Anna Gaby-Trotz is a graduate of the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Alberta. She recently completed her artist-in-residence term at Boyle Street Community Services located in the heart of downtown Edmonton. Her latest exhibition on display in Enterprise Square features photographs of the inner city population that attends Boyle Street Community Services’ drop-in centre. Underneath each photograph are six words the subjects picked to represent themselves. You can catch the exhibition in Enterprise Square before it concludes on September 5th, 2012. More of her work can be found here.
How did you end up working at Boyle Street?
Well I finished my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) degree in December. And then this job came up. I used to guide wilderness trips with that kind of population and I wanted to do something when I was done school that brought me back to the community.
I felt that that was something that was missing in the university. I love school and university and got a lot out of it but there’s a separation between the inner city and the university. I wanted to take the skills that I learned at school and my background working with populations at risk and do something in the form of an art project.
So then what function does art have for you personally?
Personally it has always guided where I have gone. No matter what I’m doing. I’m always looking at “Can I photograph this?” or “What can I bring to the places that I’m in?” And that always directs where I go in some way: whether it’s guiding wilderness trips or you know, doing a Masters.
What’s the function of art in a community?
I feel it connects people in a way that other mediums can’t. My role at Boyle Street is interesting because I connect with people in a way that a mental health worker doesn’t. Someone who is an outreach worker has a certain role to fill. When someone comes to me, as an artist, I’m not going to ask about their background. “Have you been to prison?” “What drugs are you on?” It doesn’t matter to me. We relate to each other in a way that other services can’t provide. It’s on a basic human level. I can look at someone who is doing art, whether it’s good or bad, I can see something in them that other people don’t. That gives people a certain freedom of expression.
Where I worked before, in the Ottawa Valley, our philosophy was that you can’t train someone how to interact on a human level. So they would hire people from all backgrounds. When people got off the bus we’d pick them up from downtown Toronto and drive them to the remote wilderness and do a five day trip with them. When they stepped off the bus, most staff didn’t know that they were paranoid, schizophrenic, or that they were heavily medicated. They don’t need to know. There were a few staff that were trained and knew the medical history and background but for the most part you could hardly tell an agency staff from a community member. I really like that. It’s refreshing, for the clients too. It shows that we’re not so far away from each other. In my mind, we’re a few decisions, a few unfortunate happenings from going from working at these places to having these places serve us.
Describe your first day at Boyle Street.
My first day. I started in the coldest part of the winter. I started February. It was minus 30, minus 40, and Boyle Street in the winter – it’s like stepping into a different planet. It’s like falling off the map. All of a sudden you go from the university experience, all the space and time and people are really interested in you, and you have all this privilege. Stepping into the drop-in that probably has hundreds of people in it, people in the highest crisis point of winter. They’re one step away from freezing on the street. The sight, smell, and feeling of that kind of anxiety was really challenging. I knew what I was getting into but I don’t think I knew what it would feel like to be part of that and to try and figure out a way to bring art in. That is really intimidating at first because you’re used to having this kind of rapt audience at university. You’re teaching, you got this real lead up to things. At Boyle Street there’s none of that.
How did you begin to establish that connection between yourself and the Boyle Street community?
I just left my door open basically. One of the first things I did, I started to do linocut of a sign. I called it the art shop. And I took a newspaper clipping of some community members of Boyle Street and turned it into a lino-block (linoleum block). So I just sit down in the drop-in and I wouldn’t say much. I’d just sit at a table and carve, and people would come up to me and tell me about their own art, or themselves, or just kinda watch. My office was the first door on the left when you walked into the drop-in. So I kept my door open and just chatted with people as they came in to see what I was doing. It was slow. It probably took me two or three months to get established and connected there but it had to happen that way. It couldn’t be a forced thing. The community at Boyle Street is pretty strong and tight and they can tell when people are putting on a front. So they needed that time to trust me and I needed that time too.
Was it hard getting to know the people there?
Sometimes. But immediately there were some really amazing people who just stepped right up and made that transition easy for me. But yeah it’s hard because people are often coming and going and their focus isn’t necessarily on a project. So you get people coming into the “art shop” and they’re really excited, they’ve got all these ideas, and then you don’t see them for three months or maybe you never see them again. I started to have to work fast in those circumstances, I don’t make appointments with people and say let’s meet in a week. “Let’s do it now.” I say if you want to do something let’s not wait until the perfect day.
How did the community respond to your art at first?
People were generally interested. One of the first activities I did was Valentines’ Day card-making out of lino-blocks. And we probably had 15 or 16 people participate. At Boyle Street if you get two people that’s considered a success. So I think people were excited to have something new going on. And then seeing how people reacted to the portraits was really amazing because several of the community members showed up to the opening to see themselves in the gallery. They were just super excited to have their pictures up and to be listened to. It created a real buzz around Boyle Street: That something was happening, somebody was listening, and people could get something tangible out of it. I wanted it to be a project where people could walk away with something. I’m giving people their portraits so it’s not something that just stays in a gallery and it’s not something that’s so abstract that no one can get it.
Did the opening show of the exhibition change how art was viewed at Boyle Street?
I think it did. Even the staff who came, I think they didn’t expect art to have such an impact on a community. So I think people are starting to see the value of these programs. And it proves that it is necessary to have someone there who’s listening and watching and portraying the community in a different way. Because I don’t think people often see Boyle Street community members as strong and vibrant people. Often people think of the inner city and they assume inner city people are down and out. That’s all they choose to see.
Moving forward, are you going to be continuing working with inner city populations or do you have different plans?
Well my next project is kind of the opposite of this. I’m photographing the Northwest Passage for an AFA grant. I’m going back to my landscape roots. I think I could have a job back at Boyle Street again if I wanted to. I could see myself for sure bringing the inner city to other projects. My goal is to teach at the university and I would love for this experience to fuel bringing the inner city to the university instead of always bringing the university to the inner city.
I think it’s interesting because the university is always interested in projects like mine but at the same time they don’t really want to give up the space. Like if I were to say could I bring a Boyle Street workshop into the university there would be a lot of red flags and tape that I would have to go through but they love the fact that there’s a U of A grad teaching in the inner city. There has to be more fluidity so the spaces that exist, the quiet spaces, people in the inner city can have access to. Because that’s the real gift of the university, you have that quiet time to think and contemplate what you’re doing and in Boyle Street you never get that. Your senses are always being assaulted. It’s loud and hectic, and chaotic. I wish you could take some people who have the possibility to make the next step with their lives, take them to the U of A and see what a quiet space could bring them.
There are people who are constantly being kicked out. These people can’t even go into the mall because of the way they look or their history of being involved with the police. They’re not allowed spaces that we have access to. It’s sad. You think, for me, what would it be like living the life of a Boyle Street community member: Every day lining up for shelters, food, showers, worrying about your stuff being stolen, worrying about being assaulted in a shelter. Imagine what that does to your mental health! I don’t think I could survive like that. And I’m amazed that people have this real sense of survival in the inner city which is way stronger than most peoples’.
Well it has to be doesn’t it? Considering what they are going through.
Yea. I mean there are no easy answers. You can’t just transport people either. Or giving people a university education, that’s not the answer. But some quiet space would be really great, especially for artists. I’m amazed at people sitting in the drop-in in winter doing art. For me it’s the opposite to the kind of space that I need to think and work and process. People can make some beautiful things in that chaos.
Have any of the community members ever told you stories about their lives?
The focus of [the exhibition] was to take the six words that they chose about themselves and to take that representation of them instead of the back-story.
I am intrigued to know more about these people. Has anyone ever told you a memorable story?
The family portrait is really memorable to me because Ella (the mom) actually came to work on a screen printing project at Boyle. I was having mothers design clothes and messages for their babies and they get to print them together with a group of other moms in the inner city. For me her story is really amazing because a lot of mothers in the inner city lose custody of their children and she has custody of her kids. And I love the bio. It’s everything that they are. Playful, active, princess, monkey, been difficult. That’s her story.
Give me six words to describe your experience at Boyle Street.
I took the road less travelled.