At its core Vancouver’s long-running Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival is all about the strength and beauty of community. It makes sense then that artist Richard Tetrault tapped into that spirit when he set out to expand on The Gathering, a much-loved triptych first unveiled to honour the fest in 2016.
Tetrault created the original work on his own, paying tribute to the Downtown Eastside’s rich and colourful history and characters with images ranging from a Japanese taiko drummer and Ukrainian folk performer to urban poet Bud Osborn to blues giant Dalannah Gail Bowen.
Now on view at the Carnegie Centre Theatre as part of this year’s 19th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, The Gathering has been expanded with an additional seven new panels. This time Tetrault threw things open to fellow artists during the creation process, with Charlene Johnny, Marissa Nahanee, and Jerry Whitehead joining him in the studio.
“I really like the idea of engaging artists of the community who have a history in the community,” Tetrault says in an interview with the Straight. “And also who had different reference points where they could bring different symbolisms to the pieces—they contributed designs and motifs that locate the murals specifically in this territory of the Coast Salish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam. We weren’t able to cover all the bases, but we definitely used symbolisms that run behind the figures.”
Those checking out the expanded work will find motifs linking to the original The Gathering, including Salish Territory-inspired water patterns, large eagle feathers to represent air, and earth themes.
“It was very important to do that,” Tetrault notes, “and artistically that was a really interesting step and evolution of these pieces.”
Johnny, Nahanee, and Whitehead, meanwhile, helped bring a new approach and vibe to The Gathering.
“Engaging other artists was interesting because it helped break up my way of working, which was good,” Tetrault reveals. “I don’t really like the idea of repeating myself, so this idea of collaborating was something I really enjoyed. It also seemed important thematically, because, really, what the festival is all about, and a lot of my art projects on the street are about, is collaboration. So it was a logical thing to make that link here.”
The Downtown Eastside has of course had its challenges over the years, with Hastings Street during the past 12 months sparking new calls for strategies on treating some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens.
“There’s so many levels of despair and desperation on the street,” Tetrault acknowledges. “So it’s important to remind people that there’s real community in the Downtown Eastside. This [festival] is one small way to do that—it’s like an assertion that the community is still here, in spite of all the tribulations. Obviously there are real issues that haven’t been mitigated the last decade, and have escalated. That underscores the importance for this kind of thing to happen—for the arts to really rise above and try to uplift people’s spirits.
“Carnegie, and the Heart of the City Festival, is really emblematic of that,” he continues. “The ways that people participate with, and engage with, others in meaningful ways and with cultural exchanges, is kind of like a celebration throughout the duration of the festival. It shows the diversity of what else is going on.”
And celebrating diversity is a great leaping off point for the latest evolution of The Gathering. Finding key figures for the new panels was in many ways the easy part of things.
“Being a tribute piece, with every piece there are either more people that we lose, or people whoe rise up to the surface,” Tetrault says. “So they should be included in a mural piece that embraces the community. That’s an ever-expanding circle. The first triptych only captured a symbolic representation of the people down here—something like 16 figures. But I think it was pretty strong and it resonated with the Heart of the City Festival and the community. So there was a desire from several directions to expand it.”
The 2022 edition of The Gathering, which now features over 65 familiar faces, includes everyone from political and social activists (Sid Tan, Jim Green, and Kat Norris) to musicians, creative writers, and theatre creatives.
“It’s across the spectrum, and as much as they are specific portraits of people, they are also symbolic of a broader community,” Tetrault says. “The idea is to make the [Carnegie] theatre the site of an uplifting tribute that will surround people and give them a sense of reassurance of their sense of community.”
One of the challenges of that expanded work remains how to pay tribute to humble and hardworking people in a way that fits the way they’ve selflessly worked to make th Downtown Eastside a vibrant and welcoming place.
“I think it’s really important to not mythologize them exactly, but maybe elevate them and show them in the context of their community,” Tetrault suggests. “In my own work I like to kind of paint figures where I’m stylizing or mythologizing them into more epic kinds of figures. In this project it was important that they look like people. You have to be able to look at them and go ‘That’s Sid.’”
The Gathering is currently on view at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre as part of the 19th annual Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. For more information on the fest, which runs until November 6, go here.