On Common Ground allows panel of artists to display work, share stories regarding impact of art for homeless

They say you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their shoes.

So what inferences could be made about a crowd where steel-toe work boots, UGGs, red rubber-boots and runners with the front sole flapping off can be seen?

On Feb. 25, a crowd of about 50 people from the young to the old, and from the homeless to the well-off, all gathered on the main floor of the Calgary Public Library, brought together by the common desire to discuss the relationship between art and homelessness in Calgary.

The discussion, entitled “A Matter of Trust,” was the second of a four-part series, called “On Common Ground,” put together by This is My City Art Society.

The conversation included a panel of four community members, with the combined credentials of writers, visual artists, performing artists, poets and photographers who could relate homelessness and art and bring them together ‘on common ground.’

The panellists included Louise Gallagher, writer and former public relations manager of the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, Max Ciesielski, Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre client and performing artist, Rosemary Griebel, Canadian poet and librarian, and George Webber, a Canadian photographer.

Each of these artists have captured the concept of homelessness in their own way, and have used art to shed light on the issue. They see the purpose and potential behind providing art for marginalized communities.Panelist and photographer George Webber discusses the relationships he has made while creating his projects dealing with homelessness.
Photo by: Lisa Hallet

“I’m always looking for those stories I might be able to connect to and draw inspiration from,” said Webber of his photo projects. “I think on a very practical level that it helped me get through my own life’s challenges and issues.”

When describing his philosophy behind the purpose of the photographs, Webber quoted famous French artist Henri Matisse saying, “The role of a great piece of art is like a comfortable armchair: it gets you through life.”

This has been especially true for David Rhoads, participant of an art program created by the Drop-In Centre.

“(Art) kept me sane,” he said. “Two years ago, I had a pretty bad life. I was on the streets begging for food. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do.

“I was drifting along, trying to kill a day, going through another night, and starting all over again. With art, you definitely network, make new friends and it kills time, which is huge when you’ve got nothing else to do.”

“I’ve really found that when people have something that they feel like they’re contributing to, that they feel like they’re a part of and that they feel is important, it gives them a reason to live; it gives them a purpose.”
—Onalea Gilbertson

Since then, he’s had the opportunity to go into elementary schools and teach young student all about art, which for him, has created some defining moments in his life.

“It was amazing,” Rhoads said. “That’s when I decided that this is what I want to do. This is getting me somewhere. This is making me happy.”

Onalea Gilbertson, volunteer co-founder of the Drop-In Centre Singers, of which Rhoads is also a member, said that she also sees the value of art as a foundation of community building.

“Food for the soul is every bit as important as food for the stomach,” she said.

“I’ve really found that when people have something that they feel like they’re contributing to, that they feel like they’re a part of and that they feel is important, it gives them a reason to live. It gives them a purpose.”

Art helps to build self-esteem and, in turn, is an important component of building a strong community, Gilbertson added.

Ciesielski said that he has also found purpose and significance through the art program at the Drop-In Centre.

“It’s quite easy at the Drop-In to become institutionalized and withdraw into yourself,” he said. “You really tend to beat yourself up. It’s easy as a homeless person to develop a sense of worthlessness. The art program says that maybe you are important.”Max Ciesielski plays the keyboard and sings with the Drop-In Centre Singers at This is My City’s “On Common Ground” discussion.
Photo by: Lisa Hallet

For panellist Gallagher, the art of story-telling is the means of making sense of the world.

“Facts are meaningless until we put the story around them,” she said. “It’s really the story that gives context to anything.”

Gallagher said that it comes down to a matter of trust, especially when telling the stories of other people.

“It is vital that we honour the soul of that individual who has had the courage to share something from their world,” she said. “Lives can transform. Families can reconnect. In every moment, in every way, miracles can happen because of the stories we share. Standing heart to heart, we touch the truth of our human condition.”

The next “On Common Ground” discussion will be held Mar. 31, 2012 at 1:30 p.m. at the Calgary Public Library central location. It will focus on the effects of urban renewal on Calgary communities and history.

lhallet@cjournal.ca