A call for submissions is always a terrifying leap into the unknown. Especially when the deadline fast approaches. Especially when the theme is difficult or narrow. How would artists respond to issues of justice – especially local justice. What type of work would emerge? Would it be strong work? Would submissions function well as art, inviting us into a hospitable conversation and wrestling, or would they be too didactic and ‘preachy’? With #JusticeYEG: The Gallery I felt afraid for all of those reasons, plus the fact that we, Bleeding Heart Art Space, were pairing up with a brand new event, #JusticeYEG, and we could predict little about who would attend and how it would all turn out.
My fears, as usual, were a waste of energy. #JusticeYEG: The Gallery brought together excellent work from 8 artists. Thanks to the Bleeding Heart Arts Lead, Grace Law, the show was a stellar success. Special walls were brought in to hang the work, and three musicians (Darren Day, Venessa B and Passburg) provided ambiance for our Friday night opening. With well over a hundred conference attendees, the Gallery got a good viewing. In the future, I’d love to see the Gallery space open to the public, so that even more people can experience the work. We’ll see what we can do.
Before I get to the work itself, I have to mention this one little thing, because it makes me giddy. We had real-deal vinyl letters for our Gallery signage! This was a first for The Bleeding Heart, and it made me feel all grown up. It's amazing how little things make a big difference. Thanks again to Grace Law for arranging this – it added an extra level of professionalism to already great work.
Now, about that work.
As you entered the gallery, you were greeted by black and white portraits of Edmonton’s homeless community. These were taken by Pieter de Vos, over a 10 year period in the mid 90’s to mid-2000’s. As photographs, they are excellent pieces. As storytelling, they make strong connections to our own lives. It is obvious de Vos got to know his subjects and was able to present them not as some stereotype of ’street people’, but as people with human, touching stories. No sentimentality here, just instants pulled from lifetimes of lived story, stirring curiosity about who these people were, and are, and how we may be like them.
Next was another series of photographs, these part of a larger project called Life Squared that we will be working with next spring. Life Squared pairs seven local photographers with seven parolees, trying to reintegrate into society after a prison sentence. In #JusticeYEG we focussed in on one of these parolees, with beautiful photographs showing that his life is much more than his past. The show can be seen in a special preview this weekend at the Red Ribbon Building. There will also be a discussion panel featuring some of the participants. More info can be found at lifesquared.ca.
On the next wall we encountered another story. Leonard (Lenoose) Martial lived on the street for three decades, and documented life on Edmonton’s streets through a series of photos and short writings. Each pairing of image and text lets us enter that world in a personal, candid way. For our gallery, we had to narrow many pieces down to just nine. An image of a cat emerging from a door sticks out in my mind. In the text, Lenoose reflects how that cat gave him something – someone – to care for. We get the sense that caring for someone else was part of his healing and eventual exit from street life. It’s a powerful image and powerful thought that transcends the street and makes a home in our own lives. You can read a photo-essay from Alberta Views on Lenoose’s work here, on the Boyle Street Community Services website.
Paintings followed the photographs, the first being a painting of the oil sands, in aerial view, by Julie Drew. Next to that was a photograph of multiple crosses by Andrew Bolton, layered dark and deep, washed in the black-earth tones of crude oil. It was interesting to watch these two images speak to one another in the space.
On the next panel was a massive painting of a homeless person, ‘harvesting’ bottles, by Michael Brown. Paired with that image was another painting by Julie Drew, much smaller, of a literal harvest of wheat. A subtext, about our role in harvesting a new kingdom filled with justice, built strong connection between the paintings.
Outside the walls remained two sculptural pieces. At the back was a colourful character, called ’The Wanderer' by Richard ‘Rico’ Reyes, hanging near the wall. This piece offered another reflection on homelessness and its restlessness. At the front was a massive podium by Adam Tenove. Atop a platform covered in what I can only call ‘church carpet’, stood a podium constructed roughly and covered, or fenced off, in metal mesh with barbed wire. At the rear, viewers were invited to step up behind the podium, where a book was permanently carved into its shelf. The corner teased us to ’turn the page’, which was, of course, impossible. The podium is open to many interpretations, but I left with a sense of the rigidity of our Christian positions, and the disconnect between our shouting at others about salvation, and our lack of action in social justice. We often preach from a book, perhaps a Bible, stuck on one page. I think we each have our own favourite pages that ’stick’, blinding us to a fuller understanding of the world, or even our own faith. The fact that the podium was covered in wire surely says something about how our words, delivered from a higher-than-thou position, are often unwelcome.
All in all, the gallery made an impact on me, and my hope is that it got others thinking too. If you have thoughts on any of the pieces, please comment below.
At Bleeding Heart we encourage work that invites us to ‘Stop and listen. Engage. Wrestle.” Work exactly like the pieces presented at #JusticeYEG this past weekend.
Thank you to Grace Law for curating the exhibit, to all of the volunteers who helped bring it to life and for the artists who opened their hearts and made themselves vulnerable in sharing their work with us. Thanks as well to Aaron Vanimere for taking these excellent photos of the exhibit space.
And now on to the next show ...