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Carried to the Coast

My speech from Toast the Coast/A history of WorldRooted

They say there are two kinds of people in this world: those who observe it as a collection of systems, and those who feel it as a compilation of stories. But you and I aren’t divided by that difference: we come together because we are the active ones. When we sense that something is good and worth preserving, or wrong and worth fighting, we do something about it. That’s why I founded WorldRooted: the Art Project for People.

The first seed for the project fell in 2011, when I heard the story of Vedran Smailovic, the Cellist of Sarajevo. He is the man who, every day for 23 days, sat in the shelled ruins of his city to play Adagio in G Minor. He did it to honour the lives of 23 civilians who had died in a breadline. This music, his “protest of beauty”, drew international attention and helped hasten the end of the war.

Songwriter Sara Groves told about his action, then sang, “Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces. I wanna add to the beauty; to tell a better story.”

I needed to join in. I covered a canvas with Bosnian newspaper headlines, tore a hole in the middle, scattered asphalt and musical notes across it and shot cello strings through the hole. I called it “Protest of Beauty”. Then I made another, and another, and each piece was larger than the last, and as I made them I stopped adding colour, and as I made them I started thinking the explosions looked a little like flowers.

WorldRooted finally took root in the spring of 2017. I was running through the Maitland Woods,

checking for unpoened trilliums. I wondered about my Syrian-refugee friends. “Do they know the trillium is our provincial flower? Do they know not to pick it? Do they like it?” They couldn’t have spotted a trillium that day, since they hadn’t yet bloomed. Returning later and finding the opened flowers, I recalled years of learning about trilliums from my mother, of drawing trilliums at school, of searching the woods for them and feeling like no matter where I found them, I was home.

It occurred to me that my Syrian friends felt none of that. Not for the trillium. Probably for a different flower. Maybe a flower I’ll never see growing wild.

My Syrian friends don’t know my favourite 80’s dance moves; they have their own. They don’t want to eat at my favourite restaurant; they miss theirs. They’ll never feel or smell or hear or taste any of the familiarities they grew up with, and I’ll never be able to fully comprehend them. They were carried to a new, strange home by the turbulent waves of war, and that is not my reality.

Soon we received the official word from Syria: “home” was gone. There was no “home” to return to. I broke for my friends. I ran to the Woods to clear my head. I decided that I would paint a trillium, and sell it, and give them the money from the sale. Because they are my family, and they are hurting, and there’s nothing I can do to fix the hurt, except to tell them that I love them, and that I know I don’t understand, and that I’m sorry. And to create something beautiful in their name, and to share what I have with them.

I painted a jasmine flower next, in honour of Syria, and then a maple, to represent Canada. Then a rose, for the week I once spent with teachers from Iraq. They were receiving training to understand and defend the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience.

Some of those Iraqi teachers were refugees. One had stood between his own children and a bulldozer as ISIS rolled in to claim his city. One woman was a primary language teacher – but her students were illiterate. They had spent the last two and a half years out of her care, forcibly indoctrinated by ISIS, learning to kill and maim instead of read and write. She planned to return to her camp to reeducate and rehabilitate them as best she could. I saw the concern in her eyes, the overwhelm. The resolve, the hope. “Khutah khutah khutah,” she said in Arabic. “Step step step.”

I met her in Turkey – a land area smaller than Northern Ontario, but host to 3.1 million people of

concern – largely refugees from neighbouring Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. What I saw there were people – business owners and beggars alike, creating safe places to coexist and, at the end of the day, sharing what they had in surplus.

For Turkey I painted a tulip. The tulip tells me deep stories. It’s a common garden flower in Goderich, as we second-generation locals honour the land from whence our parents came. You see, Canada had played a pivotal role in liberating the Netherlands from Nazi forces during World War II, but some Europeans had already escaped the conflict and begun a new life here, carried to Canada on the water.

We’re all the same. We all need safety: clean water, fertile ground, shelter from storms, a place to root down and grow. And we all hold potential. Potential for good, potential for evil. That’s why I chose to render my flowers without any colour. I wanted light and shadow to have their say. And, I suppose I was giving away my desperate wish that we could all be colourblind.

Since our first show in April at Cait’s Cafe, and our second show with Kati Durst at Fauxpop Station in November, WorldRooted has raised hundreds of dollars for humanitarian causes, both locally and globally. I have been humbled and honoured to curate a dozen gifted and caring artists. From every sale of a WorldRooted piece, at least 25% goes to a project we care about: like Welcome Project Syria, or Rural Response for Healthy Children, or Victim Services. And now, WorldRooted has partnered with the Coastal Centre in a way that is as unique as every artist in our tribe.

My own pieces for this show began with backdrops in colours inspired by “The Great Wave” by Hokusai of Japan. Atop the colours I layered bits of broken glass – another nod to Japanese art culture. It’s my take on wabi-sabi, a worldview centred on acceptance of transience and imperfection. There’s this great wabi-sabi custom called “kintsugi”, wherein a vessel that breaks is never thrown out. Instead it is mended with resin filled with gold. The vessel has changed: no longer used for its original purpose, it now serves as a visual reminder of the impermanence of all things, a call to live life openhanded. And its brokenness is its beauty.

We’re like that, too, aren’t we? Beautiful in brokenness? When external pressures come at us with such force that we crack, the light shines through, and we can no longer hide the fact that we are not in control. We once feared the pain, but we’ve launched out, found a way to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and expanded our horizon. We find our love has deepened, our hands and feet have put our love into action, we’ve proven our priorities and learned to swim in the beauty that surrounds us and lifts us up.

This is where we must dwell. This is where we will change our world. OUR world: the home we share with the ones who live with us and who learn to walk by following us and who need us and who can see us rise and fall. This is how we will be remembered by them: in our imperfection, our frailty, our joining of hands and laying of foundations to become strong enough to plant our gardens and share our tables and swim in the water and climb the trees and learn to dance.

And sometimes, we break plates. The plates in my works were purchased second- or third-hand, I don’t know; I wonder whose kitchen they were in and what meals they served. I took the plates to my friends’ house and had a smash-up party with their kids. They showed me how: they’d done it before with their volunteer team who had been helping them through reams of paperwork as they applied to reunite their family.

Because these friends are also from Syria. They spent a long time in Lebanon, where the authorities cut off the daughters’ hair and wouldn’t let them attend school, and they still won’t let the older brothers work to support their families, because how can you, with all those millions of displaced people trying to find safety in every nook and cranny of every tiny town and on top of every hill?

So those kids are waiting to meet their baby nephew face-to-face, and in the meantime they got their second plate-smashing party, and after the show I’ll bring them their share of the money, because I want them to know I think they’re beautiful, and I wish very much that when you see my art, you’ll think so, too, and remember how your own family was carried here, to this land of bounty and safety, across the water, and I wish very much that you will join with me in adding to the beauty, telling a better story. Creating safe places for our beautiful, broken family on this tiny, wonderful planet.

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