A Guide to the Scrapbook History of a Community Engaged Artist

“We do not know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.”

 Ezra Pound (King, 2012, p xi)

created by Patti Fraser

This scrapbook webpage (click to view) plays with representing the runaway influences and networks of people who helped to shape a history of work as a socially engaged artist. The webpage hosts live links outlined in blue to articles, videos, interviews, and creative writing exploring the theory, lived experience, and projects associated with my career.

This ‘run away history’ of a community engaged art practice was inspired by the title of Melanie Fernandez’s (2007); Community and Art a Runaway History, an article that succinctly chronicles a concise history of socially engaged art as it evolved in Canada1. The decision to visualize this reflection as a scrapbook was an attempt to play with Leigh Gilmour’s (1994) understanding of women’s autobiographies.

Gilmour sees women’s stories about themselves as “being told from the perspective of being points of resistance and inquiry of identity” (Gilmour, 1994, 184). Gilmour’s insight into women’s autobiography not only captures the thread of my retrospective as a community engaged artist over the course of thirty years, stories told from the perspective of “being points of resistance and inquiry of identity” also help to define some of ways socially engaged art locates itself in terms of intention, as sites of resistance and inquiry.

This retrospective could be read from left to right or by scrolling down to the roots of the tree. It is designed as an invitation to stop and consider the task of historicizing a practice that defies definitions, and to engage in the diversity of exchanges and ideas on socially engaged art.

Thomas King (2012) at the top of this run away history is quoted as saying “when we imagine history, we imagine a grand structure, a national chronicle, a closely organized and guarded record of agreed-upon interpretations … a narrative that explains how we got from there to here.  It is a relationship we have with ourselves, a love affair we celebrate with flags and anthems, festivals and guns” (King, 2012, p.3). King’s understanding of history resonates not only as a response to the predominating narratives of colonialism it also speaks to the ever shifting ever evolving practices associated with socially engaged art in Canada.

Fernandez (2007) reminds us that community engaged art is our oldest form of artistic engagement and was practiced long before Canada was a nation state. The interview in this website with Squamish carver Aaron Nelson Moody expands this understanding of the relationship between creativity, place, and community through an Indigenous lens. Aaron Nelson Moody also speaks to who we are and where we come from as an important part of how we introduce ourselves. It also speaks to how we think about history.

In this autobiographical view I chose to introduce myself in part, through my grandmother’s act of resistance appearing in this scrapbook with other mothers who organized themselves to protest the labour camps of the 1930’s in Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C. Along side this introduction, I offer an “authorized” version of my practice through a Curriculum Vitae that reads from the past to the present and is activated by listening.

The other people and projects that inhabit this scrapbook are included because of the personal connections of my having worked with or along side many of them. More significantly, many of these same artists featured on this webpage have played an influential role in shaping how we view socially engaged art in Canada.

And finally, the links found in the roots of the tree are an eclectic mix of published articles, arts based digital video research, interviews, and other work that speaks directly to the roots of this particular “run away history.”

Starting from the Roots – From Past to Present

If you chose to start your exploration of the site at the bottom of the page in the roots of the tree sketched in the centre of the webpage page you will see a tree that draws on the roots of many artistic forms of expression. Included in this sketch are the roots of Arts-based Research, Environmental Art, Dance, Popular Theatre, Oral History, Labour Arts, Celebration Arts, the Community Play, Health and Art, and Digital Storytelling. These roots do not represent all the mediums of craft and art that constituted socially engaged work as it evolved in Canada but are intended to represent some of the most influential forms of socially engaged work within the Canadian context.

Performance was and remains a key medium of work in community art. The two most well known performance forms that influenced the earliest generation of socially engaged artists was the introduction of Colway Theatre’s Community Play. The community play was first introduced to Canada in Dale Hamilton’s 1990 Eramosa Township Production of The Spirit of Shivaree. This Colway-style theatre production has influenced many community-engaged artists throughout Canada. The history link to Jumblies Theatre Company found in the roots of the tree offers a short history of the community play as it evolved in Canada. Savannah Walling, Terry Hunter, and Cathy Stubington whose interviews are included as a part of this scrapbook history are recognized leaders in performance based community engaged work. The other major influence on community-engaged performance in Canada was through the dissemination and evolution of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, as introduced across the country.

My involvement in community engaged performance started with the good fortune of being taught by Augusto Boal in the early 1990’s. Under Artistic Director of Headlines Theatre David Diamond, I became a member of Headlines Theatre (now known as Theatre for Living) and spent a number of years travelling through out the country facilitating and producing forum theatre events using the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed. I write about what inspired my first encounter with forum theatre with a group of men who were suffering from the onslaught of the AIDS crises in the short reflective piece titled My First Forum Event found in the roots of the tree.

I shifted my own work from facilitating Theatre of the Oppressed in the mid 1990’s. This shift of perspective is examined in Unmasking the Mask of Solidarity, inspired by Julie Salverson’s (1994) The Mask of Solidarity. I moved into collaborating with other artists in more theatricalized performances based on issues around the HIV and AIDS crises, this work is referred to in the arts based video Art for? Framing the Conversation with Steven Hill.

In the late 1990’s the digital revolution and its potential was seen in progressive communities as a powerful method of change, that could and would bring new forms of expression to diverse peoples and communities. During this period of time I was led to work with story and communities in grass roots digital video production. I helped to establish the pedagogical principles of a nationally recognized youth run film institute and this work is explored extensively in two written pieces; The Story of Summer Visions; The Creation of a New Public in a Community Engaged Youth Media Program and in a published poetry piece titled Vampires and Oil Spills.

During this time as artistic director of the Documenting Engagement Institute we helped to produce a series of videos where artists from across the country created short documentaries on their work helping to inform the national conversation on the diversity, import, and complexity of socially engaged art that was happening across Canada.

As a resident artist with The Art, Health, and Seniors Project I produced with Corin Browne the Digital Shrine at Mountainview Cemetery’s Night for All Souls. The article The Digital Shrine; Community-engaged Art and The Sharing of Memory with Seniors explores what it means to engage in projects that are driven by inquiry with community into what is of vital concern as opposed to what it may mean to be involved in recreational art-making. Interviews with Paula Jardine and Marina Szjarto who have a long history of practice as celebration artists and are the creators of the Mountain View Cemetery’s Night for All Souls are included in the roots of this tree as well.

The research paper If We Don’t Tell Our Stories We Disappear; The Connections Between Creative Storytelling, Aging, Health, And Well-Being documents a peer research with project with seniors who created the Digital Shrine. This paper explores how the group viewed their health and well being through the creative work they accomplished in this four-year digital storytelling residency.

As interest in this work emerged as action research sites, I returned to the academy and began to explore arts based research. The two arts based research videos titled; The Future and A walk, a Question, and Missives from the Westcoast explore questions that arose for Dr. Lynn Fels and myself in the Art for Social Change Research Project with Simon Fraser University.

And my most current work of the Housing Matters Media project is explored in through the website http://www.housingmattersmedia.com/. This project has collaborated with youth aging out of government care and its advocates to produce a number of projects and research in its collaboration with the University of British Columbia’s Housing Justice Research Project.

It is my hope this site offers a pedagogical space that invites students, researchers, educators, artists, and others to consider the questions that populate and characterize socially engaged arts practice and arts based research from a lived experience. And that they might, in turn, be inspired to inquire into their own history within the context of their time and those they encounter on their paths of endeavour.


References For Scrap Book History

Fernandez, M. “Community and Art A Runaway History: Existing and Emerging Work in Canadian Community Arts Practices”: http://artofengagement.gruntarchives.org/essay-melanie-fernandez-community-and-art-a-runaway-history.html

Fraser, P. & Harrison, F., (2016) Art For? Framing the Conversation with Steven Hill. Arts/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, ed. Diane Conrad, University of Alberta, Issue 1, Vol.1.

Fraser, P., Harrison F., Fels, L. (2017) A Walk, a Question, and Missives from the West Coast. Video Dispatch. Studies in Social Justice Special Themed Issue. Visual Research and Social Justice, Brock University.
Fraser, P. (2015) The Digital Shrine: Community Engaged Art And Sharing Of Memory With Seniors, Artful Inquiry: Transforming Understanding Through Critical Engagement. LEARNing Landscapes, Vol.9, No.2, Spring 2016.
Fraser, P. (2009). Remembering Augusto. In Salverson, J. (Ed.), Popular Political Theatre and Performance. in series Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press.

Fraser, P. (2017). Our Health Depends on The Stories We Tell: Digitally storytelling with the art health and seniors project. The Muse. Beneath the Surface, Spring 2017, McMaster University.

Fraser, P. (2016) The Story of Summer Visions: And the creation of a new public in a community-engaged youth media program. Linking Education and Community: Present and Future Possibilities. LEARNing Landscapes, Vol.10, No.2, Fall 2016.
Fraser, P. (2012). Vampires and oil spills. In Chambers, C., Hasebe-Ludt, E., Leggo, C., & Sinner, A., (Eds.), A Heart of Wisdom: Life writing as empathetic inquiry in series
Complicated Conversations. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.

Artists Speak icasc.ca

Gilmour, Leigh. (1994). Autobiographics: A feminist theory of women’s self-
representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jumblies Theatre http://www.jumbliestheatre.org/jumblies/

King, Thomas (2012) An Inconvenient Indian, A Curious Account of Native People in Canada. Doubleday, Toronto, Ontario.

Salverson, J. (1994). The Mask of Solidarity. In Eds., Mady Schutzman and Jan Cohen-Cruz, Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism, London: Routledge.



1. Melanie Fernandez’s (2007) http://artofengagement.gruntarchives.org/essay-melanie-fernandez-community-and-art-a-runaway-history.html
shared as a link at the top of the page on Scrap book History page