I was driving from UBC across town to what is known as the downtown east side of the city. To people from Vancouver this carries with it connotations of drugs, crime, poverty and prostitution. I’d be lying if I said that on that day as I parked my car in the belly of the beast, I didn’t wonder if I would return to find it gone or vandalized. Even my decision to drive rather than ride my bike had been influenced by my outsiders’ view of this part of the city. I was unwilling to risk having my bike stolen despite the cable and kryptonite U lock.
Another thought I had as I hurried from my car to the building, through the driving rain and cold, huddled inside my gortex coat, was that I would be glad to be inside and dry.
I walked into the First United Church Mission, a haven for residents of this neighborhood for over 20 years. I was there to spend a couple of hours with a medical student enrolled in a second year elective course I was teaching. The course brings medical students together with visual art students. The goal is to create art in partnership with a community health/healing centre. Seven medical students paired with UBC and Emily Carr Visual Art students, began the project in September and were well underway with a variety of projects (photography, painting, installations etc).
Sam, the student I was at the mission to visit had initiated a project that was different than what other medical students had proposed. Having established a relationship as a portrait artist with the Mission several years earlier; her sketches of many residents adorned several walls inside, she proposed encouraging residents to make art themselves. Together she and her art student collaborator would then create a collage of the resident’s art that would remain in the centre.
I made my way to the gymnasium past a variety of men and women; some people were sitting, and some were sleeping on the floor of the hallway. It smelled of stale tobacco, sweat and something I couldn’t quite place.
Inside the gymnasium there were tables and chairs orientated to face a single flat screened TV, mounted high on the wall and playing an old romantic comedy. People were scattered around the room at various tables staring absently at the screen. Even a Julia Roberts rerun was better than being out in the cold rain.
Sam was at the back of the gym. Her table was covered with brown paper and it was piled high with paints, brushes, papers, and crayons. People came and went throughout the afternoon. In the centre of her table there was a plastic platter with the remnants of some cinnamon sticks, bait of sorts to get people to come over. Those that took the bait hovered close by, some politely asked for the food and promptly left, some sat down and ate as they drew or painted, while some just sat and talked.
At the end of the table was an older man with long white hair named Stan. He wore a brightly covered, hand-beaded necklace with a First Nations design. He was bent intently over a half finished drawing of two eagles, his crayons carefully positioned next to his paper. He didn’t look up as I joined the table. Also at the table was Billy, a man of indeterminate age, who shifted over and made a space for me to sit beside him. He had an easy warm, mostly toothless, smile. He drew a few lines on the white paper and handed it to me “it’s a sad dog” he said. I asked him where he thought the dog was and he took the paper back and drew a few more lines. He said that the dog was walking along a frozen river. He pointed a the fracture lines drawn on the otherwise white paper and said with conviction “that’s the ice that’s breaking up”. He looked intently at me as if to judge that I was buying what he said. As he leaned closer to me I realized that the smell I couldn’t place when I walked in was spicy, kind of like the aftershave my Dad used to wear in the 60’s. It was oddly comforting, like opening a long closed closet.
The only other person at the table was a slightly younger man (in his 40’s?) slumped forward with his head on the table. Occasionally he sat up, remnants of food in his hair, and continued to chew the cinnamon stick hanging out of his mouth like a cigar. I felt anxious that he might choke, but as I observed several cycles of snoring and bursts of waking and chewing I was convinced that he was long practiced at sleeping like this.
Stan finished his drawing and handed it to Sam. It was a beautifully crafted image. The eagles were vibrant and clear against a bright sky. He signed his name to the drawing and his face folded into a multitude of wrinkles as he smiled at our appreciation of his work. His eyes were remarkably bright for a face that seemed so old. He told us that he was a carver and stood to show us a small, carved talisman made of antler that hung from his belt buckle. He also rode horses, apparently well enough to have won the silver buckle that he wore proudly on the belt, cinching his worn trousers around his frail hips. He had also been a tattoo artist; now he began a second drawing of an old tattoo design with a banner running through a Celtic staff. He stood up and carefully sorted through the crayons in a big Tupperware container on the table searching for specific colours. He picked out something and placed it into my hand “it’s goofy” he said with a shy smile. I laughed out loud when I realized that it was indeed the Disney character of the same name.
A young, kind of pudgy, fair-haired man in his twenties walked past our table. He stopped and asked us what we were doing. Sam said, “we are making art would you like to draw with us?”. He said almost defensively that he liked to draw but only when he was in his room by himself. When we didn’t break eye contact he went on to describe that he had invented a series of science fiction characters that inhabited a world of his own creation, something like world of war craft. He talked quickly, almost manically, getting more excited as he described his characters. They were a mixture of bacteria and alien life forms that could infect humans and take over their DNA. He seemed frustrated that he couldn’t adequately describe his vision in words and abruptly he sat down and began to draw. The image was skillfully composed, a grotesque, insect-like creature wearing body amour. He showed it to us and Sam asked if we could keep it with her growing collection. He agreed but said he wanted to show us something else. He began to meticulously fold the paper, licking the edges and pressing them together, creating a beautiful origami helmet. As if to explain his skill at origami he told us he spoke Japanese that he had learned both while dating a Japanese girl.
Two hours after I arrived, a volunteer at the mission announced it was time to clear out of the gym so they could set up the tables for dinner. As Sam and I gathered up the art supplies, Stan handed us his second drawing; he had finished the tattoo design. The word in the banner was “Love”. Sam told him sincerely that she hoped he would come back next Monday and draw with her again.
I walked out of the mission through the rain to my car. I felt ashamed that I had worried that someone would steal it. I tried to remember when the last time was that I had spent 24 hours outside in the winter, without gortex.