Artists at Heart of the City Festival throw fresh light on the Downtown Eastside

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      Images don’t get much more diverse than the ones dancing across the wall of Richard Tetrault’s Strathcona studio. A Ukrainian folk performer, First Nations artists, an African-Canadian/Cherokee singer, a Japanese taiko drummer, a Latin-American guitarist, and a Chinese pipa player all find space amid the figures in his massive new triptych.

      The piece marks 13 years of the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, a celebration that encompasses more than 100 events, from storytelling and poetry to film, theatre, and history walks.

      “It’s a microcosm of the Downtown Eastside—the idea of having different figures stand in for all the different disciplines there,” says the artist, speaking in his expansive space in front of the mural, the rest of the walls stacked with leaning and hanging paintings and prints of the neighbourhood he has devoted most of his career—almost four decades—to capturing. “Every one is an actual person and many I know or have known personally,” he says, studying the figures he’s painted in the work, which will be officially unveiled at the fest’s opening ceremony next Wednesday (October 26) at the Carnegie Centre.

      Images of such renowned figures as Bud Osborn and Dalannah Gail Bowen crowd into Richard Tetrault's latest work.
      David Cooper

      It’s just one of a series of visual-arts-minded projects happening at Heart of the City, whose theme for 2016 is “Living on Shared Territory”. Aside from the new mural, carver Skundaal Bernie Williams will be raising her Survivors Totem Pole in Pigeon Park and Jumblies Theatre will helm a community project that creates entire miniature worlds that depict the title’s Realms of Refuge.

      As for Tetrault’s mural, it was commissioned to capture the fest’s past and present performers, as well as the artistic legacy of a neighbourhood often unfairly summed up with dismissive headlines about the down-and-out.

      “I remember somebody once writing a piece about the Downtown Eastside that was so relentlessly depressing and unresearched, and I thought really what I want to do is show the other side of it,” Tetrault emphasizes. “Not that I don’t know the negative side, and some of that is in my work; I don’t want to put blinders on. But if they think that’s all there is to the Downtown Eastside, they’re missing the boat. Only when you go into the Downtown Eastside and don’t drive through it do you realize the complexity and mutual support there is. And that’s what the festival is: accentuating the positive.”

      To create it, Tetrault, who’s well-known for his community mural work and depictions of East Side alleyways and storefronts, worked from photos collected over the years by Heart of the City organizer Vancouver Moving Theatre. You’ll recognize artists like Dalannah Gail Bowen and Diane Wood in his painting. Late poet Bud Osborn has a central place in the mural, his book Lonesome Monsters poking out of his windblown pocket. “I see him as being such a powerful force in the Downtown Eastside and such a creative force,” says Tetrault of Osborn, who turned his life around from drug use and alcoholism to perform poetry about the people of the ’hood.

      “I wanted it to be uplifting,” Tetrault notes, considering the painting, with its rich yellows, oranges, and blues flowing together with his signature geometric background forms and spontaneous-feeling brushwork. “I didn’t want it to have a melancholy aspect to it. They’re the positive forces in the community, and the challenge, really, was to give them all individuality.”

      Elsewhere at Heart of the City, festivalgoers are invited to turn their own ideas into miniature worlds that they can animate with storytelling or poetry.

      Called Realms of Refuge, the two-week residency produced by Vancouver Moving Theatre and Toronto’s Jumblies Theatre brings local artists like weaver Sharon Kallis together with the community. Jumblies Theatre founding artistic director Ruth Howard says she based the process on workshops she’s done elsewhere across the country.

      The project Realms of Refuge creates miniature worlds at the Heart of the City Festival.

      “Since my childhood, it’s something I’ve loved to do,” explains Howard, who’s visited the Heart of the City Festival before. “I also work in theatre design, so I’ve done maquettes and made a lot of little things into big things. But it’s kind of fun not to have to make something big out of them, but just enjoy them as miniatures. And if you’re dealing with any disturbing material, such as images from a residential school or images of death, there’s something about it being small that can help people to deal with it.”

      Howard says the process will start with asking people for four realms—“senses, memory, history, and dreams”—to do with places for refuge, and using drawing templates to bring those ideas to life and separate them into four “lands”.

      “From that, we start to build a gallery,” she explains. “Then people are invited to take something from their own idea or someone else’s drawing, and we have lots of little miniature-making supplies to represent whatever it is.” Those miniatures—built mostly from light wood, found objects, paper, and stones—get set on four tables representing the four “lands”. From there, conversations are sparked, and then poetry, music, or “gentle performance”, as she calls it, starts to happen around the miniature worlds.

      Jumblies Theatre founding artistic director Ruth Howard will lead workshops that she's held across the country.
      Liam Coo

      The multilevel, multidisciplinary aspect of Realms of Refuge is part of what makes it work so well, as Howard has learned working with communities big and small, urban and rural, over the years. “When you’re trying to include a lot of people, it’s nice to have a lot of entry points that are friendly and accessible,” she explains. “I also like the mix of structure and improvisation. The mix of control and lack of control is kind of fun.”

      In other words, just what the final miniature refuges will look like is impossible to predict—and that’s entirely the point. But, like Tetrault’s mural, they will help add to Heart of the City’s ongoing portrait of a neighbourhood richer and more diverse than most people realize.

      The Heart of the City Festival runs from next Wednesday (October 26) to November 6 around the Downtown Eastside.