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Calgary social practice public art project a community creation

Calgary artist Dick Averns wanted to help create a series of art for community benefit – particularly around mental wellness.

Averns was 41 when diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, something he shared with passengers on a bus tour Jan. 29 showcasing some of the art focused on mental health and wellness.

In 2017, the City of Calgary put out a call for artists interested in learning and creating art in the sphere of social practice.  Social practice art is a form of art that engages with community, and that engagement has a direct impact on the artwork itself.

Averns responded to the City’s call for applications with his idea for Recognition… Validation… Reassurance…, and after discussions and workshops with community members, won the Experiments in Public Art exhibition at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery.

“For me, it was, ‘How do you create a framework for mental wellness?’” said Averns.

“The idea to be able to visualize oneself for your own benefits, and for community benefits, was the genesis of the conversation.”

A piece of art from Recognition… Validation… Reassurance… on a Calgary Transit bus. AMBER MCLINDEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Social practice art created by community members

Unlike public art that might include consulting the surrounding community, but is still designed by the artist themselves, social practice art is often steered by an artist facilitating the creation of art through community members, who are often not artists themselves.

“It’s important to recognize that public art can be more than static objects,” said Tomas Jonsson, Public Art Coordinator with the City of Calgary.

“It’s also works that are more innovative and dynamic in their work with social milieu.”

Averns’ idea for the art project was to create workshops in which he could help facilitate art creation that reflected mental health and well-being. Workshops were held at Alberta University of the Arts and the University of Calgary, and after it was selected for grant funding, in a variety of different locations including the Fresh Start Recovery Centre, one of the stops on the bus tour.

Besides being displayed on the bus and in cSpace King Edward, some of the artwork previously made its way into the public through other buses, trains and billboards.

More of the community-created art done through workshops for the Recognition… Validation… Reassurance… public art project. AMBER MCLINDEN / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Community impact with Averns’ art workshops

Over 250 people expressed an interest to attend the workshops held by Averns and 187 pieces of artwork were created as a result.

For Jocelyn Lehman, a Mount Royal University professor and participant of a workshop facilitated by Averns, the process is as valuable as the resulting art.

“It’s bringing people together,” says Lehman. “You’ve done it as a collective, you had some of the same prompts, because you’ve heard the workshop, and you have different things that you might want to touch on that you’re working through yourself.”