Repurpose Our Purpose

February 9, 2017 Of India, from Vancouver


Inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, Child Haven International was founded in 1985, by Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino, a superhero couple who built this organization after raising their own 21 children (19 adopted) into adulthood.  Their non-profit has built nine healthy, sustainable homes for almost 2,000 children and women in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Tibet.   And each of these “havens” provides food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational and moral support for their residents.  Most children go on to pursue post-secondary education, and Child Haven even funds their university tuition.  The homes are fully run and staffed by locals, along with a handful of volunteers from abroad (largely Canadians).  And Gandhi’s principles of gender equality, no caste (or class) recognition, non-violence and vegetarianism, simple living, as well as respect for all religions and cultures breed a positive, life-affirming energy that I felt during every moment I spent at their homes in both Kathmandu (for a 2015 arts project) and Kaliyampoondi.  This fertile ground provided the ideal environment for our arts engagements. So, it is no wonder they resulted in, perhaps, the most impactful project for Instruments of Change, to date.


Amidst cicada and frog song, morning starts at Child Haven with the children’s 5 am wake-up bell which elicits an occasional bark from Puppy, the resident dog.  As the children are meticulous about cleanliness, they proceed to pridefully brill cream and braid their hair, wash their bodies, and press their uniforms to perfection.  These thorough ablutions are followed by meditation, non-denominational chanting, and a jog around the large grounds of the home.  Then, they queue up for their daily protein, a sweet, warm cup of soy milk, made from soybeans that are crushed, right there on the property, by the machine they affectionately call the “soy cow”.  They form similar lines to receive breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner, and this 300+ person dance proceeds with remarkable order.


In fact, observing these young people choreograph their shared space, day in and day out, was perhaps the most moving part of my experience there.  In the spirit of simple living, each child’s entire worldly possessions (clothes, shoes, jewelry, toys, toiletries, photos) fit into one small metal suitcase. Consequently, there is little sense of “mine, mine, mine”, just like we witnessed in the Nepal home. Throughout our project, the children cooperatively shared supplies, decorations, and tools without incident. They were equally gracious about returning things promptly, in good condition and exactly where they found them.  Our limited stock of erasers presented the only sharing challenge, as they took the same pristine approach with their work as they take with their appearance.  Of course, we are always careful to dispel notions about “right or wrong”/”good or bad” art in our projects.  But habits run deep.  So, there was nothing left of our 10 inches of rubber erasers by the end of our two puppet-designing sketch sessions.  However, their diligence certainly paid off, as seen by these fanciful characters that they created.


During our project, entitled Repurpose Our Purpose, we asked kids to express their feelings about their own unique value and purpose (or, in other words, their superpowers), through story and song.  At the same time, they harnessed the value of everyday objects and trash by repurposing these materials to make puppets and instruments for a final original theatre piece.  And finally, we introduced a variety of interdisciplinary collaborative activities designed to cultivate an appreciation for the power of a collective sum that is greater than its parts.  The first of these exercises asked students to identify with certain Jungian archetypal personality types (IE. Jester, Creator, Explorer, Sage, Leader, Caregiver, Innocent, Hero, or Rebel).  Then, we organized them according to their chosen type, and these became their working groups for the duration of the project.  Subsequently, they performed physical gestures that represented their Archetype’s character, demonstrated by our Boy Jesters, with their thumbs to their noses.


They also collectively brainstormed a vocabulary of words related to the assets of their chosen superhero characters.  And while we relied heavily on the excellent translation provided by 4 helpful staff members, Ganesh, William, Johnson, and Poppy, this activity revealed that the students had a stronger command of English than we had realized earlier in our project.  Below are their own words, placed anatomically correctly, on the Body of a Superhero that they chalked on their playground.


Ultimately, each archetype group chose the most resonant word to describe their character’s superhero, and the first letter of this word became the body shape for their puppet design (IE. M for Meditation as the Sage’s superpower, and D for Dance as the Creator’s superpower).  Then, they brought these creatures to life using reclaimed cardboard, bicycle tires, scrap paper, styrofoam and newspaper waste.  Predictably, their creations were full of saturated color and ingenuity, as is everything in India.

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And the designs did not divide along typical gender lines, as the sweetness of this Caregiver Boys’ heart-balloon covered puppet illustrates. These resourceful children also took the upcycling aspect of our project to a whole new level as they proceeded to cut scrap gold metallic paper into hundreds of tiny bits to make their own glitter!

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To further develop narratives for their characters, we presented the children with a scenario (much like a videogame simulation), where each puppet (1 per archetype group) had to collectively pass through a series of obstacles.  However, we set the rule that each challenge could only be solved using one of the puppet’s superpowers, (referencing the idea that the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts).  So, each archetype group invented both an appropriate problem and a solution with which their superhero could “save” the day for all their peers.  The girls and boys created separate narratives, each with their own host of diverse characters.  And some of their most memorable storylines were when the Boy Sage taught everyone to meditate so they could levitate over a cold, impenetrable river; and when the Girl Creator drank a magical chocolate soy power drink after all the puppets became immobilized by the scorching sun.  Then, she led them all in a dance that revitalized their energy.  These are both, interestingly, very Indian solutions.  I was also thrilled to learn that the Boy Hero group chose Music as their super power. In their creative storyline, after the whole puppet group gets trapped in a house, set ablaze by fire, the singing hero puppet plays his guitar and the musical notes that emanate from it magically transform into water that puts out the flames. Additionally, to develop their dramatic skills, Kaeridwyn led the kids in found object animation activities.  Below, they are enacting a “fart” scene (or “susu” in Tamil).  It was, of course, heart-warming to see that adolescent poop jokes transcend cultural boundaries.  And clearly, our young-at-heart translator, Johnson, thought so too.


Here I am listening intently to the Boy Leader’s plan out their scene.


And this is Kaeridwyn directing the whole crew of boy puppeteers in their opening scene.


Over two weeks, we were allotted one hour per day with each gender group. However, the children were so invested in our project that they went over and above the call of duty, spending several additional hours writing their stories, practicing their actions, and fabricating their puppets.  This is exactly the ownership we always strive to cultivate in our work.

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We also put in our fair share of extra time, administering puppet triage and other vital work, graciously helped by Jackie, (in the back of the photo below). It was incredibly fortuitous that she and her husband, Andy (in the bike photo from Feb. 8th’s entry) happened to be volunteering during our visit, because they are, respectively, a retired music and English/drama teacher.  They supported nearly all of our sessions with their expertise and cheery presence, and Kaeridwyn and I could not believe our good fortune to have their help.

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For the music component of our piece, the kids brainstormed about qualities essential for good team work.  Then, we analyzed the musicality of this language by breaking the words into rhythmic syllabic categories, according to spoken stresses (IE. Re-spect; Leading, Sharing, Kindness; Unity, Confidence, Discipline; Following; Concentration; Cooperation). These evolved into both chants and drum beats that they performed with their voices and found object instruments.  To warm-up these budding percussionists, we used stray firewood for sticks and turned their playground into a drum kit.  And for their instrument scavenging, which I’ve previously led in Vancouver alleys and Kathmandu streets, we had to go no further than the grounds of the home itself, for they had a plethora of sonorities right on the premises (10-gallon water jugs for drums, empty 10-litre bottles and beans for shakers, damaged tin plates and cups for cymbals, and giant 5-foot rice barrels for bass drums).

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A most boisterous time was certainly had by all.  And we’ve received reports that the children have continued to chant the lyrics around the home, since we left two weeks ago. Another legacy of our project has been the re-mount of their puppet show for Bonnie, when she visited just one week after our departure. Their sports director, William, had so skillfully translated for us, that he was able to hold up the fort by himself, rehearsing and directing their repeat performances.  Jackie sent me this photo of all the kids’ animated faces while they sat through the entire hour-long show for the second time.


Excitingly, the children may even get a chance to “take it on the road” if Kaeridwyn succeeds in securing them a showcase at Auroville’s Upcycling Festival in mid-March. It is this kind of sustainability that we aspire to achieve in all of our work.  But the nature of two-week arts engagements run the risk of merely serving as “hit and run” projects, particularly with communities who have little additional exposure to artistic activity, like in Kaliyampoondi where their schools’ rigorous academic expectations emphasize a STEM rather than a STEAM (Science, Technology, English, Arts, and Math) curriculum.   In fact, on top of their 6-hour school day, Child Haven kids diligently study at least 3 more hours per day.  We even witnessed those approaching state-wide exams (Grades 10 & 12), downing chai until the wee hours of the night to pack in a few extra hours of study. Academics aside, there was at least one artistic discipline with which the kids had lots of experience – dance.  That’s because they are treated to a Tollywood (Tamil Nadu’s version of Bollywood) film every Saturday night, and they’ve memorized the moves from all of their favorite scenes. So, we knew we had to end each of their puppet shows with a dance number.


What we never could have counted on, though, was the spontaneous eruption of all 250 kids in the audience, when they began to dance along, after the boys’ last piece.  The enthusiastic Director of Child Haven, Ganesh, consistently voiced how impressed he was by the efficacy of this type of arts-infused learning.  In fact, he was the one who made the final call to keep the Tollywood music blaring after the show, lending itself to what we learned was the first ever time that Child Haven boys and girls danced together in one room, at the home.

In addition to the meaningful encounters that I had throughout our engagements with the children who participated in our program, there are so many moments I keep returning to, now that I am home.  Showers of hugs and nose kisses from kids young and old, never too-cool-for-school to demonstrate their appreciation, as many adolescents at home would be.  Afternoons, sitting with the other volunteers, on the kitchen’s dirt floor, thumb wrestling, hair braiding, bean cutting, and playing paddy-cakes with the kids.  And 7 am theatre games with the irresistibly adorable littlest ones who were too young to participate in our main project.

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But what remains deep in my bones, after my time in Child Haven, is the profound sense that there are potent ties which bind us all on this fractured, complex planet.  This is not to glibly say that we are all one, or that our similarities outweigh our differences.  Certainly, there are gaping distinctions, for example, between the realities of the children that I work with in Canada versus those in Kaliyampoondi.  However, I cannot escape my roots, which grounded me to see connection rather than division.  I am the daughter of a Russian Jew and an Italian Catholic.  And I was fortunate to be raised in a Unitarian church, where we were exposed to the wisdom of a multitude of global belief systems, and where social justice was preached instead of religious dogma. Understandably, this inclusive approach focused my lenses to look for common ground.  Not surprisingly, a number of volunteers that have come through Child Haven over the years have also been Unitarian.  And Fred Cappuccino even spent his career as a UU minister.   The remarkable organization that he and Bonnie have built clearly responds to the basic human truth that we all need to be loved and feel safe.  And I now believe, more than ever, that the role of the artist activist is to respond to a different basic human truth – that we all want to be heard.  That we all want to express what moves us, and we want to do so beautifully.  That no matter how different our life experiences, we want to find those deepest knowing parts of ourselves that can empathize and relate to our fellow humans and then, put them into words, or dances, or pictures, or songs.  In other words, we want to connect to our inner spark, give it wings and let it take flight.


Through the Eye of a Needle

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WEEK ONE: January 19th
Something Collective artist and Instruments of Change director, Laura Barron, returned from India and Nepal, last spring, jazzed, inspired and full of new ideas. Trash Talk Recycled was a music and puppetry project that she co-facilitated there, with youth from each country, and its resounding success convinced her to expand the global programming that her non-profit, Instruments of Change supports.  Consequently, a new collaborative project, Through the Eye of a Needle was born, an initiative that is bringing together youth from West Vancouver’s Ecole Pauline Johnson, and students from Liceo Boston and Tuna Alta, in Bogota, Colombia.  In partnership with the Vancouver Biennale Big Ideas program, and led by Laura and Something Collective visual artist, Juliana Bedoya, students will explore the impact of the “fast fashion” industry on students’s self-esteem, the economy, and their environment, through the creation of original theatre and music performances, using costumes and accessories that the students fabricate from natural and found (trash) materials.

Classroom engagements began at Pauline Johnson, in mid-January, with a movement activity that had students investigating the geographical origins of their clothing. Unpacking whatever information they could glean from their clothing tags, students then placed themselves on a huge floor world map.
(Students checking clothing tags to place themselves on a giant floor world map, according to their item’s origin. Continents, designated by clothing items manufactured in different regions, and brought in by the artists.) 

An inquiry followed, allowing students to consider deeper questions about the origins of their clothing.  These insightful students asked everything from “How many accidents were caused by the making of my shirt?”, and “Why are so many items made so far away from where I live?”, to “Did the person who made my shoes feel respected and happy?”IMG_1979 IMG_1978

WEEK TWO: January 26th
Week Two brought all 90 students (from 4 Grade 6/7 Pauline Johnson classes, taught by Jennifer Bruemmer, Laura Delasalle, Pascale Powell, Mahtab Morvarid), with the artists and teachers, to Granville Island where they visited the Vancouver Biennale sculpture, (The Giants, by the Brazilian artist twins, Osgemeos), that inspired their project.  Because this vibrant installation has truly “dressed up” the otherwise drab concrete silos that loomed over  False Creek, radically altering the character of this landscape, it served as the perfect launching point for conversations about how students dress themselves to express their own self-images.unspecified-3(Pauline Johnson students at Vancouver Biennale sculpture, “The Giants”, by Osgemeos)

After observing the graffiti artists’ work, from relatively close up (though at a safe distance of about 100 feet, since the cement factory does not let visitors enter the industrial grounds in front of the sculpture), students discussed the Head/Heart/Hand (in this case Foot) qualities expressed by the colorfully imaginative patterns painted on the silo characters.  Correspondingly, they were asked what the artistic characters’ clothing makes them Think and Feel, and what it says about the activities that the character might like to Do.  Then, the students inverted these questions towards themselves, building vocabulary around how they want their wardrobe choices to make people Feel; what they want people to Think about them based on their clothing/accessories, and what their outfits say about what they love to Do.  Using these descriptors, they were then invited to design their own personal Silo Avatars, (in the shape of The Giants), complete with patterned clothing, accessories and footwear, if they so chose.  Some examples of their designs are below.unspecified-4(Pauline Johnson students displaying their personal ‘silo avatars’ inspired by “The Giants”)

Next, students visited 4 Granville Island shops that were connected to the project theme of natural fibres, locally made clothing, and upcycling: Maiwa Prints, Dream, Make Store, and Ten Thousand Villages.  Then, engaging all of their senses, they proceeded to scavenge for clues related to our theme by feeling, seeing and hearing their way through the stores: (How many items can you find that are woven? Can you list up to ten items that have been made by repurposing other materials? List 4 animal and 4 plant fibres that you can find in this store?  What is the name of a natural dye made from a bug, used in this store? Find 3 items made by a local designers.)
(Students on a scavenger hunt at Ten Thousand Villages on Granville Island)

WEEK THREE: February 2nd
The following week, in class, Juliana opened with an acknowledgement of traditional territory by recognizing the First Nations peoples of British Columbia as traditional stewards of the land. She then allowed students to interact with a variety of plant and animal fibers: flax, bamboo, silk, cotton, wool – sheep, mountain goat and even dog – stinging nettle, bull kelp, cedar bark, and Himalayan blackberry.  This led well into an introduction of ancestral fabric-making technologies, as well as a discussion about the pace of the human body vs. industrial ways.  Students then actually got to use handmade whorl spindles and drum carders to spin their own flax and wool into yarn, with which they will eventually produce their own fabric pieces.unspecified-2unspecified(Juliana’s opening acknowledgment of Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam territory, and students initial interaction with natural fibres)

Additionally, students were asked to consider the category of clothing that they use to most express themselves (choosing from Tops, Bottoms, Accessories, or Footwear).  Their responses then determined which fabric name tag they would make and wear for the duration of our project.  Three Pauline Johnson girls who choose accessories as their prioritized outfit item are portrayed, here, with their yellow zipper name tags:unspecifiedIMG_1977(Students with clothing preference name tags, and hand-drawn ballots from other classmates.)

Concurrently, Laura asked students to imagine the full global Journey of a T-Shirt (from seed to rack), graphically recording the students ideas (below).  As a musician and writer, (without the drawing skills of Juliana), her renderings are, of course, in rough visual form.  However, because these interdisciplinary projects ask students to “Just Say Yes” to each new artistic medium that they are invited to try, it is effective for the artists to model that same vulnerability.
(Graphic recording of the Global Travels of a T-Shirt)

Fortunately, the students were very well informed by the documentary The True Cost, which they viewed before the arts engagements began, so they were able to articulate the massive carbon footprint (16,000+ miles) of this many layered, labor intensive process quite accurately.   The only detail that Laura added to their narrative was the final phase of many t-shirts’ lives, which often ends in a variety of underdeveloped countries, in Africa, South America, or ironically back in Asia.   This is due to the common practice known as mitumba, where clothes intended for donation in wealthier countries are re-purchased, shipped abroad and then sold cheaply to people in poorer regions.  The practice has received heavy criticism for its impact on local textile industries, and for its environmental cost.

Students then listened to a spectrum of soundscapes related to this journey (cotton mill, sewing factory, washing machine, pencil scribbling in a design studio, cash registers) and formed small groups to act out these imagined scenes along the journey, as collaborative Human Machines.
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(Students forming Human Machines to represent a Cotton Mill and a Washing Machine)

Finally, these groups were each given 2 character portrait templates to brainstorm the Head/Heart/Hand qualities of the people who might work in each phase of the t-shirt journey (IE. cotton farmer, factory boss, American designer, etc.)  They will ultimately weave these characters into an original fairy tale that they will co-create, in order to right the wrongs of whichever injustices of the fast fashion world they feel most moved to change.unspecified-10(Students learning to weave with plant materials)

WEEK FOUR: February 9th
Week Four had students getting their hands on a variety of plant materials used by the Coast Salish people to make their clothing from ancestral technologies.unspecified-7 unspecified-9
(Woven materials, made by Juliana, to inspire the students own creations; & a stunning basket made by one particularly natural weaver student, not the first day that she learned these techniques).

Several boys preparing ivy for weaving use)

Along with their own hands-on experiences related to clothing making, students continued to explore the Global Journey of the T-shirt.  Examining this often problematic journey, students identified problems related to human rights, the environment, and the economy, in order to determine the “wrongs” they wanted to “right’ in their own original fairy tale about this important topic.  Consumer greed, excessive transportation (IE. 16,000 global miles from seed to rack) and CO2 emissions, unfair labor laws, unequal and insufficient wages, unsafe work environments, and toxic chemicals used in the agricultural and manufacturing processes were some of the grave problems that they insightfully identified.

In order to weave their own fantasy that could magically resolve these rather massive global problems, the students engaged in story yarn activities, to get their narrative juices flowing.
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(Students collectively weaving an original narrative, by passing a ball of yarn between them as their story unfolds)

WEEK FIVE: February 16th
Week Five expanded upon all of the visual and theatrical arts activities of the previous week.  Juliana immersed students deeper into the process of sourcing natural materials for fibre by taking them into their own school yard to explore what was available in their backyard.

Students harvesting cedar bark, for weaving, in the school yard of Pauline Johnson)

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When they returned to their classroom, they learned how to strip the bark down to the most manageable and wearable fibres.  They will eventually use these to create woven gifts for their Colombian peers, at Liceo Boston, which Juliana and Laura will personally deliver to these students when they work with them in May.


Concurrently, students delved further into their story weaving, by engaging in Character Development activities, in small groups.  Laura also introduced a relevant traditional Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale called The Wild Swan, about a princess who could only save her 11 brothers from being eternally transformed into swans, by weaving them sweaters out of stinging nettle (a local BC plant also used for clothing making in ancient times).

(Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vassiliev
‘s cover illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swan)

Examining the Anatomy of a Fairy Tale (complete with magical animals and helpers; good and evil characters; and transformative natural materials) students then brainstormed about their own solutions to the problems that they identified along the global journey of the t-shirt.  Their unique creativity rendered some of the most brilliant and sophisticated ideas.  Here is a sample of some of their imaginative solutions, many of which align directly with sound economic principals, adopted by many progressive global businesses:

1. They suggested a “profit sharing” model, accomplished by magic Phoenix birds flying half of the money made at the retail stores back to the people who manufactured the clothing in Bangladesh.
2. For a “sustainable currency”, they decided that the clothing corporations should plant apple farms and then harvest the seeds as an alternative currency to dollars.   This way, everyone along the ‘fast fashion’ supply chain could re-plant their seeds to create more money as needed.  Students also determined that the intention was not for everyone to get rich, but rather to simply harvest “just enough” seeds to cover their basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, and clean water.
3. They also developed a customer service model much like “business process integration” (a fancy term for an efficient manufacturing and distribution strategy, now implemented by companies worldwide).  The idea was to limit each customer to a 4-outfit-per-year quota, which they would pre-order (in advance of fabric & clothing production, to avoid waste).  Then, each person would have their own personal-order dragon to deliver their order to workers along the supply chain.  And finally, this dragon would return their items to them directly (eliminating inefficiencies in the delivery system).
4. For an “alternative transit” solution, the students invented magical flying chopsticks that could transport all of the materials around the globe, as needed for the t-shirt journey, “emissions-free”.
5. They also created “fair labor legislation” by placing a secret playbook, hidden amongst the sewing machines, for a Bangladeshi factory worker to discover. This brave employee, then privy to all of the fair labor practices that their bosses should observe, spoke up for her colleagues and insisted that the book’s laws be enforced.
6. Devising an “organic farming” alternative, the students imagined fairies who could spread magical chemical-free crop dust on the cotton so that this essential plant would receive all of the water and nutrients that it needed to source the clothing industry in an environmentally friendly way.

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Student groups deep in conversations about their fairy tale characters, conflicts, and resolutions)

WEEK SIX: February 23rd
The artists, Juliana and Laura designed their project, Through the Eye of a Needle, to offer youth a glimpse of the vastly complex layers of the fast fashion industry, in order to help them unpack a broad spectrum of issues raised by this global industry.  In their explorations with Juliana, students have gained a deepened appreciation for the sustainability of ancestral clothing making technologies, which used natural and plant-sourced materials. After a mulit-week introduction to these varied weaving materials (blackberry vine, ivy, cedar bark, & hand-spun wool), Juliana invited students to begin creating wearable accessories to gift to their Colombian peers. The wide array of mediums that they had to play with are depicted below.  And this allowed students a chance to let their imaginations run wild, like the very plants they were handling.

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(Wool for hand spindling;resources on native plants & examples of woven items: ivy and cedar bark; additional local plants for weaving)

Students demonstrated their new aptitude with these early weaving attempts.unspecified-6 unspecified-9unspecified-7

With Laura, students dug deeper into personal questions related to their own fashion choices.  First they listened to Macklemore’s very relevant rap song, Wings, which tells the horrific tale of a young boy who ends up murdered over a pair of sneakers.  Students carefully analyzed the lyrics of this powerful song condemning brand dependency, and whose final verse conveys an important message that resonated with many of the students:

What I wore, this is the source of my youth
This dream that they sold to you
For a hundred dollars and some change
Consumption is in the veins
And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes
(Canadian artist, Brian Jorgen’s stunning Haida-style mask, fabricated from Nike Air Jordans, currently on exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery)

Following their discussion about this thought-provoking music, Laura led an inquiry intended to inform original rap songs that the students would create about these same concepts.  First, they were asked to prioritize which elements most influenced their own clothing choices: Look? Self-Image? Peer Pressure? Ads? Price? Brand? Fit? Fabric? Social Responsibility of brand?  And then, choosing from the same list, they answered the question: “It bothers me when people care too much about _________________?” The prevailing responses showed Peer Pressure, Price, Brand, & Self-Image to be the influential issues of greatest concern.  So, this defined the themes that they would explore musically, in the following session.

WEEK SEVEN: March 8th
To warm-up students’ voices, rhyming and rhythmic skills, Laura introduced them to her original Moose Juice activity, which is an adaptation of a nursery rhyme, set to a hip hop backing track, over which students invented their own rapped verses about animals doing different rhyming activities (a bear washing his hair; a parrot eating a carrot, etc.).  Then, they split into four groups, each aligned with one of the four selected topics: Peer Pressure, Price, Brand, & Self-Image, and began brainstorming theme words related to their topic.  To build vocabulary for their raps, they then compiled Rhyme Banks of assonant words (IE. cost/lost/frost; cool/school/rule, etc.).  Finally, they had a blast collaboratively writing 1-4 verses, each, about their topic, using the emphatic and expressive medium of rap to deliver strong messages about the issues that concerned them. Click below, to enjoy a fabulous example of one of these original student raps:  VideoScreen Shot 2016-03-10 at 5.36.50 PM

Juliana’s seventh session had the students involved in a hub of visually artistic activity. Following up from the previous week’s weaving activities, students brought to class completed fibre gifts for their Colombian peers, some of which are displayed below.  Clearly, the range of mediums with which they had to play, inspired an array of colorful creations, including necklace charms, bracelets, and belts for their new friends.

Additionally, as an evolution of the first week’s clothing tag inquiry, students chose the questions that most resonated with them to render onto their own re-used t-shirts. Each statement was expressed in either English, French, Spanish, or Squamish – appropriately representing the official language of their French immersion school, that of their Colombian collaborators, and the mother tongue of the local First Nations people whose ancient fibre technologies they have been exploring.  The simple iron-on decals produced beautiful results, and these will become unified “costumes” that all of the students can wear to perform their final fairy tales and raps.

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Meanwhile, as students took turns ironing-on their decals, Juliana introduced several  fashion design drawing techniques and templates, so that she could prepare the students to create designs for their own wearable art pieces.
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She then asked students to reconnect to the descriptive personal adjectives that they identified on their Granville Island field trip, during Week Two, for their personal silo avatars, allowing these to inspire fashion creations that could reflect their individual identities.  In this process, students also had to consider their potential available materials (natural fibres, used fabrics, and found or reclaimed “trash” materials such as newspaper, garbage bags, plastic bottles, straws, and more), as well as the practical “do ability” of their design, given only two remaining class periods to fabric their final pieces.  And students used the remainder of the period, to sketch their concepts.
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(skirts, tops and even wigs designed by Pauline Johnson students for their wearable art pieces)

WEEK EIGHT & NINE: March 29th & April 12th – From Sowing to Sewing
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Since January, Pauline Johnson students have been immersed in a multi-layered exploration of the fast fashion industry.  This project has challenged their critical thinking while developing their skills as designers, weavers, textile artists, playwrights, rappers, and performers.  And now, months of seeding, sowing and cultivating have bloomed into a variety of creative products.
Throughout this project, these youth were asked to take a “YES, AND…” attitude towards many new or unfamiliar modes of expression.  And while, understandably, there was occasional resistance, they ultimately rose to the challenge with a willing, cooperative spirit.  Consequently, their work reflects a wide range of student interests, concerns and visions for a more sustainable and healthy fashion industry.

Their performative work has required a considerably rapid creation and preparation process.  Therefore, as 90 students have refined 10 original raps and 9 unique skits, it has not been possible to properly document the rehearsal process.  However, all of their music and theatre pieces will be video documented at their final performance, on April 19th, and uploaded to this blog in the weeks to come.
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Adding to the usual 3 R’s, Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic, Through the Eye of  Needle has emphasized the importance of Repurposing, Recycling and Reimagining. Consequently, one of the major take-aways from these artistic engagements has been the understanding that a myriad of resources, materials and gifts are available to us in our immediate environment and community with which great beauty can be created.  With their heads, hearts and hands, these students have contributed their complimentary strengths to a rich body of performative work.  They have also harvested native plants, scavenged for natural materials, and gathered fabric scraps, newspaper, garbage bags, ropes, bottles, ducktape and sand to invent a full runway of clothing items ranging from pret-a-porter to haute couture.   So, watch out Ralph Lauren!  Here come the next generation of designers.

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Boys Fashion

Girls Fashion
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Finally, the exciting global exchange component of this project was initiated on Tuesday, in a Skype chat held over recess, between 12 select Pauline Johnson students and all of the Grade 8 students at Liceo Boston with whom Juliana and Laura will work, this May.  The West Vancouver students shared some of their insights and creative products with the Colombian students (displaying many of the fashion pieces photographed above).  Then, they had an opportunity to ask some burring questions of their peers in Bogota.  An interesting discussion ensued about the pros and cons of wearing school uniforms (as the Liceo Boston students do).  And a good portion of the students’ curiosity revolved around James Rodriquez & Radamal Falcao, two Colombian soccer (futbol) superstars whom the PJ students follow on their Real Madrid and Manchester United teams.  Perhaps overshadowing these students’ shared purpose in our fast fashion project was the thrilling fact that a particularly talented young soccer player from Liceo Boston happened to be connected to one these stars on What’s App? !!  Maybe the Whitecaps will even luck out, one day, and score one of these South American sensations.

WEEK TEN: April 19th – The Show!
After many months of hard work and artistic inquiry related to the fast fashion industry, Pauline Johnson’s Grade 6/7 students had the opportunity to share a presentation of their learnings with many of their school peers.  In this ambitious show, all 90 students performed original raps and theatrical skits, along side a fashion show of their creative wearable art pieces. The breadth and scope of creative products that were the result of this comprehensive inquiry are evident from the vibrant images below.

unspecified unspecified-1(Laura warming up and introducing students before their rap performance.)

Sample lyrics:
Why do people care about the brand?
They need something better to demand.

Nike, Adidas, Puma, the logos.
People just gotta understand to let it go, yo!

And here’s a video recording of several student group’s rap performances: MVI_2618

(Juliana and Laura Desalle – PJ teacher – introducing and preparing students for the wearable art fashion show.)

As with many arts processes, little is known about the shape and form of the final product when the project begins.  Therefore, all of these brave creators had to approach this experience with curiosity, an open mind, and a sense of trust that together they would create something meaningful and beautiful.  So, while some doubts and confusion understandably arose along this sometimes messy journey, these young artists and their teachers all expressed a sense of great satisfaction and surprise with their creative work when the project was completed.  Most importantly, students expressed true gratitude for the opportunity to participate in an artistic creation over which they felt complete authorship.  And many of them also spoke of real changes that they intended to make in their behavior as consumers, which speaks to the lasting legacy of this immersive experience.

Though the Eye of a Needle 
travels to Colombia
With the advantage of three months of student engagements in Canada under their belt, Juliana and Laura had a host of artistic activities and inquiries prepared to share with their Colombian student exchange partners from Liceo Boston and Tuna Alta.  However, the nature of these artistic explorations gives ample room to customize, modify and shape the process and the product to reflect the unique interests, passions and gifts of each student group.  So, while numerous elements of the project in Vancouver resonated with Colombian students, such as the natural material weaving, the wearable art fabrication, and the original rap compositions, many exciting, new elements emerged in this iteration of the project.  The students’ creative products included a much stronger emphasis on movement, as they all demonstrated rhythm virtually pulsing through their blood.   Additionally, a group of Grade 11 students were able to serve a smaller but significant role in this mostly Grade 8 project by creating a large, rustic loom on the school grounds.  This older group also thoughtfully reflected on the impact of the fast fashion industry and built a Word Bank of vocabulary, in Spanish and English, that articulated their responses to what they learned about the Global Journey of the T-shirt.  Subsequently, they selected the two most poignant words and literally wove these into the school fence, creating a lasting message from this project.

(Juliana’s graphic illustration of Laura’s narrated Global Journey of the T-Shirt)

(English and Spanish Fabric graffiti pieces, created by bilingual Grade 11 Liceo Boston students, beautifully communicate the problems and potential solutions that these senior students identified in the Journey of the Global T-shirt.  BLINDFOLD represents the ignorance that causes people to make consumerist choices that are have negative impacts on humanity and the earth.  JUSTICIA represents the sentiment that is needed to create fairer wages, working conditions, and sustainable practices for manufacturing clothing.)

Finally, a special component was the unique collaboration fostered between students from Liceo Boston (a private school) and Tuna Alta (an underserved neighboring school). This pilot endeavor, which invited students from diverse socio-economic circumstances to work together, on the same campus, was a unique opportunity that Liceo Boston intends to duplicate for years to come.

(Visiting students from Tuna Alta, orienting to their host school, Liceo Boston, where they would work in a two-week creative exchange with Juliana, Laura and twenty-five Grade 8 LB students.

A photo documentation, with captions from the entire Columbian immersion, follows:

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(Visual and Text examples of Liceo Boston and Tuna Alta students’ Giants avatars.)

IMG_2680(On the first day they met each other, students from both schools develop collaborative skills through a fabric-related metaphoric movement activity, The Human Knot – untangling themselves using only non-verbal body language.)

IMG_2690 IMG_2692(Juliana introduces students to natural weaving materials brought from Canada, as well as those harvested in their own school garden.)

IMG_2770(Colombian students peruse the colorful array of woven gifts that were made for them by their Canadian student exchange partners, and then choose the bracelet, pendant or headband that most speaks to their heart.)

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(Then, students experiment with naturally dyed jute, and wool, to create woven gifts of their own.)

(Embodying the impact of the Global Journey of the T-Shirt, students weave their bodies together in a Greeting Dance by threading between each other in a circle; they also create a Human Sculpture that represents a giant industrial sewing machine.)

(Of their own accord, these natural movers add Latin choreography to the original rap that they wrote about how media influences their consumerist choices.  Their insightful and poetic lyrics are below.)


English translation:
Ads only want to cheat us
by selling poor quality stuff.
They enter our eyes and make us crave,
effectively damaging our mind,
and achieving a change in our present decisions.CHORUS:

English translation:
Too Much of Everything
We Need Much Less

A fitting fusion for this cross-cultural project, the Chorus, above, was set to a Latin melody with a Reggaton beat, and repeated between original rapped verse.  And the chorus lyrics identify “excess” as a summary the problems of the Global Journey of the T-Shirt as one of excess (Too Much Inequity of Wages, Too Much Danger in the Work Place, Too Much Transportation and CO2, Too Much Water to Grow Cotton and Wash Clothes, Too Many Chemicals in the Processing, Too Much Ignorance about the Truth of the Fast Fashion Industry’s Social and Environmental Impact).
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(Students were granted the very special and rare opportunity to meet a master Musica weaver, Jorge, who demonstrated several ancient technologies practiced by his indigenous Colombian community for centuries.  Additionally, he taught students several relevant Muisca words: TBD; as well as Chua – how are you & Chogue – I’m fine, which they included in their Greeting Dance performance.)

(As a correlative side engagement, Juliana and Laura were joined by local Colombian artist facilitator/educator, Maria Camila Sanjines to lead 2-days of professional development workshops entitled “The Dance of Art and Education”.   This rich exchange allowed 40 teachers and artists, from Liceo Boston, Tuna Alta and other Bogota schools, to consider questions such as “Curious Students + Non-Vertical Pedogogical Approaches = _____”.  Participants also expressed their Dreams and Nightmares around the integration of arts and education, and they created Illustrated Haikus that served as exquisitely concise promotional pieces which advocate for the benefits of arts integration. These intent of these workshops is to encourage and sustain continued arts engagement curricular activities at the participating project schools and others.)IMG_2522IMG_2822
(A stunning piece woven by a Tuna Alta student; Laura helping students make miniature looms with which to create their woven pieces – a technique Juliana shared with them; Juliana facilitating the Grade 11 students in the creation of a rustic loom, made from natural materials found on the Liceo Boston school property, and gifted to the school by these senior students as a lasting legacy of the project.)

(Students collaborate to create wearable art fashion made from fabric scraps and old clothes.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 12.07.43 PM(Finally, our Colombian engagements were also beautifully documented by the Liceo Boston students, themselves, on their own school TV channel.  And here is a link to the bilingual video piece that they created:  CLICK HERE: Needle)

(The whole Tuna Alta and Liceo Boston crew, after presenting their show to all 550 peers at their school, with partnering LB teacher and translator extraordinaire, Adolfo Beltran, LB student exchange director, Camila Ramos Bravo, Juliana, and Laura.)



Everybody Just Wants To Be Free

(Henderson student musicians with artist educators, Laura Barron and Liesa Norman)

Most art starts with a concept.  A single moment that moves an artist to action.  Then, slowly, given the necessary space and time to create, ample resources, willing participants and a receptive audience, that spark only very rarely has the great fortune to ignite into something beautiful – something bigger than the artists themselves – something greater than perhaps the artists could have ever imagined at the start.  The multi-school songwriting project, Voice to Voice, led by Instruments of Change facilitating artists, Laura Barron, Dave Thompson and Liesa Norman in collaboration with 120 Grade 4-7 students from four diverse Vancouver primary schools (Henderson, Mt Pleasant, AR Lord, and York House) resulted in just that kind of surprise.

This project began with a series of arts-infused dialogues between these imaginative students and the facilitating artists.  The inquiry activities were aligned with the current Canadian federal election, allowing students the opportunity to consider issues related to values, preferences, and liberties.  Rather than to politicize the discussion, artists asked the students to self-select into small groups connected to their own prioritized values (Sports, Arts and Community, Education, and Environment).

(Theme words brainstormed by Mt Pleasant students)

Subsequently, students had fun exploring a variety of musical exercises that primed them to become performers and lyricists for their own original song and rap.  These included body percussion games, beat-boxing, imitating instruments with their voices (as in the popular video game Singing Monsters), inventing lyrics about animals to go along with a Moose Juice rap, and building Rhyme Banks around theme words related to their project concept, which they ultimately collectively agreed was about “freedom.”

(A “Freedom” poster painted by Henderson students)

With their new values-based small groups and their budding musical talents, these students then collaborated to write lyrics for an original song that they ultimately entitled, Everybody Just Wants To Be Free.   And based on a variety of exploratory exercises designed to determine the students’ musical preferences, they agreed that they would co-create a funk-rap pop song.  

IMG_1498(Mt Pleasant students working on their lyrics with their teacher, Jug Sidhu)

To inform the lyric-writing process, students were asked the question, “If you were to run for Prime Minister, what would you pledge to include in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?”.  The students collectively agreed on a set of principles that each freedom needed to follow: to be Kind, Respectful, Safe, and Fair (which eventually became the lyrics for the bridge of their song). Then, finally, each group of approximately 6-8 students (4 groups per class) wrote 2, 4-beat rhyming lines representing their unique responses to this inquiry.  These original lyrics all contributed to the final 4-verse song, with accompanying intro, chorus, bridge and break.  And the sentiments expressed in their lyrics ran the gamut from profound to hilarious, as one might expect from 9-12 year olds.  A small sample of their verses are included here:

If we’re free to go to space, it won’t be a disgrace,
we can all be a part of the big space race!

We should be able to play sports inside and out
Cuz if we do we’ll have a very good time and we will shout!


We should all be free to stay up late and have parties,
so that we can eat a lot of salty chips and Smarties!

We need the right to have a bath in the kitchen sink,
especially when we think that we really do stink.

IMG_1786Screen Shot 2016-01-12 at 12.51.23 PM

As Voice to Voice is about bringing unlikely communities together in artistic collaboration, Instruments of Change sought to find a way in which students from geographically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse areas of Vancouver could work together on a creative project, without having the opportunity to be in the same place at the same time.    So, to effectively achieve this goal, Instruments of Change decided to produce a multi-school, collaborative song and music video recording, with the help of digital technology.  Over a three-month period, the artists led individual sessions with each of the four schools (which covered all of the inquiry, songwriting, audio and video recording activities).   Then, masterful producer, Dave Thompson, skillfully edited all of the footage to equally represent the entire group of youth performers in the final product.  Here are a few shots from the recording sessions, where these students got to work with state-of-the art equipment, in their own school environment, using Dave’s mobile recording studio.

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AR Lord, Dave with Henderson, Laura with Mt Pleasant, Henderson, and York House students in recording)

Additionally, the youth contributed all of the storyboard, costume and set ideas for the music video, to capture the essence of all of the meaningful lyrics that they created, which resulted in some exquisite images and ideas.

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(Mt Pleasant students expressing the rights that they wish all children could enjoy).

Ultimately, Voice to Voice gave these youth, some of them for the first time ever, a chance to collectively share their voices, their critical thoughts, and their passions in a truly professional artistic product that they are eager to spread to a wider audience.  So, please enjoy watching and listening to Everybody Just Wants To Be Free, below.  And forward it to everyone that you know who wants to be free too!

Full lyrics:

Everybody’s room should be an arcade
cuz they can go there to drink lemonade!
We should all be free to eat popcorn as a treat,
whenever we want, cuz it can’t be beat!
In our world we can all live in a manor for a house,
with really big windows and a very big mouse!
If we’re free to go to space, it won’t be a disgrace,
we can all be a part of the big space race!

Everybody just wants to be free.
If kids ruled the world, imagine how free we would be.

We all want WiFi, everywhere we go,
but we surely don’t want it when it’s really super slow.
Animals should all have the right to be,
so we should all protect them and let them be free!
We should be able to play sports inside and out
Cuz if we do we’ll have a very good time and we will shout!
We’re from different cultures but we can wear anything we like,
Torn socks, green hair, or funky glasses for our bike.

Everybody just wants to be free.
If kids ruled the world, imagine how free we would be.

Be Kind
Be Safe
Be Fair

Snakes are pets and dogs are too,
we should all have a lot of them, isn’t it true?!
We need big green trees to supply our air,
so we all should work together and give them care!
Yeah, in our world, everybody gets a chance,
so each of us can do our own amazing dance!
We should all be free to stay up late and have parties,
so that we can eat a lot of salty chips and Smarties!

Everybody just wants to be free.
If kids ruled the world, imagine how free we would be.

We should all be free to sleep anytime,
and it should be fine to sleep like a mime.
We need the right to have a bath in the kitchen sink,
especially when we think that we really do stink.
We should all plant a tree in the middle of our house,
cuz it’s not like your gonna be jousting a louse.
It would be cool to have a water slide right down the stairs,
as long as we remember not to ride the slide in pairs.

Everybody just wants to be free.
If kids ruled the world, imagine how free we would be.

Trash Talk Recycled Abroad – in Nepal and India

(Homemade Paint Can Drum, made by Child Haven student, near Kathmandu)

I wish that it was under more joyous circumstances that I was uploading these blog entries from our recent trip to India and Nepal, where Maggie and I led our Trash Talk Recycled music and puppetry project last month.  But, of course, we all know the enormous challenges that Nepal, an already very under-resourced yet astoundingly beautiful country, is facing after this devastating earthquake.  I usually find it difficult not to feel insulated and somewhat removed from such global tragedies, given the contrast of my own privileged existence.  However, having been to Nepal so recently and having been touched by so many Nepali people whom I met, this incident is hitting close to home and has me profoundly shaken.  Thankfully, I learned, from the principal of the Child Haven School where we taught, that all of the students and staff are unharmed.  However, his account of the terrifying realities on the ground, for the people in Kathmandu and beyond, was very troubling.  So, I post this with compassion for everyone in Nepal as they rebuild and heal, and with gratitude for the opportunity that I had to connect with many of them.

(Simi, with a letter from her new Canadian penpal, Finn)

In Nepal and India, thanks to our IndieGoGo campaign contributors and the non-profit, Instruments of Change (, we had the opportunity to share the same Trash Talk Recycled work that we led with students at three Vancouver schools last fall. Additionally, we connected these students through pen pal relationships as well as an exchange of creative work (shared through photos and videos).  And like in Canada, all of the kids we worked with explored ideas of trash in our world and in our minds, while discussing more generous alternatives to the “trash” behaviors and talk that we all sometimes exhibit.  Ultimately, the students’ discoveries were presented in original musical theatre pieces that incorporated instruments and puppets which they made from trash.  Below, are some reflections that I wrote throughout each of these school engagements.


March 11: I am now nearing the end of my first week at the school and, already, I feel intensely bonded to these children, whose names I barely know since I am meeting 200 of them at once.  After only one day of musical games, (mostly call and response singing and drumming), I am now daily greeted with hugs, hand-holding and high-fives, in a way that I can only describe as humbling.  Half of the children from this school are orphans, but all are dearly loved, by staff, teachers and volunteers.  Their dedication and commitment to this community is truly impressive.  The school is compassionately and competently run by Dil Dabba, a lovely man who has enabled our visit here to be highly effective.  All grades are structured by periods, so he has been able to set a very clear schedule for our daily sessions.  Maggie (my puppeteer colleague and collaborator here) and I have had the chance to work with about 5 different classes per day.  And we are now well on our way to having several original song and drama pieces ready for each grade to present to their whole school next Thursday, in a general assembly.  The students’ English has definitely exceeded my expectations, making our engagements more fruitful.  And the theme of “moods” has emerged as the most appropriate content for our project, since Grades 4-7 are currently building vocabulary around this subject.  So, we are discussing a range of behaviors and realities that elicit different feelings for them and we are using this language in our performance pieces.


March 13: Yesterday, we lucked into borrowing a digital projector, laptop, and speaker to show the students several You Tube videos of relevant inspirational recycled art (IE. Stomp, Landfillharmonic, Bottle Boys).  And today we had our community clean-up field trip to collect garbage that we can repurpose for our show.  To mine their neighborhood for bottles, plastic bags, cartons and other found objects, we came armed with gloves and garbage bags (both also eventually reused for our project) to make this dirty work as clean and safe as possible, but still it was messy business.  However, the kids seemed undaunted by bags strewn with dog poop, or liquor bottles covered in mud.  In fact, they went to all lengths to extract certain “booty” – most coveted were large, unbroken glass bottles with particularly ringing sounds.  We knew we’d successfully imparted the true principles of the project when we saw them grab sticks along the streets, to test out of the timbre of their newfound drums and then bang out the rhythms that we’d learned together for their new song.



Finally, next week, once we have our trash materials, we will begin instrument and puppet-making.  And to enhance this activity, we have purchased several art supplies, from a department store outside of town, that will allow the kids to transform and decorate their trash creations in personal ways.

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March 19: Now, after two weeks of intense but exciting engagements, the kids’ hard work and creativity has paid off in spades.  Our mood conversations ultimately informed an original song and skit that used their trash-made creations.  As a sample, here are the lyrics to the Grade 5 song:

We are Team Blue and we’re here to say,
these are the things that make us sad today:

Heartbreak, Sickness, Loneliness
Failed exams at school.
Missing someone that you love
Or when you break the rules.

When we feel sad we play our sad song.
Listen how it goes and you can play along.

The strengths of these groups were evident and distinct.  One class excelled with rhythm, another with puppet-making, Grade 7 with detailed visual art skills for decorating their instruments, and the high-strung but expressive Grader 4’s as our best dramatic hams.  The day before the big show, the students’ enthusiasm was palpable.  A few glitches arose amidst the fervor, including several broken bottle flutes, and a few puppets gone astray.  But quite different from the ‘mine-mine-mine’ attitude that we often encounter at home, these resilient kids, quite accustomed to sharing and making do with less, were unfazed by these losses and merely played leftover instruments or reconstituted some bag puppets to “go on with the show” without shedding a tear. They performed in a magical setting, on their school rooftop, surrounded by spectacular hills and terraced farms, on a crystal clear morning, for 250 of their peers and teachers.  And, to quote a line from the ‘calm’ class’s song, they finished with a grounding and obvious ‘sense of satisfaction’.  Debrief discussions with all of our participants revealed that our project has hopefully left them with a lasting ethic about ‘repurposing’ and its imaginative possibilities.  They were also generous in communicating their gratitude for the skills and confidence that they gained.  Of course, these feelings were entirely mutual, as Maggie and I left bolstered by the fact that the principles of our project concept did, in fact, seem to translate trans-continentally.

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You can watch videos of our performances in Nepal at these links:

April 2: Twenty-two hours of bus, plane and car travel later, (the latter 8 hours of which felt like being rattled through a centrifuge, otherwise known as Greater Delhi traffic), we have arrived in Rishikesh – home to thousands of pilgrims who flock from the world round, for a menu of panaceas to sooth their souls. Gurus grow on trees here, and yoga studios have multiplied like rabbits now that the saavy locals have clued in to the huge appeal that this place has for Westerners.  But even in this cushy hilltop town, Delhi Belly lurks in the shadows and found me big time, by my second day here.  And while my bowels and the holy waters are flowing, our school project here is not. A collapsed roof at their office delayed exams by two days, initially causing us to start Wednesday instead of Monday.  Then, when we arrived on this appointed morning (yesterday), we learned that Prahba, the director who invited us, had completely forgotten an annual 2-day holiday (Th/Fri) which delayed us further still to a Saturday start.  Immediately upon meeting Ramana’s well-meaning but rather harried director, we gained speedy insight into the chaotic realities at the home and school which she founded and has run since 1997.  In only our ten-minute exchange, while she tried to shuffle her teacher’s schedule to allow us more engagement time for our now truncated, 7-day project, she also proceeded to field a battery phone calls, like a trouble-shooting whirling dervish.  The school’s water supply had been cut off for two days.  Three puppies that they’d bred for the kids at the orphanage had all died that morning from some kind of digestive disease.  Their projector (used to show weekly movies for the community to raise money for the home) had broken down and she was arranging someone to drive it an hour away for repair.  And it was post-exam report card day, so she had the joy, wrath and shame of one hundred parents to contend with that morning too.  This certainly made me empathetic to all she has to juggle. So, I am choosing to compassionately trust that it will all work out as long as I can exercise the patience and flexibility that one always needs when adapting to a radically different culture.


In the meantime, we will work with a small group of students at the home, during their days off, to offer as much value as we can while we’re here.  We’ve planned several music and drama activities geared for younger kids, because very of few of the Grade 3-5 students intended for our project actually live at the home.  We’re are, however, concerned about sustaining the kids’ attention during their holiday play (rather than study) time, because our first attempt to lead some arts engagement there got off to a rough start.  Since we arrived Monday, as planned, we visited the school that day to get acquainted, even though we knew that we couldn’t start for a couple of days. The volunteer coordinator then invited us to come back Tuesday (another day-off after exams) to lead some arts activities with these kids who would not have a chance to participate in our project. It started off well, with a rhythmic Name Game that kept a dozen kids engaged for about twenty minutes.  But soon, this devolved into jump rope and hopscotch-like games of their own.  Maggie and I rolled with it and let them take the lead.  Then, not ten minutes later, two six-year old girls had each other’s hair in death-grips, and fell to the floor in a rip-roaring fight, (over a mere toffee), that shocked us into the unfortunate truth that our “trash talk” message would be even more relevant here than we thought. So, while there is great disparity between our own orderly and resource-rich nation compared to the far more challenged circumstances in India, as we suspected, many core issues still prevail.  Ultimately, we were reminded that all people just want to be loved, valued and treated fairly. Yet this quest for human connection is an eternal struggle everywhere.  And while I harbor no illusions about being able to make substantive impact given such a short engagement, we can only hope that our discussions about kindness and respect will resonate with these students in some lasting and meaningful ways, even if our presence is fleeting.

April 4: Well again, the Ganges gods were not with us today (Saturday), when mudslides cancelled yet another school day – 6 out of 6 and counting!  So, we are now 50% through our time here and have not yet even started the official project.  This has been frustrating, to say the least, and all my efforts to exercise patience have now been exhausted.

Anchina, one of our new and enthusiastic teaching friends from India)

April 6: Indeed, we did begin today, with huge sighs of relief.  And all went even better than we could have expected.  In the classroom setting, the children were attentive and even enthralled.  They responded enthusiastically to rhythmic and melodic activities, and Maggie confirmed that they showed equal interest in inventing dramatic stories.  And we received hearty appreciation from all of the teachers, each of whom expressed a desire to receive more training in the arts-based teaching tools that they observed in our work.  This gave us a valuable take-away, for future projects, when we can incorporate after school teacher training along with our student engagements.  Thankfully, it was evident that our project concept resonated quickly all around.


After some creative warm-up games, students were soon full of ideas about “trash” behaviors.  I quickly learned that their English comprehension improved when they were asked to identify “opposite” vocabulary.  So, we followed this discussion about hurtful behavior by brainstorming actions that make them feel valued and respected.  With every iteration of our project, the unique interactions that we have with the students result in entirely different song and skit formats for each school.  So, we look forward to seeing what will blossom here throughout the week.  And though we had counted on 10-days, we know that the intensity of a shorter engagement might render even more powerful results.

April 11: Our final week redeemed the first on many levels.  We managed to complete all the instrument and puppet-making as well as the creation of original musical and theatrical content.  Finally, although rushed, we were even able to take our new “Trash Warriors” (Ramana’s students) on a community clean-up trip.  And we talked about how this experience could stimulate new behaviors – to show the same love, value and respect towards their environment that they want for themselves.  Additionally, we made up for lost time by supplementing the found materials for our project with various sundries that we collected from proprietors who we had come to befriend during our stay.  This was only fitting since our project began as an Indiegogo crowd-sourced initiative.  From the masseur who proudly announced that he used disposable sheets for every customer, we utilized over 50 of these otherwise wasted pieces of gauzy cotton for the puppets.  From our favorite café owner we got rice to make shakers. And from our first hostel we scored nearly all the bottles we needed for drums after noticing a huge pile of them in a concrete bunker behind the property.  I think this plastic detritus is perhaps the worst casualty of travel to countries without proper water sanitation.  I’ve regrettably consumed about 1,000+ bottles of the purified stuff myself, in all of my years (though NEVER at home).  So, I can only feel slightly absolved for my past sins by having transformed at least 100 of these into something artful this time round.

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Of course, while our emphasis is always on process, we’ve also seen how confidence-building a successful product can be.  So, luckily, we were left with just enough rehearsal time to ensure a good performance. The students memorized lines and music with surprising ease, and rose to the occasion once they showcased their work to their large and appreciative audience, who all squeezed into their school’s sweltering thatched yoga hall, (exacerbated by a broken fan) for the special occasion.  Along with 100+ students, teachers and community members, a “wealthy” Australian tour group (interested in Ramana’s work and conveniently in town for the show), joined us as well.  We were only extra pleased to learn that many generous donations followed.


Again, the original stories and lyrics that these 10-12 year old wise kids came up with amazed and moved us.  Here are the words to the song that Ramana’s students wrote together.  They could be true anywhere!


If  you want to be a friend,
Listen how our song will end.

A mean kid hits but a true friend hugs.
A mean kid hates but a true friend loves.
A mean kid thinks bad thoughts but a true friend shows respect.
A mean kid hurts but a true friend will protect.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid breaks promises. A true friend keeps their word.
A mean kid ignores.  With a friend you’re always heard.
A mean kid makes problems that a friend will solve.
A mean kid makes conflicts that a true friend will resolve.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid lies but a true friend tells the truth.
A mean kid says “all mine” but a friend will share with you.
A mean kid pulls hair but a true friend shakes hands.
A mean kid doen’t listen but a friend answers demands.

CHORUS – repeats

A mean kid fights but a true friend plays.
A mean kid runs off but a true friend always stays.
A mean kid is weak but a friend is strong.
A mean kid is not right but a true friend’s never wrong.

Now that you have heard our song,
We can all just get along.

As you can imagine it was adorable, and you can enjoy the video of their performance here (Puppet shows at 6:20 & 12:20, Songs at 8:20, 18:20 & 20:10):

Trash Talk Recycled at Home and Away


Something Collective artists Maggie Winston, puppeteer, and Laura Barron, musician and writer, spent this fall working with students, at three South Vancouver schools (Moberly, Henderson, and Trudeau Elementary).  Then, these youth explored the concept of trash in their world and in their minds, through the creation of a narrative that they staged in December, using puppets and instruments they made from trash. And now, Maggie and Laura will share their work with students in Ramana’s Garden School in Rishikesh, India as well as Child Haven’s Montessori school and orphange in Kathmandu. Finally, throughout the process, these Asian and Canadian youth are communicating about their experiences, as pen pals, and building empathy for the environmental and social realities, commonalities and differences between their cultures.


Through brainstorms about hurtful language that we sometimes use, even when we don’t mean to, these students created Trash Talk Raps that they eventually transformed into Yes Songs.  “Get Lost – Shut up – You’re not my friend” chants evolved into more generous alternative lyrics like “Peace, Marvelous, Cool Dude.”  And “Dumb-Loser-Fatty-Shorty” became “You’re So Thoughtful, You’re So Funny, You’re So Loyal, You’re So Lovely.”  These songs were accompanied by homemade instruments constructed by the students from reclaimed materials like bottles, boxes, plastic containers, and tin cans.


Additionally, students wrote their own skits, demonstrating trash behavior, and then they resolved these interpersonal conflicts with theatrical interventions by puppets that they made from paper plates and newspaper.

The inventiveness of the students in Dana Soga, Joan Jung and Laura Atkinson’s Grade 5 classes was truly inspiring.  And now the artists can’t wait to see what their peers in India and Nepal come up with.

Wonder Room – an ArtStarts project with James Thompson Elementary

20141029_135721Well, this picture pretty much tells it all.  I can’t say what a treat it was to see 60 pre-teens totally silent and captivated while exploring their natural environment with all of their senses.  This was exactly my original hope when I designed the Wonder Room project – to awaken student’s awareness and appreciation of the world around them through facilitated, interdisciplinary, multi-sensory arts activities.  The original concept came to me during an “AH-HA” moment that I had while listening to a TED talk, where arts and education guru, Ken Robinson, simply defined the term “aesthetics”.  He explained how, contrary to “anaesthetics” (which numb the senses), “aesthetics”, or more largely the arts, enable one’s senses to open, and consequently one’s imagination to spark.   Since hearing that very cogent definition of this word that had previously seemed so ineffable to me, this truth has come to inform all of my artistic work.

The Wonder Room project was inspired by the Kunstkammer (Cabinets of Curiosities) tradition of Renaissance Europe, (encyclopedic collections of objects belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religion, and art).  And I was thrilled to partner with Richmond’s James Thompson Elementary on this project, because they were the perfect candidate for this idea.   Their school is adjacent to the stunning Terra Nova Regional Park, and they have access to 30 iPads which the students were able to use for audio recordings and photography.

During our 6 weeks together, I had the pleasure to work with Ms. McKaskill and Mr. Dimmick’s Grade 5-7 students, who accumulatively gathered natural, man-made and self-created curiosities for their own collective Wonder Room.   Ultimately, this colorful space became a memory theater of the world as these students saw, felt, heard, tasted and smelled it.  And they were able to invite their school peers to visit this magical exhibit.

To build their room, I led students in a wide variety of activities.  The first of which took place during a nature work through the park.  For the first few engagements, we focused on two senses in particular.

20141015_112120 20141016_113404SMELL: We collected natural materials for exhibition & for the subsequent creation of homemade perfumes (including pine, rose, mint, and gooseberry essential oils to name a few).

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FEEL: We gathered natural objects for exhibition & from which they later made rub drawings.

The happiest accident that came from these activities were the impromptu plant designs that each student thoughtfully and artfully arranged on their desks to allow their materials to dry overnight.20141016_102534

Next, we explored perhaps their favorite sense, by making experimental cream cheese dips in each of the four major TASTE categories: Sweet, Spicy, Sour, & Savory.  Through trial and error, student groups created several original recipes, and then voted on the best in each four categories, to be served during their final Wonder Room exhibit.  The inventive winning combos were (Drumroll Please):

Sweet: Honey, Chocolate, Chipotle
Spicy: Chipotle, Green Onion, Sweet Chili
Sour: Lemon, Onion, Cranberry
Savory: Salt, Lemon, Sweet Chili

For the SIGHT room, in addition to exhibiting some of the natural materials that students collected outdoors, as well as photos that they took on their walks, they were also invited to bring Objects of Curiosities from home (heirlooms, relics, talisman, etc.) about which they engaged in a storytelling activity.

Only with students from a school located in such a special place, might we have been lucky enough to encounter a bald eagle just 30 feet from our path.

Lastly, after some in-class deep listening activities, we took a final walk to capture the music of their environment, using the audio/video recorders on their iPads.  These excerpts were then mixed together into the Terra Nova Symphony, complete with seagulls, airplanes, squeaky swings and more, to appropriately represent the Richmond SOUNDscape.



Squeaky Swing

For the collective curation and design of their final Wonder Room exhibit, teams were organized by a super sensory super hero power that they were asked to choose.  Then, these teams respectively built whatever room related to their favorite SENSE.  Each room was also designated a mascot, aligned with the animal that shared their sensory super power (IE. Bear – Smell; Catfish – Touch; Butterfly – Taste; Eagle – See; Bat – Hear), and a corresponding color (IE. Green – Smell; Purple – Touch; Red – Taste; Blue – See; Yellow – Hear).  And Voila: The James Thompson Wonder Room came into being!

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For this final show, Ms. McKaskill and Mr. Dimmick’s Division 2 & 3 students guided nearly 100 visitors through their elaborate Wonder Room, allowing each of them to have their own five senses heightened too.
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Then, to summarize these rich engagements, the students were asked to write haikus reflecting on their sensory heightening experiences.   The profound sentiments that resulted certainly affirmed my belief in the power of the arts to awaken us fully into the present moment.

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StorySTOMP with Hellings Elementary students in Delta


My time as an ArtStarts Artist in the Classroom at Hellings Elementary began with a Simon Says Meets Twister game that challenged the students’ music, movement, and verbal literacies.   All of us realized a lot about how we learn through this fun activity.  The school requested a project that would allow students to express important issues related to their social emotional learning through “found object” rhythmic exploration.   So, we watched numerous videos of STOMP-like percussion performances with drummers who used everything from kitchen pans, buckets, staplers, and boots as their instruments to communicate a rage of stories and emotions.  Then, we reviewed diverse drumming styles from around the world (Japanese Taiko, Cuban Samba, Indonesian Gamelan, and African drumming, Indian tabla, and Native Powwow) and discussed what moods each rhythmic style conveyed.  Out of this inquiry, we came up with an emotional trigger scale ranging from Mellow Yellow, to Moody Blue, Red Hot Rage, Purple Pride and Green Glory.  Consequently, students began to create their own stories through rhythmic expression, using basketballs, jump ropes, school supplies, video game controllers, and cups (like the YouTube sensation Lennon & Maisy:  Below is a photo of one entire class, in rapt attention, performing this complicated rhythm together:
Students identified “digital boredom” as a trigger for sad/blue emotions, “losing” or “being left out” as triggers for anger or red emotions, “school spirit” as something that elicits prideful/purple emotions, and “achievement” or “winning” as positive/green emotion-inducing triggers.  They also mentioned “napping” or “chilling” as the activity which most makes them calm or mellow yellow.  So, our performance, which they will share with all of the students at Hellings on December 4th, begins with everyone in a sleeping circle doing a giant, rhythmic contagious snore!
These students have worked very hard throughout our engagements.  And I have been thrilled to see them apply their exuberant energy and infinite creativity towards the wildly imaginative final show that they will present in just two weeks.


Our Two Cents with Trudeau Elementary Students


Since the beginning of the school year, I have had the pleasure to serve as an ArtStarts Artist in the Classroom at South Vancouver’s Trudeau Elementary.  With these Grade 4 & 8 students, we have been reclaiming the value of the now obsolete penny through an arts-based inquiry.  This 154 year-old, now discontinued form of currency has inspired the students to thoughtfully examine the concept of “worth”, reflecting upon issues related to consumerism, inflation, and global economics, while teaching prudent money management skills.  In the jars pictured above, students were asked how they would distribute government funds collected by taxes if “they were the Prime Minister”.   Interestingly, the results of this inquiry demonstrated that they have a mature understanding of the nation’s basic needs.  Many of their top spending priorities included education, health, shelter and clean water.  At the same time, they chose to allocate the greatest proportion of their funds towards Science and Technology, quite indicative of the digital age in which they were born.  But they also had the imagination to earmark revenue for vending machines and hot tubs.

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Students then explored a range of creative ways to utilize the object of the penny as a means of creative expression.   Through word play exercises, related to the project inquiry, students created text that they transformed into prose poems, song lyrics,and an original  rap.  All of these will be presented in a final performance that will take place on Thursday, December 19th, in front of their entire school.  The music for this performance is inspired by the Bare Naked Ladies’ “If I had a Million Dollars”.  Students then took the words written by this iconic Canadian band, and composed their own playful and touching lyrics (IE. From “We’d wish a full moon-sized container – Filled with spicy fried chicken wings.” to “We’d build a school in India. – And the Philippines and Nepal.”)  In the show, while some students sing their version of this song about value, other students will provide accompaniment on penny whistles.   And their rhyming rap will also be paired with penny rattle rhythms.



Finale for the Incubator! A Happy Ending at the People’s Potluck Picnic Performance

Something Collective celebrates, thanks, and says goodbye to MACC and the Incubator Studio at the finale event! The People’s Potluck Picnic Performance at Moberly Arts & Cultural Centre on Friday June 28th.
We had about 30 participants in the event who all brought beautiful dishes, some from neighbourhood restaurants and some from their own backyard gardens. 4 out of 5 of the Something Collective members were present for the event. Laura Barron and Maggie Winston were the lead artists organizing, and created some happenings and activities for potluck participants to engage in.
Those activities included a story web which engages people to share stories on the same theme. We chose to share stories about memories of Moberly Arts & Cultural Centre, the neighbourhood, or the place you call home. One person holds one end of a ball of yarn and as each person shares a story the ball of yarn is passed on so that a web is created within the circle, symbolizing our interconnectedness. This lead to many more conversations. We then experimented with a bottle flute orchestra, led by Laura Barron. She prepared glass bottles filled to water at a certain pitch. Then participants took a numbered bottle and together we sight read music numbers to the tune of “Summertime”. This was a truly great activity, with no pressure to be perfect, and just good fun. We also created live interactive poetry by writing words that resonated wit our feelings at the moment or described the event, and people could mix and match poetry similar to the magnetic fridge poetry.
The whole event took place on mats and pillows that were decorated with found fabric, decorated umbrellas, and a rag fabric circle to invite everyone to be together in the same shared space. While the food, atmosphere, and activities were fun and engaging, I believe that is was the energy of the people who came to the potluck, the conversations shared, and the mutual feelings perceived that made the event as meaningful as it was. Those who were present were people who had either attended a Something Collective event at MACC in the past, were other artists associated with the neighbourhood, were community artists working in Vancouver, or were friends and family of those we invited. It was a pleasant time had by all. There were little leftovers, which is a sign of people well fed.
All of Something Collective truly thanks all the administrators who made The Incubator Residency at MACC possible for us. Thank you Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, City of Vancouver, and the Neighborhood Small Grants program.
This was the perfect way to say goodbye and thank you for all the rich experiences we gained through this residency. I’m sure all of us wil continue to contribute to the neighbourhoods of southeast Vancouver in the future.
We are truly grateful for the support that allows community members to come together, share, and reflect on what community means for them. 

Below are photos from the event:
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