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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

Personal Stories and Empowerment Through Art: Artist Residency at Richmond Hill Public Library

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


When Zi and her mother Dandan started to document their family stories, the idea of collaboration didn’t occur to them right away.

Wang Zi is a visual artist, and she used printmaking to show the parallel between the story of her grandmother, mother, and herself. Zhu Dandan, with decades of experience in illustrating children’s books, chose writing as the medium to tell the story of her childhood and parents.

Zi and Dandan delivering the workshop (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)

It wasn’t until both of them had accumulated a body of work that they had the time to reflect on their projects, and realized the potential to expand and collaborate.

When Dandan’s traditional storytelling through writing met Zi’s artwork which had a more contemporary touch, they complemented each other and formed a wholesome documentation of their family history.

But the spark of creativity didn’t stop there. Both Zi and Dandan believe in the benefit of community-based work, and they were interested in guiding others to explore and tell their own stories.

During October and November 2022, Zi and Dandan ran a zine-making workshop as Artists in Residence at Richmond Hill Public Library. Their workshops focused on telling stories through objects, and employed different methods of artistic expression: printmaking, writing, illustration, photographic recording. An example that Zi and Dandan made for the purpose of the workshop was a zine on the object 饭屉, the metal containers for food that were used by Dandan’s mother to bring Dandan meals during the 1950s. They explore the object from different angles, the shape, the material, its meaning and mental presentation in historical and modern settings.

Sample zine by Zi and Dandan (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)

Each participant was instructed to pick an object as their focal point, and under the guidance of Zi and Dandan, create a zine to tell a story during the time span of four weeks.

The outcome was fascinating. Zi and Dandan were surprised by people’s creativity when they were given the opportunity. Some participants, following the example, chose to tell their own family history. Others chose to tell stories about their hobbies and personal interests, such as their passion for coffee, or a plastic doll collection that was accumulated during the span of two decades.

Participants' Zine (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)

All the participants were given full freedom to make the zine in any way they wanted. Zi shared excitedly that one of the participants from Cree First Nation used Cree syllabics in the zine.

Zine in Cree (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)

It was the first time that Dandan and Zi hosted an art education program together, and challenges were inevitable during program development. While a zine seems to be a small project to complete, it does require different skills as well as lots of patience to complete. Richmond Hill Public Library also wanted their workshop to offer more content. During the October workshop, some of the participants couldn’t finish making the zine and Zi was not satisfied with her workshop plan. Reflecting on their program structure, in November, Zi and Dandan moved all the workshop instruction components to the first session, and launched the participants into hands-on work right away. The adjustment made the project more doable, and Zi and Dandan were proud of the end result of the workshops.

Zi instructing participants (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)

Zi and Dandan found that these workshops were great learning opportunities for them as well, and they hope to engage in more community-based work in the future.

“Community-based art is about empowerment,” Zi said. Projects like these seem to be most suitable for communities in a diverse city like Toronto. Many of Zi and Dandan’s participants were local residents of Richmond Hill, and they were able to connect and bond over their shared language and cultural background. Every individual has an interesting story to tell, and it’s the responsibility of arts and cultural institutions to provide space and recognition for their self-expression. Assistance from professionals in the field is also vital, since they can empower the public with the skills and knowledge needed to tell these stories.

Dandan's spoken word performance (Photo Credit: Wang Zi)


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