When artist John Marris develops art making programs for street-involved youth, people with mental health challenges, and people living in poverty, he’s keenly aware that people who face marginalization have incredible stories to share creatively but lack the opportunities to do so.
That’s why Marris — unlike a teacher in a typical hierarchical art class who instructs less-experienced students — sees himself as a facilitator in a collaborative space where everyone has something of value to share.
During his artist residency with Trent Radio’s “Your Radio is Their Stage” project, Marris is honing in on the importance of community art projects with a radio program that reflects on the experience of running these programs over the last three years.
“To be human is to be an artist,” he explains. “The idea is to get away from art as something exclusive or something based around the financial value of the art product — something limited to certain people who either can afford not to earn a living or can make money by being a full-time artist.”
Marris is an experienced artist with work ranging from digital and film photography to creating and documenting green-wood sculptures, printmaking, poetry, collage, mosaics, and hand-building with clay. When facilitating a program, he considers his skills and experiences to be something participants can access as they all make art together.
“The argument that’s made in creating community art experiences is that art is part of everybody’s life practice,” Marris says. “Without an opportunity to express ourselves and be creative, we’re missing something in our lives.”
Everyone benefits from community art making, according to Marris, including the experienced artist facilitating the program. Community art making create an opportunity for individuals with varied backgrounds and challenges to express their own personal experiences while being present with others doing the same.
“You find a peace and presence that is really vital and valuable,” Marris says. “It’s super valuable to me. We often talk about the moment when the room goes quiet — suddenly everybody’s making art. It has a real beauty to it.”
And while Marris admits self-expression alone won’t solve the challenges experienced by those who attend these programs, he argues it’s a necessity — even a right — often forgotten for those struggling the most.
“We’re not radically changing lives,” Marris says about community art. “It’s not providing housing. It’s not deep, intensive therapy. But for the moments that people are present in that work, I think there’s a great joy in the work that people produce.”
Marris’s radio program for his “Your Radio is Their Stage” project will feature interviews with many people involved in running community art programs in Peterborough, as well as several people who attend and participate in the programs.
“There’s quite a lot of written work and poetry that people put together,” Marris says. “Playing with poetic forms and writing forms is part of the work we do in these community settings. So I’m also going to be sharing some of the work participants have created themselves in this radio program, by recording them reading it out loud.”
At its heart, Marris’s program will feature a conversation with artist and psychotherapist Brian Nichols, with whom Marris has collaborated on several projects. Their conversation will reflect upon their shared experience facilitating and developing community art programs in Peterborough. It was a community art project Nicholls started at The Mount Community Centre that re-directed Marris’s artistic practice over the past three years.
While community has always stimulated Marris’s artistic practice and he has long been involved with community projects and social development, he began focusing on collaborative community art programs after attending the weekly drop-in events Nicholls had organized at The Mount.
“Brian started the project kind of as an open community studio that ran once a week,” Marris recalls. “I was asked by Brian to be one of the artists. It would rotate through quite a large group of artists — I think twenty plus different artists got involved in that project.”
Although only required to attend the studio once every few weeks, Marris enjoyed it so much he started attending every Tuesday morning.
“I wanted to go and make art with people,” Marris says. “It was something to do and a place to meet friends.”
Marris then also became involved with a project at the YES Shelter for Youth and Families, which was looking to connect youth struggling with housing and various issues in the community with their services.
“They hosted this evening at the library where there was food, health kits, supplies and haircuts, and other stuff like that,” says Marris. “They asked me if I would attend and I said, ‘Sure, I’m going to take along art supplies, is that okay?'”
That weekly drop-in event soon morphed into something arts-focused, where youth could come and make art, eat food, and chat.
Around the same time, Marris became an artist in residence in the mental health services department at Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). In January 2020, he launched a community art making program at PRHC, similar to the one Nicholls started at The Mount Community Centre.
“I would go in with a team of two or three other artists each week and facilitate art making with inpatients, outpatients, and youth from the adolescent psych department,” Marris explains. “It was so successful they had to give us a second room.”
When the pandemic shut down both programs, Marris began running online and outdoor versions of the YES Shelter and PRHC programs. In January 2021, he facilitated the return to a COVID-safe in-person weekly drop-in program for street-involved youth in collaboration with the YES Shelter. The program was able to launch thanks to supportive funding from the Ontario Arts Council. The program, which is still running, allows street-involved youth to make art every Wednesday afternoon. Food, connection to services, and support are also available at each drop-in session.
“Other people have been doing similar and interesting projects,” Marris notes. “Brian Nicholls runs a project out of One City, which now has a dedicated art room in their building available for street-involved people. It’s an art-making project that runs every Monday afternoon and serves people in the community who are struggling with housing and are often homeless. I tend to go to that, but as a volunteer.”
Reflecting on his involvement in these programs, Marris believes everyone in the Peterborough community should have proper access to art.
“It would be lovely to have funding for a permanent art space in downtown Peterborough people could drop into, with certain programming at certain times a day and certain times in the week, where they could get access to hot coffee and something to eat, and sit down and make art,” Marris says. “Peterborough needs something like this. We have a significant homeless population — a significant population in our downtown are struggling with the way the world is set up at the moment. They’re suffering from significant marginalization through poverty and addiction and ill-health.”
“Everybody in our community has a right to access art,” he adds. “Art education in schools has been significantly eroded over the last decade or two, and is seen as a kind of luxury when I think it should be at the heart of how we learn and who we are.”
Marris’s radio program is set to broadcast from 6 to 7:30 p.m on Sunday, March 6 on Trent Radio at 92.7 CFFF FM in Peterborough, 287 on Cogeco Cable, and online at www.trentradio.ca.
Since fall 2021, Trent Radio’s “Your Radio Is Their Stage” artist residency project has featured textile artist Melanie McCall (September to October), Jose Miguel Hernandez (October to November) JoEllen Brydon (November to December), and Gillian Turnham (January to February). Poet Justin Million’s residency, originally scheduled for December to January, is taking place in spring 2022.
A special broadcast of the reimagined work of all participating artists, called “Radio Project Day”, is scheduled for Tuesday, May 24th.
“Your Radio Is Their Stage” is made possible by the Community Radio Fund of Canada, the only organization mandated to support campus and community radio stations in Canada financially.
This story was created in partnership with Trent Radio, a producer-oriented broadcast facility that started as a Trent University student club in 1968. Sponsored and designed by students from Trent University, Trent Radio incorporated as a registered charity in 1978. Trent Radio currently holds a Community Broadcast License, and is a resource that is shared with the Nogojiwanong-Peterborough community.
This story has been updated to correct the dates for Justin Million’s residency and the Radio Project Day broadcast.