So Much Depends Upon

Below is an old blog post from a site for a larger project called One Mile Square. It tells the story of my contributions to a a community art project run by the Musagetes Foundation. I was an artist commissioned to create a local project. I chose to work with Cheryl Turner, a great Guelph woman whom I met at Action Read Literacy where she was learning reading skills.
Cheryl lives with a health condition that affects her day-to-day life in the community and in her own body. Her mom has the same condition.
Together, we decided to explore what makes Cheryl’s day-to-day livable. What does she depend upon for happiness?
Turned out squirrels were a big factor.
We created a video together. Then we created an event to share the video.
Since many of Cheryl’s contacts were through Action Read, we included the gang there in a live ‘bedtime slumber party’ where her colleagues read bedtime stories to children in the community in a public place (we picked the Via Train Station so we could have lots of traffic coming through and new people to engage). We decided to have everyone bring sleeping bags and lie on the floor so they could watch projections of the book pages above on the ceiling as the stories were read to them by adult learners.
Then we screened our video!
See below for the long version of this story originally shared in a blog post on Musagetes home page!

slumber party TrainStation july2011 026-1SLUMBER PARTY at the TRAIN STATION / September 1, 2011

Light and Heavy

It was light and heavy right from the get go with Musagetes and me. An invitation to contribute something to “1mile2,” a program of such wide-ranging possibilities (explore the biodiversity, cultural and aesthetic diversity of a demarcated area in Guelph) was fantastic, yet reasonably dangerous for someone like me.

I’ve lived in Guelph for most of my life, am a natural adventurer,  an obsessive researcher and maintain a curiosity that borders on perversion.  A one-foot square area can  keep me obsessed for days.

To learn that the format of presentation for this something could be anything, well, that blew it right open. I work in a lot of mediums: basically whatever best serves the project.  Musagetes suggested an event, a lecture, a workshop, a video, an installation, a song, a mural, an anything, so long as it engaged the public, and simply “led to a world that is socially more just, environmentally more resilient and aesthetically more beautiful.” (That’s the heavy part. )

Let’s say that it was obvious that Musagetes has a lot of faith in the artist.

Somethings and Anythings

During the first few minutes of an ideas session with Musagetes, I had old-timers paraded down main street Guelph, crowned in the town square while they hollered out memories of days of yore, pointing out places that were no more. I had secret messages stuffed in bottles and floated down the Speed River daring ‘river bottle recipients’ to have a date with me at the eBar where they would answer seven carefully crafted personal questions about their life in Guelph, in front of a camera. I had text projected on the outside wall of the Bookshelf, written in real time by a creative writing group from Action Read Adult Literacy Learner Centre. I had severely depressed individuals participate in a community Show and Tell sharing personal objects of beauty and meaning: things they ‘lived for.’ I had an afternoon of community tree climbing in the downtown streets, led by children.

This was my short list.

“Choose one thing,” I was told.

Choose one thing

I knew I didn’t want to do something alone, which suited Musagetes as they are keen on collaborations, as was I. I knew I wanted to work with someone who could teach me as much as I could teach them.  More. (I’m selfish that way.) I knew I wanted my partner to be someone who didn’t work in the arts. And someone who doesn’t ordinarily get a lot of attention. Or that the attention they do get is unwanted, perhaps more negative than positive simply due to where they sit in the mix of society.

But I didn’t want the project to be about those projected assumptions or simply about suffering, which is how people living with visible struggles are often defined.  I wanted the story to be one my partner wanted to tell. I wanted the thing we made to be gentle and simple and to tell a story of everyday encounters that are essential to one’s life in order to carry on—the little joys, the reprieves. What, for me, I think of as  the ‘red wheelbarrow’ of the William Carlos William poem of the same title.

So much depends upon

The red wheelbarrow

Glazed with rain water

Beside the white chickens.

I interpret this as the dire importance of the ordinary in everyday life. The shocking and necessary beauty in that. I hoped that by exploring  the quality of this pursuit of happiness in one person’s life—a quest we all share regardless of our lot in life—we could all feel a little more connected.

My job would be to impart what I knew about story: how to find one and how to tell one in a way that is comfortable and uncomfortable. Video seemed to be the thing—a  collaboratively-made video.

I started with two people who were both tied to social service organizations in the heart of Musagetes’ one square mile.

Number 1

“Number 1” was clean and sober from 26 years of a drug and alcohol addiction–  as both a user and dealer. He was on a good run with things when I ran into him. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years (since before all his business) and wouldn’t you know it,  he was standing at the bottom of the stairs when I was leaving a Musagetes meeting on 1mile2.

Seemed a sign.

I remember he used to take photos. I knew he came from a well-off family, yet the last time I saw him he was making a go selling home-made soup out of his kitchen. I remember my dad bought a jar from him on the street.  “Very good.”

We met to talk about this project at a dry house where he was staying. He was in. He wanted to learn video and certainly had a story to tell. It would be about soup.

For all the harm No. 1 had done to his body with needles, smokes, booze and what he called ‘other dangerous acts,’ he was a health nut. He wouldn’t dare put any food in his body unless it was pure, wholesome and homemade.  He simply had a love affair with produce. This was what he photographed, blew up large and framed for the wall.

He spent three days a week in the dry house kitchen making soup for a downtown youth help centre—many who have the same addiction he had (“has,” he says. “A fight I’ll fight every day for the rest of my life.”)

No. 1, tattooed,  longhaired, gold-chained, world-weary and cursing, was most content chopping carrots and steaming beans. Our story would follow him from stovetop to the drop-in.

We made a start, but we never finished.

I’m not going to explain much more here—it  really isn’t very dramatic and No. 1 is still trucking along ok. It’s suffice to say we chose to put off our project for the time-being.  No. 1 had to temporarily sever his ties to the drop-in for none of this blog’s business and I felt that piece of the story was necessary to keep us within the one square mile of the project. More importantly, No. 1 had his hands full with a companion in bad trouble and her needs far outweighed mine.

I hope to stay in touch and maybe pick things up again for another project when his life settles some.

Number two: Cheryl Turner

For a community partner, I had Action Read Literacy Centre in mind. I see it as a place of possibility, change and hope for the future. I asked Mira Clarke, the director, to suggest a video partner for me. Mira had taken a chance with me already in a collaborative project a few years ago for the Shakespeare Made In Canada Festival called “Tongues in Trees.” I worked with nine adult new readers in an adaptation and performance of Shakespearean monologues which were broadcast in the sculpture garden of MacDonald Stewart Art Centre. (http://www.uoguelph.ca/shakespeare/multimedia/audio/a_tongues_in_trees.cfm)

When Mira suggested learner, Cheryl Turner, as a participant for 1mile2 I was surprised. Cheryl had been a performer in  “Tongues.” I remember her as quiet and very reserved, so much so that she whispered Puck’s monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She didn’t like the sound of her voice, couldn’t stand to hear herself speak. I couldn’t imagine Cheryl wanting to have a whole film made about her.

“You should see her now,” Mira Clarke at Action Read said. “She’s come into herself.”

Just before Cheryl and I were to meet, I ran into her mom at the library. Brenda Turner told me all about her daughter’s ‘life-saving spinal surgery’ and amazing recovery.

Sure enough, at coffee, I could tell Cheryl was feeling damn good about herself and had a right to.

Keen, yet cautious, she would take a week to consider the project. She said she liked that it was to be about things that made her happy rather than the things that didn’t. That was how she lived her life anyhow. She also wanted to learn video. I had given her my old laptop at the end of our last project together  and apparently she had been off and running with technology ever since.

A week later, I received this email:

yes i am willing to do the project can we find a day that we are both free to start it? i was thinking tuesday morning 10-12 i hope this works if not i can see if i can juggle my week. i was hoping with the warmer weather doing it on feeding the ducks and geese but with the snow back it’s harder to navigate with walker. what about doing it on the workshops i have done? let me know wht you think – – Cheryl

Cheryl’s Red Wheelbarrow(s)

Cheryl carries peanuts in her pocket everywhere she goes, just in case there are hungry squirrels about. Animals are big players in her world—the ones outside and the many in her home.

She had also started giving workshops at social service agencies about client-run ‘snack stands,’ one of which she had started at Action Read ten years earlier. She said it was excellent for skill-building and confidence. The snack stand was one of the things Cheryl depended on.  The more we met, the more I learned about a cat called Eric, an extra special variety store owner and the importance of coffee dates with mom.

Living with a lifelong disability, these little bits of beauty and goodwill are what kept Cheryl going, and it would be our job to chase after them.

The Video: So Much Depends Upon

What I found was a video partner who surpassed all my expectations. Someone so keen and bright and honest and reliable. Someone who had never done any video but who really was naturally talented with technology (unlike me). With all her enthusiasm and obvious affinity for moving images, we decided Cheryl would shoot about half of the scenes with my instruction. We settled on some locations (her room at the variety store owner’s house, the park, her mom’s, the coffee shop, Action Read and a workshop on snack stands she and another literacy learner were running at ARC Industries).

Cheryl had written a children’s book about a squirrel she met up at the university. She called him “Charlee Chew.” We decided we would find a way to work him into our film.

I told her not to worry about editing until we were all done shooting. That she could sit in on the rough cut with me as an observer, then we’d hire someone to do the final cut. Cheryl couldn’t wait. On the evening of our first shoot, I received this email.

hi dawn just testing movie maker at action read and i love it let me know if this clip works i’ll call you tonite to comferm tomorrow – – Cheryl

Cheryl attended every editing session with an eagerness and a quiet attentiveness. Her input was subtle, but invaluable.  Scott McGovern took our rough cuts to a finished piece (although, there is never a final cut, really) bringing along his fantastic eye, his marathon endurance and oh-so big heart.

The Event: “Slumber Party: Storytime Edition”

Now how to get people to see our video? It would only be ten minutes in length and neither of us wanted to fill in the time at an event talking about it for an hour.

I wanted to find a way to include Action Read in our presentation and to make something of a celebration of it all. I had been an emcee at an event Action Read held in the past called For The Love Of Words. It was an evening of poetry mixing renowned poets with adult literacy learners. It was a very cool night. I thought we could restage a similar event featuring children’s stories instead of poetry, since Cheryl tells one in the film.

I started thinking about the importance of storytime in the home, especially at bedtime. A ritual steeped in magic and nostalgia, immersed in make-believe where tales of imagination and hope fill sleepyheads before drifting off to la la land. The scene is an intimate one, perhaps the most precious, protected part of one’s day set in the refuge of the bedroom.

Growing up in a stable, middle-income home, being read to was a nightly ritual I took for granted. When Cheryl told me that some learners have never experienced this twilight tradition in their childhood due to adverse conditions, and that others did not have the literacy skills to read to their own children, it became imperative for me to make this our event.

“Slumber Party: Storytime Edition” would move this fabled bedtime hour into the public sphere with a communal storytime. Here, adult literacy learners from Action Read would be the readers. They would put the public to bed while showing off their newfound literacy skills. Cheryl would also be a reader. Each volunteer reader would work with their tutor on reading one kid’s picture book. I would gather a pile of books from the public library so the readers could pick whatever best suited their interests and personalities. The content was perfect for the concept: so many children’s picture books are filled with simple everyday joys, mixed with tales of hope, fears faced, the underdog triumphant.
This is the final book list and the names of those who read them.

David Jamieson – Harry, the Dirty Dog

Douglas Schneider – Little Blue and Little Yellow

Marc Richardson – Frog and Toad are Friends

Cheryl Turner – Winnie the Pooh (where Pooh gets stuck in his doorway after eating too much honey and his friends have to push him out)

Donna and Gerald DeGraaf – Great Day for Up! (Seuss)

Sheila Lindsay – Goodnight Moon

Kendra Dewar – I’ll Love You Forever

The decision to present the film as part of a storytime event solidified Cheryl’s story of Charlee Chew in our film. It would “bookend” the film and then we’d flow into storytime.

A Lie-down Cinema at the VIA Train Station

Years ago, I had been at a lie-down cinema in Ghent, Belgium with my then 2-year-old. I’ve never forgotten it. Mattresses were laid on the floor in a big church while animated films screened on the ceiling. It was such a lovely intimacy: lying in the dark with a bunch of strangers, dreaming together.

I was determined to host my own in Guelph somewhere out in public where passerby’s could happen by (my favourite way to share art—with the accidental  audience) and now was my chance.

Herein began the great debate of where. Nora and Shawn at Musagetes, Lynn and Marty at the Downtown Board, Joanne and Mira at Action Read knocked heads with Cheryl and I for many weeks. We needed a dark, public place with a white ceiling situated somewhere in the one mile square radius of the project. It couldn’t be outside because tents were too expensive to rent and darkness doesn’t fall until well after nine on a summer’s day in Ontario. That’s too late for kids to attend.

One of our top choices was at the beautiful downtown train station. Seemed perfectly cheeky to stage something personal and enduring  in a transitional public space. But road closure due to Carden Street construction was our roadblock. The City would never allow an event in the heart of a construction zone. Little did we know that they didn’t have a say. Since VIA owned the train station, the City was required to provide public access. A great fella at VIA said yes to the event right off. A phone call informing the City was all that was required.

A Saturday night between trains was scheduled. Benches pushed to the side, west-facing windows  blacked-out, yoga mats and sleeping bags thrown on the floor and presto: a lie-down cinema at the train station was born. We would film the page-turning live and project the illustrations from the books on the ceiling. As far as I know, it is the first public slumber party in town, first lie-down cinema in Guelph and first use of Via Train Station as an art venue. But the neatest first of all was the adult literacy learners reading aloud in front of an audience of children and adults.

The Bookshelf

Local bookstore The Bookshelf makes a habit of supporting community events, particularly ones promoting literacy. They hit up their publishers for book donations so that our audience could each go home with a free kid’s book.

The Night

The evening played out very well. As the train station was ‘business-as-usual’, Victor of Via sold train tickets to somewhat surprised customers while an audience of a hundred or so listened to stories, some in chairs at the back, many families in pyjamas lying on the ground in sleeping bags. It was both incredibly comfortable (relaxed, friendly, and accepting) and uncomfortable (many witnessing, for the first time, nervous adults struggling with literacy and physical challenges in front of an audience).  Patience and acceptance was called for and the audience was transfixed. Particularly the children who remained spellbound throughout the ninety minute evening of stories and film. Overall, the reaction from the audience was very positive and warm—“what a wonderfully unusual way to create mass community awareness and acceptance.”

I asked Mira from Action Read to offer her take on the evening:

The event worked out very well. It was a wonderful opportunity for Action Read and for our learners, all of whom are still talking about the event in glowing terms.  Everyone just seemed to have fun with it.  I think having adults there who struggle with reading demonstrated to the kids the value of respect, tolerance and difference much more than lecturing them about it could have.  For a couple of learners, reading in front of a group of people was a real challenge – as well as a real accomplishment. They could never ever have imagined that they’d be capable of reading in front of a group of  people.  The effect of taking a big risk and having it pay off goes far in building confidence and breaking down some self-limiting thinking.  This will only spill over to other areas of their lives. The energy in the room was very positive.  The audience seemed to recognize what this meant for our learners.

Dawn and Cheryl’s documentary ‘So Much Depends Upon’ was beautiful.  It really gave you a glimpse into the inner life of someone who’s story is not typically heard.  You realized the depth, complexity, challenges and also the joys that Cheryl has carved out in her world.  It didn’t focus on Cheryl’s challenges, which is appropriate because in real life, Cheryl doesn’t focus on these either.  It really let Cheryl’s personality and voice to come through.  Dawn’s guidance, experience, eye as an artist and encouragement are no doubt a huge reason for this. I’m sure that a film like this can only make those who watch it more compassionate and less apt to jump to conclusions about others.   I know that Cheryl feels really positive and proud about it.  It seems to have planted a seed for her –  I think she really sees herself as an artist now.  We’re going to screen the film at our AGM at the end of the month. — Mira, Action Read

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