Wendy Lees – create! In the East Village

What is create! In the East Village?

It is a free drop-in inclusive creative program. It’s designed for people that live in this area and beyond. It started when I was working at the Mustard Seed last year and they told me that all their creative programming is being cut. It got me thinking about what was available for marginalized people and there’s really not a lot available in this city. I did a fair amount of research last spring and well summer I kind of had to put a stop to it because of the flood no one was really getting back to me about anything but I discovered that very little was available in terms of programming for what I’m calling marginalized people — in my realm that means people who are homeless a lot of the seniors that are living in this area on low income and experience a myriad of problems. The East Village just made sense to me to set up because folks from the transitional housing could just walk here. Folks from the Mustard Seed could walk here the DI [Drop-In Centre] of course they can walk here.

The Salvation Army as well.

The Centre of Hope you bet. There’s a lot of transitional housing around here. I get in theory why they’re asking people to find it [courses] in the community because it’s a bit of an empowerment thing. What I didn’t find at least when I was at the Mustard Seed is that there wasn’t a lot of support in helping people find that programming out there and there’s not very much of it and the facilitators are rarely paid. That’s a big one for me all the facilitators with Create are paid $25 an hour. It’s sort of organic but my vision is that people will be able to do creative work side-by-side with those they might not normally be with. People from the Orange Lofts are coming people from the Murdoch and King Tower are coming people from the Mustard Seed I’m getting a few regulars from the Drop-In Centre.

A real mixed bag.

A mixed bag. My big vision with it is that it will help with the integration of the new development with the new people coming in. A lot of the people who currently live here including the seniors in this building [East Village Place] and the King and the Murdoch are quite nervous about all the new development.

Understandably so.

They felt like they were going to get pushed out for a long time. I don’t think that’s going to happen but there’s still that feeling. On top of that they’ve had the flood experience as well. So I guess what I’ve done is that I set up shop I opened the doors and I said “come and do a creative activity.” You can experience success in one session you don’t have to sign up for 10 sessions. It’s drop-in it needs to be free to break down any barriers. So I’m averaging about eight to 10 per session now.

What sorts of arts are you doing?

Today we’re doing acrylic painting for example. Part of what happens here is there’s a lot of different energies that come in here. People are coming with issues many of them. I have a number of people who come who’ve had strokes people with mental health issues so there needs to be a fair amount of flexibility. If someone wants to work on a different project they’re welcome to do that. There’s a fellow that’s come from the Drop-In Centre who’s been working on a sculpture for a while and sometimes he’ll do the activity that’s planned and sometimes he’ll pull out his sculpture. So we’ve done acrylic painting last week we did mosaics — and that was a huge success because you can get a really nice product in one session. I’m hearing that from a lot of participants that they don’t always feel like they’ve completed things in life in general so it feels really good for them to do something from start to finish in a session. We do artist trading cards as well and we’re going to be doing mono-printing at the end of the month. We’ve done clay sculpting and that was an artist from the Drop-In Centre that asked if he could come in and do sculpting. Another lovely one is a fellow from the Murdoch across the street Dan’l started coming to the create! sessions in December and said he’s not an artist but that it feels good to come out. He would just keep coming and have coffee. That’s why there’s this seating area as well. I want people to come here. He kept coming and having coffee and he’s a professional writer and he said “I’d really like to teach a writing course” so we’ve started creative writing on Wednesdays.

So that’s something above and beyond create! East Village?

It stared out as visual art because that’s more my area of expertise but now it’s expanded slightly into writing. So we’re meeting regularly every Wednesday. It’s amazing. Last week seven people came and five of them had things that they’d already written and they just couldn’t wait to start sharing it.

Are you coming at this as an artist or as a social worker?

Both. I have a BSW and I’m an artist. I’ve facilitated a lot of different workshops creative workshops and so forth over the years. And I’m an entrepreneur too. I’ve set this up independently. Right now I’m not a society although I’m working on that status. I’m not associated with any agency. Sometimes you can get really bogged down with bureaucracy with the agencies. Part of what happened last spring is that I was trying to co-ordinate things with people like Calgary Homeless Foundation and all sorts of different organizations and I wasn’t hearing back from them. It just felt so slow. Honestly about a week before the flood I was down here looking and I thought I’m just going to find a warehouse space and set up shop.

Just find the money later.

That’s actually what I’ve done now. I just started. The Golden Age Club is giving me this space for free which I really appreciate because they see the value. Many of the people who are coming are Golden Age Club members. This building has been lacking in life for quite a while for a variety of reasons and I just think they see the positive things that are coming out of this space alone.

Is this exclusively your space now?

It’s not but I’m here three days a week and soon to be four because I got a grant from the Red Cross to do post-flood programming using a creative approach. The Red Cross still has a ton of money and I was able to get this grant as an independent which is the first time that they’ve granted any money to someone who’s not an agency which I was thrilled about.

So you’re doing Tuesday afternoons for drop-ins?

Tuesdays and Fridays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Then creative writing on Wednesdays?


And then this Red Cross thing will be another day?

Thursdays. And then I’d like to start getting something going down here on the weekend too because it’s really very quiet down here. There’s a lot of drinking and a few social problems in the area still. It’s not like it was with the drug dealing and all that stuff. None of that’s here anymore. But I see that there’s a lot of people with challenges in this area and I’d like that Saturday afternoon instead of having a drink maybe they could come and do something creative here.

How long have you been doing this?

I’ve done 30 sessions so far. I started out in that coffee shop in the Orange Lofts and that was good because it helped attract some of the people in those lofts. That really is a vision of mine that as this community grows people that have money and those that don’t work side-by-side and barriers get broken down.