by Steve Frost
I’m standing on the corner of Heatley and Hastings in front a large mural on the side of the Mikado building. On the left are cherry blossoms, in pastel pinks and violets. Moving right along the wall the blossoms morph into birds, and at the far right the birds settle into a nest. It isn’t a mural that shouts at you — it’s fairly subdued. You might easily miss it. Standing among the discarded needles, low rent housing and nearby prostitutes, I see little that might capture the attention of the Pope.
Okay, I’m straining at the connections, but let me draw the lines for you: The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, while developing its report on global financial inequality, became aware of local Vancouver credit union Vancity’s engagement in “values-based banking.” The Council invited Vancity’s CEO, Tamara Vrooman, to the Vatican. As you can imagine, the story made quite a splash. In reporting the story, a local TV news station chose to highlight Vancity’s work with Mission Possible, a small organization based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (or ‘DTES’) currently “helping people renew a sense of dignity and purpose through meaningful work.” The Nest Community Mural Project, one of the projects sponsored by Mission Possible, is responsible for the mural in front of me at Heatley and Hastings.
The Vatican. Vancity. Mission Possible. This scrubby patch of dirt. Connected by tenuous threads at best, but connected. The current Papacy seems to understand the importance of connecting grand otherworldly concerns to daily human struggle. The Nest mural holds this connection well. It isn’t an escape, a window to another world as much as it’s a mirror, reflecting the best of a community back to itself. It reflects grand aspirations to be found in the everyday.
Five organizations in the DTES were responsible for the project. Community Arts Council of Vancouver and the City of Vancouver financed the project, while Mission Possible, Servants, and Jacob’s Well organized and executed it. The latter three organizations are all faith-based.
Representative of a relatively new but historically rooted shift, these organizations aren’t arrayed around an “us/them” charity model, rather they are oriented towards something transcending even solidarity. Anthropologist Steve Pavey refers to this concept as acompañamiento, “walking with one another in deep solidarity towards the dignity of our shared humanity.”
The natural outgrowth of everyday acompañamiento experiences is almost never theoretical or abstract; rather its results are lived, and concrete. Art is the “juice of emancipation.” Acompañamiento most naturally produces tangible, embodied, grassroots art that affirms and expresses our common humanity.
The three faith-based organizations that sponsored the Nest mural understand the healing, hopeful power of art. As an artist who bears an identity scarred by religious zeal, I must say, that’s something.
I sat down and talked to Jenny Hawkinson and Cara Bain, the two artists who helped bring the Nest Mural into being. From the beginning the process was intentionally inclusive. The artists held three workshops in the neighborhood. Participants were encouraged to interact with a series of questions about the DTES, recording their responses by way of words or drawings on large sheets of paper.
Jenny and Cara hung these contributions on the walls of Jenny’s studio, then sat down and processed. And then they hit a wall. Nothing developed. Indicative of her straightforward faith, Jenny told me, “The only words I was getting was ‘mighty breath of God breathe into this place.’ Great. How am I suppose to paint a picture of that? Thanks for the super cryptic message. I wrote in my journal ‘I got nothin’.’”
Eventually Jenny had the breakthrough. Cherry blossoms, tying the piece to the Japanese heritage of the Mikado building, would transform into birds that settle into a nest. A simple concept, beautifully evoking the multifaceted, intertwining hopes and dreams of a very complex neighborhood. Unwilling to call it divine inspiration, Jenny considers her breakthrough simply part of the process.
Whatever our metaphysical beliefs, the micro process of creating art — prolonged diligent work, a brick wall, and eventually a breakthrough — is a reminder of the potential macro dynamic of that art in the public sphere. Out of the impossible, art can break through to something new. Out of the intractable, art provides a way forward.
When considering the DTES, the word “intractable” comes readily to mind. On the surface, it’s an abstract knot of problems waiting to be untangled by experts who will finally solve the unsolvable. Under the surface it’s a connected and vibrant community, who, in the meantime, live in defiant fragile hope.
Jenny, who has lived and worked in the DTES for more than a decade, provides some context: “Developers are coming in and kicking people out of their already shitty housing. Street people are getting pushed up further and further east and there’s a lot of tensions right now because people are feeling even more unwanted and more unappreciated and despised.” The gentrification is “causing a lot of dissension between the people who are moving into the neighborhood and the people that already live there. It’s like oil and water.”
In response to rumors about renaming and rebranding the neighborhood in order to make it more market friendly Cara makes a simple point, “My name is my identity. If someone calls me Sarah I’m not going to respond because it’s not who I am. When you call someone by name its a sign of valuing and recognizing who they are.”
Image-making embodies a simple declaration – “we are here” – and has since the first cave paintings. This mural, drawing on the fundamental human activity of declaring one’s existence, reminds the neighborhood, or anyone willing to pause long enough and look, of their own existence. “We are here, and this is who we are: people with stories, hopes, and dreams – dreams for a home, a place to feel cared for, a place to belong.
The final image of the mural, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t make the declaration on its own. The memories and stories associated with bringing the mural into being animate its message. The message, “we are here,” travels in each heart of an unlikely collection of people who made the mural.
Returning to the Pope, and that tenuous thread I first established, what matters at The Vatican matters at Heatly and Hastings. For those of us at the center of society’s attention, It’s precisely among the discarded and the overlooked that we find our humanity. This mural, sitting at the margins of our collective attention where people stripped of pretense and illusion still manage to find a defiant dignity, quietly calls us to our full connected humanity.
Steve Frost is Executive Director of the Tasai Foundation, an artist collective based in Vancouver, Canada.