This massive photo display of local residents was created as part of a community-building project in Delburne, Alberta in 2014. Its success sparked an initiative starting this fall to bring together people interested in arts-based tools for community development.

What's Possible for Community Through the Arts?
Alberta communities begin journey of discovery

When 140 gigantic portraits of local residents were unfurled across the outside wall of a school last year, a shift began to occur in the village of Delburne, Alberta. As community members stopped to appreciate the portraits, the possibilities for new and deepened connections between them, new perspectives on each another and even new ways that they might work together began to come to life.

Nora Smith, who had been a key champion of the project, was so energized by the experience she determined to do more to explore how the arts can cultivate community.

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  A digitally altered photo collage features Glynis at different points in her life. The collage was created during a time of transition, offering a creative way to express and move through that period. Glynis is a principal with Catalyst Consulting.

Forty-six kilometers away, in the city of Red Deer, Glynis Wilson Boultbee was embarking on a new arts-related adventure of her own – having returned to school at the age of 56 to study visual arts. Already a gifted writer, Glynis was looking to go deeper into an inquiry she’s been drawn to for more than 20 years – understanding how the arts can feed and nourish a community as a whole.

Previously connected by an interest in facilitation, Nora reached out to Glynis to see about beginning a joint exploration into the possibilities in arts-based community development.

Eager for more companions on their journey, the two found several generous sponsors willing to assist them as they host a first gathering in October for anyone in central Alberta with a similar passion or curiosity – no artistic experience required.

 “This is not just about the arts as entertainment and it’s not necessarily looking at this at the therapeutic level,” says Glynis.

“I’m interested in the halfway point where we’re not in a therapeutic relationship together, but we experience art as healing because we can talk to each other differently or see things with fresh eyes.”

Glynis is energized by what might be made possible as people from many different parts of the community come together to use the arts while considering what they want for their community. Sometimes, she imagines, the experience will be focused on the art; other times, it may be more about the relationships that are enabled as people work on what they love or the vision that emerges. Often, likely, it will be some of both.

A new community book club in Red Deer illuminates how an experience centred on a work of art can bring people in a community closer together and discover more fully who they are and what matters most to them. “Since I’ve read the book, I have had six or seven or eight conversations with people about what part they really resonated with, which I think is exciting,” Glynis says. “This is developing the community and bringing the community together in a really interesting way.”

The budding friendship between Glynis and Nora is already showing what’s possible. “It’s been such a joy to work with Glynis,” Nora says, and Glynis echoes her. “I think that’s why I’m excited to get a community of people how who are interested in this area together,” she says. “People who share this interest and passion can have a delightful time that will affect them personally and affect their communities.”

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  Nora Smith, Delburne Family and Community Support Services community worker, featuring a playful side.

The first gathering on arts-based tools for community development is intended to include a lot of hands-on experience and practice, as well as instruction. People can expect to walk away with tools that they could introduce and experiment with in their communities right away, Nora says.

Both Nora and Glynis also hope that the experience sparks such an energy and connection between people that they are eager to come together again and create a community of practice where they continue to learn from each other, try things together and support one another, all towards a larger vision of seeing the arts enliven communities and community development work across Alberta.

The best that could happen in the long term is that “we literally transform the way community development unrolls in the province,” Nora says.

The Arts-based Tools for Community Development workshop takes place Oct. 30. To learn more, click here.