connect with each other. At the core of this connection is kindness, it is from this kindness that we find joy, support, resilience.
I continually step back and try to look at the bigger picture. When I first arrived, I had little expectations, but lofty dreams of the kind of transformative work that could happen. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about the John Howard Society. In its role, supporting marginalized people integrate more into society, there are so many great people running amazing programs…
For those who need help with teeth and oral health, they offer dental workshops. For those who need support finding work/income, they have employment workshops, and training sessions. For those who need support learning life skills, they offer all those programs from community kitchens, to anger management, to talking circles. And for us, we offer play without expectations, and opportunities to be together.
From all these programs, I see a common thread of healing, of medicine, but most of all- a re-humanizing of people. I have made a career of being a community-based artist. I specialize in auto-ethnographic performance. I’m interested in how we tell our stories, the cultural significance of those stories, and what they mean. It’s often too easy to reduce our stories to those of outsiders, or focused on one aspect of our identity. It is easy to lean into the stigmas or stereotypes when we are trying to lean into them to debunk them.
It’s surprisingly easy to appreciate the acts of kindness, and witness the growth in each other.
Leading up to the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival, we focused more on music and performance. This month we’re reintroducing other art forms, with textiles, weaving, and knitting. The sessions are open, and we’re hoping to build more connections with our neighbours and community members. Artist In Residency Sessions are every Tuesday at 1:00 pm at the John Howard Society CSO located just south of Kingsway on Fraser St. Please consider joining us. For more information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org