The Willow Ball Collective began late in November, and birthed four defiantly non-spherical objects who travelled through many hands.
Initially these spheres were conceived through a group effort concerted around the idea of a ‘winter village’ that Evergreen (an e-ngo in toronto) launched to change perceptions of what it means to enjoy winter toronto style.
Setting out to build a village and teach children about the negotiations and collaboration needed to work together in and understand how to live together harmoniously with the land and each other. Sounds great.
Sammy Tangir captured this amazing graphic from our staff meeting about the winter village at Evergreen Brick Works
Once the materials came out on the floor, and the first kids arrived, something else happened. Something I should have remembered by now: the first two children were two year olds (so being able to explain techniques and context for building villages will be impossible with words, so how to proceed?)
What works then for kids of this age, what they can be taught is the magic of the materials, and through the materials can be found lessons and much to chew on, especially if you’re not looking (that’s a joke, and an argument for using natural materials–because little kids will eat the workshop when you’re not looking – ha!).
We brought out clay, sticks, bits of plant, old flowers from the summer that have been eaten by birds (cup plant eaten by goldfinches if you care), bits of fired brick in miniature, leftover parts of christmas trees not needed for decoration when they were bought at market, and had a jam session.
This work is jazz. It’s setting up the stage with instruments, and letting go of the product you thought would emerge, as the players arrive with their own ideas, skills and inclinations.
One of the animators who helps bring out the creative side of children who i work with says: “the less you tell them, and direct them, the better.”
But also, in the same breath, she says “BUT: kids need to be told when they are damaging or hurting something (watching kids pour drinking water on the ground instead of on plants, this needs to be spoken).”
Somehow both can happen, but only if the facilitators are knowing that they cannot control the outcome, and are paying keen attention to what kids are naturally drawn to, and allowing this to emerge and be elaborated on through play.
This comes back to ideas of what we are trying to teach children, and really, what they can tell us about our desires to be heard and make change through those little illogical minds.
If we can impress upon them the importance of cooperation, care, true collaboration then they will be better able to manage shared resources in a world with less available and cheap energy, where these values will save lives.
Can you imagine trying to have this conversation with two year olds?
Well no, because the drivers for their worlds are more direct, less abstract. More about what is in their sensory view and not predicated on ideas of global resources and energy security. It’s really about feeling secure, though not for the wee ones, for us.
This i remembered all in the course of a minute when the children arrived, and i remembered my course as an artist, to bring out questions of depth through the material play, like a treasure hunt where we know all the stops on the map, but do not yet know what treasure will emerge at the end.
This potential could depress the more linear minded, that kids cannot follow through to the lessons we need to impart to make us feel secure and good about ourselves, but to me this brings deep and meaningful inspiration. I want to see how far I can go in finding transformation, and sometimes that looks like spending an hour listening to the inner imaginative world of a kid who others dismiss as, well, childish.
When it is possible to take this dream world and make it real, to get kids into leadership positions in the design, and to become a resource to them to realize projects beyond what they have participated in up until then. This brings more inspiration than work I have been commissioned to make from my own imagination, relying on my specialized professionalism.
(Don’t get me wrong, I am totally open to having projects of depth that I can display and make with my own hands, but when kids are involved in design and building environments they inhabit, this is a lesson beyond my own ego and/or professional aesthetic choices as a professional artist.)
You, little child, can tell us how to make this building, paint this hallway, design this garden, these are lessons of empowerment that are missing from childhood. It is also a method for finding and including a departure from what is possible, when you include those who think differently.
It is a test of adulthood to see how far you can take this process;
Can kids actually build parts of the urban environment?
Do they have what is needed?
Most of us would say: of course not. There are safe-work practices, skilled hand-work, judgement and assessment before implementation. Not to mention focus and maturity. All of these commonly held cultural beliefs which impart the lesson that we need professionals in every part of our lives, and that kids have no place in this world before they are trained and disciplined adults.
Ok maybe you would not want a two year old as a doctor (“I can see there is pain, but all you need is candy and a movie, you’ll be all better”). or a lawyer (“just pretend you know nothing until they have evidence….then say sorry….works for me”). I am sure you can think of funnier examples.
I have seen amazing things emerge when kids are given the control and power. Every year around our fire pit (at the Children’s Garden within Evergreen Brick Works) we would get pooling water, and we blamed the professionals. Those who graded the gavel in the space before we moved in did not do it properly….then everything we’ve layered on top is therefore effected by this grade (metaphor there).
Every mini flood we would bust out shovels and dig trenches to redirect the water. We were playing at making rivers, and every time, more or less, kids drained the fire pit space. Then, eventually we came up with the money to hire professionals to make a french drain and re-grade the space.
The design and build landscape firm built a trench EXACTLY where the kids had been making it for years! We just left it impermanent, for you don’t want to take away problems that others may solve later. Now there is no river to dig, and our wallets are lighter for paying professionals. Somehow ‘playing at’ doing the same work with kids really taught everyone something. It proved what is possible when we do not disguise our problems and ask for help. (anecdotally i remember one mom digging with her two kids, she looks up at me and smiles “I am so glad we are doing this here, and not in my back yard”).
These inclinations are natural; to dig, to build, to destroy and rebuild. Often nature takes the role of reclaiming materials back to base elements, even while we are living within them. Removing the curtain behind which we hide imperfections, and asking families who visit to invest themselves in rebuilding our space, is what I observe creates the cohesion and connection that we speak about in placemaking, village/city building. When this relationship is extended to caring for other living things like plants and animals things really get interesting.
In the coming month we will continue to build towards this idea of a connected, healthy village, and I will bring in the voices of other facilitators of this work, to share alternate perspectives of what we are building towards.
These villages depicted are the first step in a winter of village building, where we look to what kids have to teach us, and will celebrate this work during family day in February 2017. On that day, what we have learned through many weekends of setting out provocative materials and watching the jazz emerge from expert miniature hands will have it’s moment in the winter sun, and we will see if the idealized village in my imagination is alive in the sculptures we make with kids.
Finding space to grow vegetables, flowers and medicine on the lawn would have been impossible if I would have approached the landlord through criticism of the lawn, saying that the whole patch should be garden.
I would have ignored the desire of the kids who live here to play, sit and throw frisbees.
Instead I took posts from black locust thrown from an ice storm last year and marked out a garden that fits with the current design and occupies a boundary between the lawn and the four lane road.
The garden was then woven, with the landlords, using leftover willow from making baskets and fences, seed collected in my wanders, and compost from the back yard.
This small space is now yeiding scarlet runner beans, calendula, red clover, winter squash, self seeded tomatoes and borage from last year, Swiss chard and arugula.
The garden around the Siberian crabapple planted in every lawn when these houses were built over 50 years ago has sage, Wild Ginger, oregano and native woodland strawberry.
Maybe in the fall I will place another woven bed taking up another patch of the lawn, foot by foot, until it is all garden.
Winter has gone, and its spring. time to forget everything about the -20 cold snap and move on to planting gardens…..though i’d like to take a moment to look back to what we built this winter with some household objects, last year’s christmas trees and plant stalks, and a whole lotta water.
The cold brought us an opportunity. build a castle, a village, a pirate ship.
but not in the way that you fundraise, design, put to tender and build by experts.
the kind where we rebuild it in every moment, with every kid that comes by, and with every idea that crosses our path.
the following is the first steps of the ice village…over three months!
It turns out that if you pack damp snow into a milk crate and drop it upside down, a snow brick pops out. If you then Make walls to defend yourself in an oval shape and throw a few logs across it is ready for the pre-made willow roof. This particular roof was made with teens from royal st.george college into a coracle or willow boat and floated it in the pond! It then progressed into the garden where it transformed into a title by little kids. Now that your roof is in place grab some Garden tools and show the kids how to fill the kinks in the walls…..and in a day you have the turtle igloo. Somehow today in an odd cyclical turn, as it melts in this warm spell, the turtle igloo sprouted milk crates. Who knew?
the ice village is born!: it is heartening to see that this concept we co-created draws in all children’s attention naturally! we arranged and played with all the blocks we had made in previous weeks and arranged them into a wall (or turtle depending on who you ask:). the objects hidden inside the ice are, to some children, personal challenges to free. we took turns supporting this desire with tools and then trying to keep the blocks intact. we have filled many more containers (with h2o) and are moving away from the obvious milk crate (as the finished product has some plastic in it that is hard to remove).
These first experimentations were held back by a mental image of a castle informed by what others have built.
when we let go of these other options and started using the material and energy we have at hand, then each creative suggestion can be tried to allow a free evolution of the ice village. the opposite process would look like an idea by a single person, a grant which outlines the amount of time that can be contributed to facilitate it, and finally searching for the ideal audience.
By contrast this collaborative process is a statement of intent in the culture which promotes community resourced technology, especially sweet when it helps people enjoy the winter and stay warm by ‘experimenting.’
see the cumulative effort of our winter work in part II.