Reflections on Artistic Excellence

In conjunction with our March 17 round-table discussion, the Neighbourhood Arts Network and MABELLEarts asked for images and words that relate to ‘artistic excellence and community engaged arts’. Check out the submissions from PARC, MABELLEarts, Art Starts, Alan Gasser, Yellow Door Learning Centre and Gallery 44!

We’ll update the post as we receive submissions…scroll down for more!

The Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) Lantern

PARC Lantern

The PARC lantern glows above the hill behind Montgomery’s Inn following the Light in Mid-Winter Parade. Artistic Director: Michael Burtt; Lead Artist: Joshua Barndt; portrait photos: Patrick Struys; Image: Katherine Fleitas.

The PARC (Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre) Lantern represents our three-year investigation into “Calm in Parkdale” and is part of “Portraits of Silence” consisting of images of members and friends meditating. These images have been printed larger than life size and will be installed in windows, on walls and roofs around Parkdale. These photographs offer a very different view of PARC members than the one readily available. As John, a participant said “it shows people that we aren’t all rowdies”.

The Lantern allowed us to combine these images with larger sculptural forms while introducing a lighting element. Our next project will “Sparks that Fly”, the creation of four light-boxes mounted in Surauren Food Bank, in the basement of PARC.  The light boxes will depict the often-untold food-related stories of food bank users. Next year, we will construct an illuminated raft that will be ceremoniously carried to the shores of Lake Ontario.


Artistic Alchemy: MABELLEarts and the idea of artistic excellence

Filming A Light In Mid Winter, MABELLEarts’ first short film


This photo was taken during the creation of our first short film A Light In Mid Winter.  Made in collaboration with MABELLEartists, Jumblies artist Sean Frey, MABELLE bakers and community members in the Mabelle neighbourhood – a high-density Toronto Community Housing Complex in Central Etobicoke.

There are various acts of alchemy at work in this photo and in the resulting film.  There is a simple alchemy of flour, water, yeast and fire becoming bread.  Just to the left of this little scene, in a beautiful outdoor oven made by community members of all ages and backgrounds, 5 delicious loaves of bread are becoming golden brown.  In the depths of winter, a bright and warming fire burns.  In the middle of a neighbourhood of concrete and steel, bread is prepared outdoors, in an ancient way.

Art making is itself a kind of alchemy – by working with ideas, materials, stories and imagery, we create something new and compelling.   Community arts and other artistic processes that engage with neighbourhoods or groups add a new element – many of the stories, ideas and basic images we are working with come from community members who do not consider themselves artists.

For us at MABELLEarts, making artwork that is compelling and evocative, that pushes us to do and be better as artists, is the essential ingredient to artistic alchemy.  Its what we owe to the community members who generously share their stories, ideas and neighbourhood.  Its what we owe ourselves and our colleagues – art that inspires, excites, enlivens and perhaps transforms both the varied places where the work is happening and the ‘art world’ of which we are a part.

Art Starts

Art Starts - Demolition Art House
Art Starts – Demolition Art House


Art Starts - Villaways
Art Starts – Villaways


Alan Gasser: A Visit with Benny Escalante

Benny Escalante: Havana

Benny Escalante: Havana

I wanted to share a video image with you, from which I may hang some of my ideas of artistic excellence, and community engagement:  Havana — a song to the beloved capital city; this is something that happened in my living room last Friday night, a little unexpectedly, while we were having dinner and some discussions about a workshop: included are the grandfather, Benny Escalante, a Cuban nightclub singer from the 50s, visiting his relatives in Toronto; his granddaughter Glenda, playing the piano; his daughter Mireya, who sings and claps on this video; and his son-in-law Mario, who will lead the drumming portion of the workshops…

…All these things…are comforting and sustaining, useful work, and more importantly, occasions for the gathering of our community’s support and deep engagement in the cultural life of our city.  My feeling is this – privately and intuitively, since I cannot confirm things by large income personally, or by the institutional support of the bigger organizations of our city, excepting of course the fantastic understanding of the Toronto Arts Council and our friends at Mariposa in the Schools — that when you take the chance to be engaged, personally and passionately in the search for excellence in music for your community, you may occasionally be surprised or delighted, even overwhelmed, by the sighting of a rare grandfather of Cuban Song, who suddenly and miraculously appears in your living room.  It may even happen that a friend has given you a nifty little HD Video cam, and a tripod, so that you can share this with the world.

And that’s something to be grateful for.  All of these things seem centred upon the notion of inclusion, which is for us the biggest deal of all.  When we try to make something as beautiful as possible, we are always aiming to include as many people in the participation as we can, working hard to empower the voices of many people, not necessarily the most talented or experienced, but the ones who are able to make a consistent commitment to work together with their community…

Yellow Door Learning Centre and the  Bell Box Murals


Bell-Box Mural - Asuma

Yellow Door Learning Centre Bell-Box Mural

In a collaborative effort between 6 St. Joseph House, Bell Canada and other partners, Yellow Door Learning Centre artists have painted 16 telephone junction boxes in Yonge and Bloor neighbourhoods over the last two years.

Located at 6 St Joseph House in downtown Toronto, The Yellow Door Learning Centre provides new ways for people to learn in a welcoming community setting, a place where people share their talents and experience the ongoing journey of life together. The Yellow Door Learning Centre attracts a wide variety of people who are at a crossroads in their lives and are looking for a compassionate and supportive environment to take their next steps. Many participants and volunteers are taking positive steps out of addiction, social isolation, mental illness, unemployment and other challenges to self-sustainability and independence. Yellow Door Learning Centre programs and classes support an individual’s process of self-recovery by nurturing inherent strengths and talents that may have been hidden or forgotten. Our strength-based approach also encourages participants to give back through volunteering and helping others.

Gallery 44’s OUTREACH 2011  &  Zine

Gallery 44's Outreach 2011

Gallery 44's Outreach 2011

Through the OUTREACH program, Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography collaborates with five key community organizations in the G.T.A. to provide black and white darkroom workshops, free of charge, to youth who might not otherwise have access to photography.   Our partners for 2011 are SOY, The Hispanic Development Council, The Harmony Movement, The Malvern Family Resource Centre and the Native Learning Centre. The OUTREACH program also includes a Zine Making workshop where representative youth from each group will have full creative control to create a zine showcasing the work of all of the participants.  The theme for OUTREACH 2011 and the Zine is Resistance/Resilience.  Gallery 44 believes in the importance of working with our communities to foster artistic expression, and dialogue among youth.

Jumblies Theatre: A Winter’s Tale

Jumblies Theatre and The Winter's Tale

SCHC Tamil Seniors' Wellness group during the filming of 'Winter Comes'. Image by Beth Helmers and Sean Frey


This image is from the making of the short film Winter Comes, also by Sean Frey, created as part of a Jumblies Theatre project called The Community Arts Guild in East Scarborough.

When planning a project and aiming for artistic excellence in our work, we think about:

  • Holding on and letting go; choosing the right part of the process for the artist to take control, and the places to invite participants to play, experiment and express themselves.
  • Knowing the group well and choosing an activity or form that works with their natural abilities and inherent qualities.
  • Choosing a compelling theme that’s specific and evocative, but flexible – in this case, Winter Stories, which came from the work we’re doing adapting the play A Winter’s Tale.

The masks were conceived by artist Sean Frey, designed, sculpted and built by youth participants from a local shelter, painted by Sean and visual artists Emma Manchester, Ruth Howard, Elizabeth Burt and Helah Cooper, and finished with hair, fabric and sticks by the youth.  Many people wore them in different scenes of the film.  Here they are worn by a group of Tamil Seniors from a Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities wellness group.  Sean and theatre artist Beth Helmers created movement choreography for the seniors based on movements that came from the group.

The film was finished with music by composer Martin Van de Ven, and the groups involved were delighted to see it screened at Cedar Ridge Creative Centre in the galleries last May.

Send your images and words to, and join us on March 17 for the discussion!


March 17

Montgomery’s Inn

4709 Dundas Street West



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s