PKN - Norquay Mosaics in 20 slides at 20 seconds each

My first Pecha Kucha talk was delivered twice: in November 2010 I was the last in a line of speakers at the first ever Coquitlam BC PKN; in September 2012 the first ever Richmond BC PKN was held at the Cultural Center there and I was the eighth among ten. The Norquay Park Clean Water Mosaic was a Vancouver Neighborhood Matching Fund  project. This talk describes in 20 slides the issues related to the creative process we, Yoko Tomita and I facilitated in the Renfrew-Collingwood community back in 2010. Here it is in its revised and updated version: 
Halfway into a mosaic making session I’m delivering an enthusiastic speech about the fascinating process of telling a story through careful one by one laying of pieces onto the cement base. As part of my routine I ask one of the kids I am working with, “what is the story in your tile?”

“Whatever”, he responds in a typical juvenile bored expression.
“How do you spell whatever?” I ask him, still with the same breathless enthusiasm.
He starts with “aam, W. H. A…” and finally retreats to “whatever”.

At the time my daughter was six years old. I must have been influenced by the games I was playing with her. “How do you say it; How do you spell it” and so on.

Making mosaics was new to me. I haven’t really realized what I got myself into by joining this Neighborhood Matching Fund project. Working with the community is a challenge. In most cases it was fun.

Yoko Tomita is a community artist in the Vancouver East side. She is the one who actually prepared me to working with youth: they would say “Yoko, I’m bored” she warned me. “Hey, this is child labor…”. And they actually did.

For many of the artists out there community arts is a treacherous way of making a living. For me it was an opportunity to engage in design for urban space. 

My first encounter with design and production of large scale objects was in 2001, about a year before moving from Israel to Canada. I had an exhibition of eight lighting objects at the foyer of the Pavilion for Performing Arts in Tel Aviv.

For the mosaic project I had the fortune of meeting Bruce Walther and Liz Calvin, two professional and generous artists who have their mosaics installed in various locations around the lower mainland and even further away.

Our challenge was not only bored kids but many people’s low expectations that in many cases leads to lagging engagement. This drawing was made by a woman who initially said she could not draw. “Oh”, I said to her. “Can you draw a straight line?”; “Can you draw a circle?” “Looks like a drawing to me”.

No matter what skill level, it was a pleasant surprise to see people's creative process evolving as this pretty example shows.

The youth leader who started this one, occasionally asked for advice or direction. I would point to a simple pattern and half an hour later she’d come up with even better creations.

It wasn't always easy. No matter how patient Yoko would be, with the boy who started this, he would lose interest as soon as his design was covered by the broken tiles we worked with. But we needed more detail, we wanted to push the limits.

When I took the drawing home and played a bit with PhotoShop I wasn’t sure how the boy would react to someone else taking over his design. Miraculously, he loved it and continued working with a new sense of purpose.

It was always heartbreaking for people to realize that this was not the end. The woman who showed this to us thought it was perfect. We were looking for more detail. For us the task was simple: the gaps had to be even; every piece made a difference. Notice the chunky red border at the top and the yellow border around the dolphin.

One day she approached me just a few pieces before her mosaic was complete.  With the little English this woman had she managed to say, “It’s not beautiful”. “Ah,” I reassured her, “Whatever you manage to do is perfect. From there you can only improve.” 

The mosaic process was almost over when demolition of the old park started and we moved on to dealing with the landscape architect and contractors. It was mostly a friendly exchange of information. We were just a tiny component of the whole production but the coordination required some back and forthing that exposed a few challenges.

Even at the planning stage, the mosaics were supposed to go into the floor of the water spray feature. When the health authorities said that mosaics are not allowed in or near the water, I encouraged my colleagues with the realization that now the whole park could benefit from the art. The red dots show where the mosaics were proposed; the green marks show where they were eventually installed.

In the cold spring of 2011 we finally installed the pieces that were waiting in my basement throughout the winter. You need to wait for the concrete structure to cure before you can install the mosaics in the recesses that were made for them. During the winter it was too cold for the mortar to efficiently attach the tiles in place.

I think the achievement with the credit plate was managing to fit in all of the info we were expected to. But it was also the fact that we got a stone carved element with the absurdly low budget we had. The stone carver who made it for us was absolutely generous and committed when we explained the context of our project.

For me, Community Arts is not about art; it’s not about community. It’s about our connection. For this I’d like to thank you for reading this far and making it happen. To read even more, go to the Mosaic page of this blog.