08 October 2008

day 1

It’s 5AM Melbourne time and we start working today. I’m excited and can’t sleep – from jetlag no doubt, but I’m also anxious to get started. This is going to be an intense time, with hardly a moments pause. I’m going to get to know 40 kids really well, very quickly. I love the first day of meeting the kids when they’re an undifferentiated mass; they reveal their personalities so fast that the first hour or two when I can’t tell them apart always feels so full of potential. I know that I’ll develop some great friendships in the brief time I’m here and I really enjoy the mystery of not knowing with whom. Everybody is always asking me why I like to work with kids and, at the core, is simply their openness and the speed at which you can become friends.

The Children’s Choice Awards was conceived to fulfill an annoying obligation to a funder.
In 2006 I had received an Ontario Arts Council Artists in Educations grants and had to spend 5 weeks in 5 different schools. It’s a reasonable amount of money but the work is incredibly challenging – not the work with the students but securing schools to work with and coordinating the administrative side. It’s particularly tough for me since I was offering The Talking Creature, a project featuring the kids walking around their neighborhood and talking to strangers. Not an easy sell. By summer 2007 I had managed to do work with Marie Axler’s students at Malvern, Pamela Matharu’s students at a middle school on Bathurst right near Eglinton, Kathrine Parrish’s students at Marc Garneau and Anne Roccio’s Students at A.N. Myer in Niagara Falls. But after over a year I stilled owed another week and had to wrap it up or pay the money back. Well, the money was all spent so I had to either make it happen or get a day job. Getting the day job would have been easier.

Alley Jaunt was a summertime art show happening in garages around Trinity Bellwoods Park. It was a really sweet and smart event, getting people to explore their own neighborhood, and each other’s garages. Usually - from what I understand - the garage owners had nothing to do with art-making, they had just been approached by the Alley Jaunt people and were generous enough to offer their space. They invited me to participate and I proposed the Children’s Choice Awards. Now the challenge of finding the kids.

At that point, I had already done Haircuts by Children in Toronto and Los Angeles and Ballroom Dancing at Nuit Blanche. I had fostered a good relationship with Amanda Biber, a grade 5 teacher at Parkdale Public and I turned to her again to help recruit jury members.

Finding kids to collaborate with is hard work. Mammalian’s relationship with Parkdale Public was good but each project required it’s own sales pitch. Even Amanda thought Ballroom Dancing – an all night dancing party DJed by kids in a gymnasium filled with thousands of rubber balls – was going to be impossible. But with her commitment to chaperone and drive some of the kids, we made it happen. But even though this time I wasn’t asking a bunch of 10-year-olds to stay up all night, Alley Jaunt was happening over the summer and I wouldn’t have Amanda or easy access to the students.

In the last days of school, as summer was about to start, I showed up at Parkdale and tracked down all the students I had worked with on Haircuts and Ballroom Dancing and pestered them for their phone numbers and parent’s names. While a labour-intensive pain in the butt, this kind of data base is really important as Mammalian continues our commitment to the youth of Parkdale, but doesn’t not always want to burden the school administration with all the logistical details of coordinating the students. Sometimes we just want to make a bunch of calls and invite the kids and their families to participate in the events without pestering the school. But it’s tough to be a single middle-aged man asking kids for their phone numbers – it makes some people tense and the idea that it makes some people tense makes me tense.

One of the surprising challenges of working with kids on art projects is that, contrary to many circumstances that kids are in, with this one they are the ones who have the power. If they’re not interested in what I’m offering they goof off, walk away or simply don’t show. This is especially true in the summertime, when school is not there to structure their lives. And they generally don’t have day-minders so constant repetition and multiple phone calls are required to ensure their attendance. So I pestered them and their parents, worried that I wouldn’t have a jury. Some of my stalwarts couldn’t make it. Chime Dolkar, who had been involved in everything I had done with kids, including a cameo as God in the stage show Diplomatic Immunities was going to be out of town or something, so she and her siblings Tashi and Karchung couldn’t make it. The even-dependable Augustino Sores was doing his yearly sojourn to Portugal and Diem Vuu, one of the most articulate 10 year olds was doing some science camp. Eventually, I managed to assemble a decent core, helped by the fact that some of them asked if siblings and friends could participate. Now I was getting paranoid that my budget of $50 per kid for their services was not going to be enough.

So we spent a week discussing art, developing a set of criteria for judging the work and then we made a bunch of awards by dipping trophies I had bought at Value Village into a mixture of chocolate and paraffin wax and decorated them with candies and other craft items.

Saturday finally arrived, the weather was great and we all met at the school at 10AM and walked over to Trinity Bellwoods, hauling Lara in a wagon because she had a badly sprained ankle. We spent the day moving slowly through the very expansive show, stretching from Queen and Shaw, up a few blocks north of Dundas and east to Gore Vale. The kids seemed to be really captivated by the work. I gave them all clipboards and a sheet of paper with a complicated scoring system that we had devised together that most managed to complete. Khalil, didn’t even try to work with the system and I was concerned that she wouldn’t remember details for the deliberations, but I trusted that she knew what she was doing and she did.

They loved the participatory work; anytime they could make something or do something it was tough to pry them from the event. Some of the more critical and cynical of the kids chilled out and dropped their generally caustic demeanor and really got into the work. By 3 in the afternoon we finished the circuit and had to sit down for deliberations, which were a NIGHTMARE for me but fun for them as they argued, screamed and vied for their favourite works. It was very confusing to keep track of everything but under the direction of head juror and constant Mammalian collaborator, Camille Balda, a winners list was finally assembled.

The over-all winner surprised me. They chose Simla Civelek, a friend of mine, who had set herself up as a sort of itinerant gypsy poet in the back of a small camper van. She lay there looking like a belly dancer on rich colored blankets and offered the kids a menu with different poems. She began the performance by washing the children’s hands – something I remember the long-haul bus drivers doing when I visited Turkey. Then to finish she gave them a piece of Turkish Delight – the real stuff. The kids loved it, especially the poem about abortion.

They awarded the ‘funniest’ to a piece that featured fabric testicles and breasts with small stones knitted in them so that you could practice feeling for cancer. Accompanying these was a small zine that told the story of the artist and her boyfriend who had, coincidentally, both had a cancer scare at the same time.

The ceremony took place on a small incline at the north end of the park, right near that row of garages. It was well attended by the artists, with all but a couple showing up. The kids typical boisterous obnoxiousness faded quickly away as stepped up nervously to announce the winners. The final reason I love working with kids is that I get to feel like a proud dad over and over again, but I don’t have to save for anyone’s university tuition.

Kay, it’s 6:30, I’m going to go do some tai chi in the park and work-out with this rubber-tubing thing I bought at the Eaton’s Centre.