Jonathan here, one of the lead artists for Making Room (that’s me, middle-right). As an artist, my primary medium is text, books, and zines. I’ve been lucky to expand on my passion for bookmaking and writing with the Creation Stories series, during which I’ve been lead designer for the books we’ve published. But Making Room has also given me the opportunity to explore so many other media— not just drawing and painting, but building lanterns, creating dragon scales, and way more sewing than I ever imagined. But above all, the artform that Making Room has allowed me to embrace and employ most is that of staging celebrations and ceremonies.
Throughout July, I was lucky enough to play a role in a Making Room co-production with MABELLEarts, another Jumblies Theatre offshoot. While some of the Mabelle contingent were up north working on their brilliant project After the End (check out this video essay!), we took the lead on producing their Iftar Nights series every Friday in July.
Inspired by the Ramadan tradition of breaking daily fast through iftar, the main event of these evenings was a sunset tasting of various snacks prepared by the MABELLEarts women’s cooking group, who cooked pakoras, samosas, spinach pies and Somali donuts over an open fire. In the hours preceding sunset, we created paper lanterns with members of the community and braided colourful string into rope from which to hang them.
Week by week, the number of lanterns grew and grew. By the fourth and final week, much of the park was glowing with art as we told stories around the fire.
Working at MABELLE throughout July was a total blast for me. It was a perfect opportunity for me to take the community arts experience I’ve been immersed in developed at PARC and see if I could transfer some of what I’ve learned to a different context.
The community at Mabelle is different in many ways from that of PARC. Demographically it’s much more the smattering you’d expect from a pseudo-suburban Toronto neighbourhood— families, many of them immigrant families, seniors, and people who have grown up in the area. I found myself with the challenge of working with children, as opposed to adults, and finding a way to negotiate the positioning of myself as a teacher and authority on top of being a collaborator. Although this led to some frustrations on my part, I found that confidently leading a workshop is indeed a transferable skill, and with the incredible help of Mabelle’s summer student, Farah, and a host of others, I felt super comfortable by the end.
There’s also the fact the Mabelle’s work centres around the park at the heart of their community, which has been years in the transformation. Besides the obvious challenges that working outdoors presents— lugging supplies to and from the park from the office, wind, rain, darkness— there’s also the phenomenon of visibility. The changes in the park, the buzz of activity, all have the power of creating a quiet, sometimes distant intrigue for people walking by to experience. Many people slow down as they walk by, others come in to see what it’s all about, and a great few stick around to help out with the events. Not to mention the large group of core participants.
I guess what this made me return to was the idea that participation takes many forms. Whether it be Fadwa, who actively leads the women’s cooking group, or the Somali men who sit on the edge of the park chatting excitedly, seemingly oblivious to the event taking place around them, or the folks who walk by the park on their way home from work, all parties present are participating and contributing to the art and celebration we’re hoping to sustain. Presence is participation.
The last Iftar night ended quietly and seamlessly. After four weeks of mastering the art of making, hanging, and preserving lanterns, it came to an end for the year. I felt a bit of that melancholy that comes with a successful conclusion, but I also felt that nervous excitement of having set my feet down in a new community, that extra glow of having been welcomed and knowing I will be welcomed back soon.
Indeed, this week I’ll be returning to Mabelle, to help out, but also to celebrate the summer. Tomorrow night is MABELLEarts’ end of the season park party. There will be food prepared by the women’s cooking group, a concert by New Arabic Music ensemble Doula, and of course a fire and good friends to encircle it. We’ll also be building a temporary installation representing our dreams for Mabelle park in summers to come, as well as reflecting on summers past.
Come see all of the amazing changes the park has undergone, and enjoy the warm company of the Mabelle community while you’re at it! See you there!