About two weeks ago I had a conversation with the man whose house I was painting about why I do what I do – why travel so far away from home, why decide to work outdoors – in short, why is some random girl from Canada painting his house? What’s in it for me?
The thing is, right now it’s not really about me. When I left I had a pretty good idea of the kind of work I was going to be doing here. Before we went out to find a wall, I had a solid plan for the first wall I was going to paint. As a side note, in Woodstock that process involves walking around and asking people if you can paint their house or shop – what a nice change from dealing with permits and paperwork in Vancouverland. My plan, as always, involved portraiture. I don’t think I’ve ever painted a wall with anything but a picture of a person, regardless of medium. But in this case, that wasn’t really an option.
It’s Thursday and I am painting a forest of trees growing from his front stoop. There’s another one, a big one, on his side wall, overlooking a patch of bare earth where eventually a garden will grow. It’s Thursday and he is fasting. Like many in this community, he is Muslim – and for religious reasons, was not going to be ok with faces on his wall. So, he asked me if I could paint him a tree. Ok, I can paint trees. I’ve been drawing them for years, but never put one on a wall before. So, a drastic last minute change of plans. After all, he has to live with my work on his home every day until he moves out or paints over it.
We’ve talked quite a bit as I work, about how in situations like this, yes I am painting for myself, but even moreso than that, it’s about giving back to a community that has welcomed me with open arms. Woodstock has its problems, some of which are very similar to problems in the DTES back home, but on a completely different scale. And like Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, the sense of community is so very strong. There is more tangible hope here. Yes, like in many poor neighborhoods, gentrification is increasingly becoming a reality – but here there are also positive changes coming from within. Write on Africa/ A WORD OF ART has been curating and organizing mural installations in and around Woodstock for the past two years, and when you walk through the streets you can feel the pride that people take in their homes, in their neighborhood. The children are playing in the streets and going to the gallery every day for open art sessions. They crowd around me as I work, singing and asking a million questions and helping me paint the wall. On the second day, we all write our names at the base of the big wall, and the older kids and adults join in – a community of roots nourishing a tree of life.
This is why I do what I do. Why I am here, halfway around the world, painting a strangers’ house. Because I believe in the power of art and creativity to effect positive change. I believe that if you give love and respect to a community, it will be contagious. I believe that I – that we – can help change how people see themselves, their surroundings, and their place in the world.