Press: Kitchener’s stories told in videopoems

Dec 04, 2015 

Kitchener’s stories told in videopoems

Waterloo Region Record

It’s an intriguing title: “Folk Myths of Kitchener.”

The reference is to a project Janice Jo Lee has been working on for the better part of a year as the current City of Kitchener artist-in-residence.

As 2015 draws to a close, the work is coming to fruition. An exhibition of videopoems, posters and photographs connected to the project will be on display at the Rotunda Gallery in Kitchener City Hall throughout the month of December. The reception for the exhibit and the residency is Friday, Dec. 11, from 5 to 7 p.m.

When the Kitchener established its artist-in-residence program in 1995, it was the first of its kind in Canada. Lee is the latest of a long and distinguished line of artists to hold the post, but due to recent changes to the parameters of the program, she’s the first whose main practice is outside the visual arts.

She calls herself a “folk artist”. “An artist of the people! A storyteller. It is my responsibility as a folk artist to affirm our contemporary stories, emotions and ideas through art and carry these stories onward.”

Her areas of specialization include singer, songwriter, poet, and spoken word performer.

Folk Myths of Kitchener began with the question: What are our contemporary folk myths?

The first step was gathering stories. This involved meeting people in key locations and at milestone events — the Multicultural Festival, Summer Lights, Kitchener Blues Festival, Night\Shift — and asking questions such as “Why do you come here? What special things have happened to you here?”

The stories became material for a set of four poems corresponding to the primary locations: the Iron Horse Trail; all branches of the city’s public library system; the market, and the downtown in general.

The artist then returned to the locations where the people whose stories had inspired the poems were invited to perform them, spoken word style, in front of a camera and microphone.

The resulting footage was subsequently edited and combined with music composed expressly for the project. The end result are the “videopoems” that will be unveiled at the reception on Friday. They are also being made available via YouTube and for sharing social media (check for up-to-date details).

Meanwhile, Lee collaborated with three emerging visual artists to create a set of posters that correspond to the poems. There will be plenty of copies available at the reception for people to take home.

So, as the artist put it when we spoke with her this week, the process allowed a “chain of inspiration” — from the stories, to the poems, to the film work, and to the posters.

She also talked about how Folk Myths of Kitchener became “the most ambitious most ambitious project I’ve done.”

Most of the editing was done at the Commons Studio, originally known as the Multicultural Cinema Club, above the Queen Street Commons Café. Because I work there three days a week, I got a firsthand look at how this aspect of project unfolded. At this point, without having seen the final result, the overriding impression for me is the prodigious amount of work involved. The library sequence alone involved more than 40 individual community voices.

Lee had kind words to say about being able to do work in an open community space, with support from Commons Studio associates of all kinds. But her deepest expression of appreciation was for the privilege of working with City of Kitchener arts and culture program assistant Carrie Kozlowski as project administrator, motivator, deadline keeper, producer and all round facilitator.

The aim, at the outset, was to present “new folk stories that are enchanting and celebratory,” and write poems that would help create “a sense of wonder about our city.”

The stories people told at the market, the library and on the trail were overwhelmingly positive. But input related to the downtown in general had a darker, less celebratory strain.

The contrast adds another element of intrigue to Folk Myths of Kitchener.

Martin de Groot writes about local arts and culture each Saturday. You can reach him by email .