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County youth art at Picton park paints theme of belonging

Story and photos by Sharon Harrison
Local youth, and their inspirational and unique expression of art, formed the theme of a new mural project unveiled to the public at Benson Park.

What began as an idea during the pandemic, the youth mural project, entitled ‘Do You Belong Here: Open Minds Open Hearts’, is a collaboration between the Recreation Outreach Centre (ROC) and the Prince Edward County Arts Council (PECAC), with support from a grant from the federal government’s Healthy Communities Initiative.

Over the past several months, a team of youth artists from the ROC, supported by facilitators from PECAC, have been co-creating, designing and painting a series of four murals along the theme of belonging.

At the unveiling, co-facilitator Natalie, who works semi-anonymously under the pseudonym Ambivalently Yours, noted how the mural is a “collaborative one that combines a question of call to action and a message of hope“, where the afternoon celebration highlighted the voices, perspectives and artistic talent of Prince Edward County youth.

“This mural is a representation of how belonging can be both cohesive and diverse at the same time: a queer love story, a clean sustainable environment, a call for freedom and opportunity can exist in the same world as a dog in a tuxedo and a mouse in a top hat, reminding us that demanding more out of our community does not have to erase all joy and whimsy from our life,” expressed Natalie.

Seven youth members contributed to the project, namely, Mira Barnes, Chance Campbell, Kanadd3, Darcy Barnes, Ruby Knox (D1ablO), Floof Mate, and Meghan Lake.

– Photo submitted

The four facilitators, Kaya Joan, Natalie, Tim Snyder and Kat Burns, were recognized by Andrea Dawes, PECAC special initiatives manager for being “sources of knowledge and support and inspiration for the incredible youth artists, for bringing such creative energy”, as she explained how the project came to be, where during the middle of the pandemic, a grant opportunity presented itself, which they applied for and were successful in obtaining.

She said the mural project has created learning and skills-building opportunities in design, murals, community-engaged art and more for both youth and professional artists.

“We felt at that time, we were all very dislocated, isolated in our homes, and it was a challenging time for us, the community as well, it was a perfect storm, and we just thought that this would be a wonderful way to give voice to the future of our community, enjoying the riches of their work,” explained Dawes.

The art installation is affixed to the wire fence of the tennis courts within Benson Park and is expected to be on display until the end of August.

Present at the unveiling celebration was Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts, along with Prince Edward County mayor Steve Ferguson who noted how art is important to the community, something that has become “even more important as a result of what we went through with the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“It’s so important that people have the ability to express themselves freely, and have their art appreciated by the community at large, and I encourage everyone to look at them and analyze them,” said Ferguson.

Dawes spoke about the excitement of making art and making art more accessible, where she noted how the grant allowed for all the artists involved in the project to be compensated, including the youth, something she acknowledged was very important.

“We really believe that the power of art to spark discussion and give meaning to our lives and the world around us, and bring people together, heal us, and we all needed all of that, we need that all the time, but especially then.“

Whitney Shantz, ROC youth centre programs co-ordinator, spoke to how wonderful it had been to watch the youth artists participating in the mural project continue to grow and flourish, not only as artists, but also as engaged community members.

“The artist facilitators have always embraced the passion and the enthusiasm that this group brought, and really empowered them to bring their visions to life,” said Shantz. “They never shied away from some of the difficult topics that these young people are passionate about, but embraced their intensity instead.”

Representing the artist facilitators, Natalie explained how the project unfolded where a few months ago, four artist facilitators and eight young artists from the ROC were given the mandate to create a mural around the theme of ‘you belong here’ .

“Despite most of us not knowing each other very well when we started this project, one thing we quickly agreed on is that we didn’t want to just create a nice mural of people holding hands under a rainbow and call it a day, we wanted to make something that meant something,’ said Natalie.

She said during the mural planning sessions, she and her co-facilitators heard first-hand how the “smart and motivated group of young people experience belonging or don’t experience belonging in our community”.

“We were all amazed by their ability to not only clearly name the problems they faced, but by their eagerness to find solutions to these problems.”

“Our amazement then doubled when these talented artists began painting their ideas onto the panels, working collaboratively so seamlessly, which is a very difficult thing to do, and they did it very well.”

Dawes suggested public art is a key tool and hoped everyone can walk through Benson Park and have an experience.

“Public arts has an immense potential in Prince Edward County to be a really powerful tool for bringing us together and helping us toward tackling challenging questions and challenges, help us understand where we’ve been and where we are going as a community, so we hope this project is the first of many.“

“I hope that the joy we experience we enjoy from viewing this beautiful mural will be the active kind of joy that encourages us to listen to this young generation of artists and help them gain access to the acceptance, freedom, opportunity, love, strength and care that they’re advocating for,” added Natalie.

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  1. Mike Barnes says:

    Amazing project, amazing people!

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