How OPEN WALLS is Opening My Eyes to Community

It's Friday morning, and I'm wondering what help I'm going to have for the big install. Most installs are simpler than this. Maybe a dozen pieces from one artist with just a couple of variations in size and structure. Usually, artworks arrive grouped together into a cohesive vision (that is, after all, how the artist landed the solo show in the first place). This install is much harder; this is OPEN WALLS.

OPEN WALLS began last fall as a grand experiment. What would happen if we handed our gallery walls over to the community for a month? What if our walls became an 'open mic' for visual art from all over the city? 

I had seen this happen years earlier. When the Edmonton Art Gallery closed its doors, it decided there was no harm in putting thousands of new holes in walls that would soon be demolished. The Gallery opened its walls to submissions from anyone and long lineups formed. Just about every inch of free space in the Gallery was covered. The result was beautiful chaos. 

That was a long time ago. Too long, so we decided this should be a regular occurrence in our creative city. That brings me back to Friday morning.

Right at 10 AM, when I've asked for help, Gou knocks at the door. I sigh with relief for the company. 

The first step is wrangling this kaleidoscope of submission into less of a tie-dyed t-shirt and more of a rainbow. We lay the 50 pieces along our walls and look around. Where are things coming together? Where are there irresolvable disconnects? Patterns emerge. Some pieces join as if by magnetism. 

We begin with the obvious. Let's bring the landscapes together. Abstracts on this wall. Portraits in the entry. Massive pieces anchor entire walls while smaller pieces coalesce around them.

It takes us more than an hour to solve the 'Tetris-ity' of this show in our heads, but things are clicking now. We start to hang, making three holes for every nail on our first attempts. 

There is no uniformity here. Some canvases have wires while others have hooks and others have nothing. Some pieces are in frames, and a few are simply on paper. All of this non-conformity takes time and care to accommodate. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' in OPEN WALLS. We set a top 'line' at 70 inches to align the upper-most pieces, which means the nail heights all need to be measured and calculated. Then, when things don't look right, calculated again. Hence, three holes.

We learn as we go, having the courage to begin even in our ignorance. There is no other way to hang a show like this. Some problems are only solved from the inside, by getting your hands dirty.

I high-five Gou when our first wall is finished. Then our second and third. We are moving now. Soon Gou needs to leave, and I need to eat. 

After lunch, I'm joined by Harry, a new friend here at Bleeding Heart, and an artist in this show. Josefine, a regular volunteer and artist, comes along soon after, and we're back in business. 

One corner draws in yellows, greens and blues, including Josefine's sheep peeking through a clothesline of yellow linens. On another wall, a massive singular colour-bomb is balanced out by four smaller works to its left. Pieces come together, and the show is more than a collection of disparate works. Each work takes on new resonance in its context. More proficient pieces raise the aesthetic of entire sections, supporting the art of beginning artists. Splashes of colour bookend a wall of black and whites, corralling our eyes toward pieces we might have missed on their own. 

It's 3:20 now. Just minutes before (ok, after) I should leave to get my kids from school. Harry hammers the final nail, and Josefine hangs the frame, and the show looks better than any of us imagined; this somehow works. Disparate melodies have become harmony. 

For a moment I can forget that soon more works will arise, disrupt the balance into new tension, requiring further problem solving, welcome and accommodation. 

Community takes work, but the effort is worth it. 

I am again astounded by the offerings that come forward when we do nothing more than 'open our walls'. 

Could it be so simple–that radical hospitality is all we need to experience deep community?

We were not meant to be alone. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses–our shortfalls waiting to be covered over or propped up by the gifts of a neighbour. 

These are not new ideas. In Christianity, the concept of the Church being a body made up of many parts has always appealed to me. Here is that idea worked out by Paul in the book of 1 Corinthians; 

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."

I Corinthians 12: 21-26, NIV

Perhaps the hardest lesson here is that community does not come from homogeneity, but diversity.

We are not all the same, and when we practice acceptance by normalisation–by sanding off the beautiful edges of those on the margins–we are not helping anyone. 

The question isn't whether I can see all diversity as 'normal', but whether I can welcome deviations from the 'norm'. Are we not learning, always, that none of us is 'normal' anyways?

Equality and sameness are different concepts, and only one should be our goal in building a beautiful, 'open-walled' community.

If you want to see this community for yourself, come down Saturdays between 11 AM and 3 PM.  

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