Sherbourne Health Centre Mosaic

The Sherbourne Health Centre has partnered with Red Dress Productions to facilitate a community-engaged mosaic project. They will host a reception and official unveiling of the mosaic on Tuesday, June 21 at 7 PM. Refreshments and special guests will be included, as will an opportunity to name the mosaic. Check out this link for more information.

Located at the intersection of Regent Park, St James Town and the Church-Wellesley Village, the Sherbourne Health Centre (SHC) serves a diversity of communities in southeast Toronto. The Centre’s primary concern is providing accessible health care, affording particular attention to Canadian newcomers, the LGBT community, and the homeless and under-housed. As an interdisciplinary community centre, the SHC is more than a traditional health-care provider; outreach, mentoring, health promotion and education programs are central components of their programming. This broad range of services has contributed to the Centre’s role as a place of social connection and engagement for local residents. Providing a welcoming, safe oasis within a rapidly changing area, the SHC has become a neighbourhood hub of inclusive activity and interaction. Although it has only been open for eight years, many local residents have formed close attachments to the SHC, and consider it an essential resource for the surrounding communities.

This local appreciation is evident in the overwhelming participation in the SHC’s mosaic project, which will be mounted on the facility’s exterior wall when completed. In partnership with community-arts facilitator Red Dress Productions, the SHC invited clients and local residents to contribute to the mosaic. After years of thoughtful planning and careful preparation, the project is finally nearing its culmination: the mosaic will be unveiled on Tuesday, June 21. I spoke with lead artist and Red Dress co-founder Anna Camilleri about the project, and how public arts can benefit a community.

Lead artist Anna Camilleri cuts a piece of mosaic tile.

Lead artist Anna Camilleri cuts a piece of mosaic tile.

Anna and co-lead artist Tristan R. Whiston are local residents themselves, and have been involved with the Health Centre for years as both artists and mentors. A few years ago, they realized that they would love to spearhead a community-engaged arts venture with the Centre, recognizing its importance within the region. After successfully pitching the idea to the SHC, and securing project funding from the Toronto Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council, Anna and Tristan began the preliminary stages of planning the project.

The difficulty in designing something for community participation, Anna says, is balancing exciting aesthetics with achievability. An essential quality of this project is its total accessibility: Anna and Tristan were adamant about including everyone who wanted to contribute. To accommodate this ethos, they had to ensure a multitude of tasks that could suit a range of participants. The flexible medium of mosaic helped in this regard, as it requires minimal dexterity, and allows for a number of people to work simultaneously. Anna’s design further develops the project’s versatility, by strategically incorporating elements of varying difficulty.

The end result is visually impressive, but the array of contributors is even more extraordinary. Anna tells me that over 300 community members have contributed in some way, offering everything from conceptual ideas to tile-cutting labour. Participants include a wide variety of ages, genders, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, artistic experiences, and health statuses. The youngest contributor is two, and the oldest is in her nineties; people with degrees of blindness were also able to contribute, since mosaic is a tactile medium.

In addition to beautifying the neighbourhood, one of the project’s major purposes is to capture the spirit of the Health Centre, and then broadcast that message to local residents. “The current [SHC] building doesn’t really represent the vibrancy of its programs- we heard this from many clients and community members during the consultations,” Anna says. With colourful panels that feature symbolic imagery, Anna hopes to communicate the SHC’s positive atmosphere to the general public.

“We want people to walk by and think, ‘I’m welcome here.’”

As Anna often finds with community-engaged arts, the process itself has proven equally as important as the intended product. It is the first program at the SHC that brings together clients and employees from all of its sectors, providing an anomalous opportunity for inter-disciplinary connection.

“What’s great is that people who come for certain programs get the chance to meet community members who use other [SHC] services. It also brings together the different workers; a chiropractor might be working alongside a maintenance worker or a nurse.”

With music playing in the background while people work in the studio, stories and jokes tend to flow between participants, creating a convivial atmosphere of bonding and trust. The community has enjoyed working on the project so much that, in anticipation of the mosaic’s imminent conclusion, they’ve already started thinking about starting another art project in the neighbourhood.

When asked to offer advice to fellow community arts practitioners, Anna emphasizes one thing: be realistic about your work. Organizing a community-engaged project entails endless tasks and responsibilities, and Anna says it’s easy to underestimate the time commitment required. If the Sherbourne Health Centre mosaic is any example, though, the hard work can lead to both stunning works of public art, and unique opportunities for community rejuvenation.

Amy Goudge is the Summer 2011 Membership Intern at the Neighbourhood Arts Network.

RED DRESS PRODUCTIONS (RDP)  creates and disseminates interdisciplinary art and performance projects, and works with/in communities on large-scale, community-engaged public artworks. Founded in 2005 by Artistic Co-Directors Anna Camilleri and Tristan R. Whiston, RDP is particularly interested in collaborative artistic practices, and the interaction between community narratives and urban public space. For information about Red Dress Productions, please visit  http://reddressproductions.blogspot.com> or email <reddressproductions@gmail.com>.

All images are courtesy of the Red Dress Productions blog.

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