Unlocked: from seed to sequoia 
A reflection  by Sharon Zarita

It is human nature to begin a journey with expectations of how it will turn up, but the past year has shown me life often offers paths that not even our wildest imaginations can anticipate. When I joined Jamii just after completing my postgraduate course in Arts Administration last year, my expectation was broadly to engage the Esplanade community through the arts. I had no idea a few months later we would begin WIND STORIES, a project that would tap into my personal love of listening to people and celebrating their lives. This project invited participants from four communities in Ontario to pick someone in their neighbourhood, have a conversation with them and then translate their story into a visual art portrait. 

 

I come from Kenya, a country deeply rooted in the social African culture of sharing stories. Growing up, families would gather by water fountains in the evening to catch up on the day. The streets are often filled with talking clusters of acquaintances who have run into each other. Hence when I accompanied participants to their conversation interviews in Toronto, I forgot I was at work and was taken back to the evening community chatters at home. 

 

The beauty about WIND STORIES it is an intersection of four, like streams that meet and flow together into a river. I was honoured to take the project initiation trip to Wawa, one of the four communities. Wawa captivated me by its mountains curved in colourful fall leaves and surrounded by water. Our team was treated with such generosity by Robin, our host, who introduced us to the community and gave the project a strong start. Months later when Isorine, Jamii’s Founder and Director, came back with the finished portraits from Wawa, they had surpassed my imagination. This was also the case when I opened the boxes of portraits from Wolfe Island and later on Pikangikum First Nation. As a Newcomer, I wouldn’t have chosen a better way to be introduced to the First Nations in Ontario: the people, their stories, the traditions, their cultures. 

Earlier this year we got a chance to exhibit the community portraits, joined streams, at Canadian Opera Company, a mighty river. Like everyone else who had a script for 2020, we were looking forward to the second phase of the project where each of the portraits would be turned into live performances when COVID-19 struck. The pandemic hurt the core of our work – people, connection, community relations. Without these elements the effect of this second phase would be watered down. Though, have you ever seen a stream held back by a rock on its path? When a stream meets a rock its waters slowly build up, go around continuing on its way as if no barriers existed. 

 

Since WIND STORIES sought to initiate deeper conversations between community members, we decided to follow this objective and adapt the second phase to a creative process that would explore the layers of the pandemic to individuals. How was the pandemic affecting you, and how would you translate that into an art form of your choice? At the end these pieces would be filmed into a reflective art video. Over-reflecting is a personal habit that helps me process things so this project, again, felt like inviting Esplanadians to the evening community chatters we have at home. 

 

As we were filming one of the participants I noticed she had been called by the artists who helped in writing her scene before she went on set and was curious about her experience in the project. Julie took a minute, sighed a little and narrated with her eyes welling up how she has always loved to dance but never gotten the chance and was looking for a channel of her emotions during the isolation when we made the call for participants. This project gave her something to lean on through the raging days of COVID-19. As she spoke, I could picture being encountered by a river that had busted its banks due to heavy rains on your hiking path. Just as you scramble for something to hold onto, you get a sequoia tree which isn't being swayed by the waters nor the wind. I could see each of the community members finding their own sequoia and together forming a canopy to make the grip even stronger. As they hold tight, they don't realize that the canopy not only shelters them but many other creatures from the pouring rain. 

 

Many don't realize how community engaged arts touch the producers just as much as participants. A sequoia to an artist is making the art itself so as we brainstormed ideas, scripted, filmed, coordinated tiny details of this video we got our tight grip through the pandemic as well. At the end of June, the team of 11 community members named the art video “Unlocked” because though the pandemic was raging physical locks at us, we found an opening which revived us from the inside. One which our wildest imagination would never have planned for when WIND STORIES was being initiated last year. As UNLOCKED premieres at Canadian Stage on July 24th -25th and you get a chance to watch it online, I truly hope it reminds you that within you is the ability to find a sequoia and grip onto it through your hardest seasons. 

 

Dear Esplanadians, you have a canopy at Jamii and I invite you not only to admire its beauty from the outside but come in and enjoy its cooling shade. Even better since you are one of the sequoias in this community coming closer makes the canopy thicker and ever so mightier. This film happens to be the last project I coordinate under my current contract with Jamii and I am touched that God found it worthy to script this canopy on my path as an Arts Administrator. Through my work as the Project and Community Outreach Coordinator I have been granted a year of unexpected enjoyment in my career journey.