The suitcases are packed and on display.
Inside Teegatha’Oh Zheh’s Ray Street location on Nov. 7, an eclectic mix of colourful works of art in the form of suitcases were stacked on a table, displaying the talents and personalities of each artist.
The suitcases are now part of an exhibit entitled ‘My Suitcase’, which opened at the Yukon Arts Centre Nov. 15 and continues until Dec. 22, just one part of a larger project that also delves into film, music, podcasts and performance art.
Teegatha’Oh Zheh is a non-profit that works to support and advocate for adults with intellectual disabilities, also providing day programming to its clients.
Over the last year, work has been underway at Teegatha’Oh Zheh to create My Suitcase, a project described as being “at the intersection of disability and art”.
As Teegatha’Oh Zheh’s executive director Rebecca Dacko-Brink explained: “We want Yukoners to know that people with disabilities are artists. We want to demonstrate the unique artistic point-of-view and talent that can be discovered when everyone has a chance to express themselves.”
Work on the project began when Dacko-Brink reached about the possibility of an art project with Julie Robinson. Funding for it was secured through a number of territorial and federal programs.
Robinson is now based in British Columbia, but had lived in the territory for years and worked with organizations like the Yukon Association of Community Living, the Ynklude Arts Society and others. She was also a co-founder of Autism Yukon. In a number of those roles, Robinson took the lead on many inclusive art projects and was happy to step in as the artistic director for this one.
“Our culture accepts that individuals with intellectual disabilities don’t have the capacity – number one; and then we don’t give them the agency,” she said. “And then everybody believes that we should accept the common denominator, which is, for me, unacceptable. I have a son who’s 32 with autism, and I know his potential. I know that I am supporting him to have a life that is as full as it can be. And, you know, he is my driving force. This is why I do it for other people, because I know it’s possible.”
My Suitcase features the work of 30 artists living with disability who have worked with Robinson and a number of professional choreographers, artists, videographers and musicians to create original work reflecting their lives, concerns, hopes and dreams.
As Robinson said, there are often barriers for people with intellectual disabilities in the arts. While tickets may be provided so that individuals can attend an arts event, there are not a lot of opportunities to create for an audience.
“We want to change that,” Robinson said. “We wanted to produce the art, we want to be fully engaged in the artistic community.”
A quick glance at the suitcases reveals the unique skills of each artist. A closer look at each shares with the audience the influences, interests and events that have had an impact on the artist’s lives.
Some have focussed largely on their interests — Aimee Lien’s is all about the character of Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmations, for example; another showcases a love of Ferrari’s, including plush dice hanging from the top of the opened suitcase that’s designed to look like a dashboard — while others are more autobiographical and share the joys and sorrows the artist has experienced.
For Rachel Dawson, the project allowed her to share a family tragedy that has had a big impact on her this year. Inside a folder in her suitcase is a printed CBC story detailing the apology issued by the RCMP to her family over the handling of her grandmother’s death in the 1960s when Tootsie Jimmy-Charlie’s body was found in a Whitehorse dump.
On Aug. 3 of this year, the RCMP said conduct of the police and the coroner at the time hampered closure for the family and the community at large and put other Indigenous women at risk over the following decades.
Dawson has difficulty speaking, but she is clear about the importance of the story for her, pointing to specific paragraphs and aspects as she shares it.
“Rachel got to go be with her dad and her family in Watson Lake when they mourned her (grandmother) again,” Robinson said. “And so Rachel wanted to include her story in her suitcase.”
Also included in Dawson’s piece is a medal earned at the Special Olympics, a picture of her boyfriend and small painted boxes, each holding something special for her, like more photographs of important people in her life.
Tijana McCarthy’s suitcase also pays tribute to an important influence in her life, with photos of her deceased grandfather featured. Her grandfather has been a big focus of her thoughts recently as his birthday approaches later in November.
Alongside photos in McCarthy’s suitcase, it’s easy to get a sense of McCarthy’s tastes. Slytherin memorabilia shows exactly what Hogwarts house she was sorted into, empty cans of Diet Coke and Buble tell you what she likes to drink, and then there’s the giant jar of pickles.
“I love pickles,” she laughed, while Theresa Hayduck, who has been working with the artists on the project, confirmed just that, noting she hasn’t met anyone who loves pickles as much as McCarthy does.
McCarthy is also planning to add medals from Special Olympics to her suitcase. An accomplished athlete, McCarthy has competed and medalled in a number of Special Olympic events at the provincial, national and world level both in figure skating and golf. Most recently she was named to the Canadian golf team that will compete at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin next June.
While the suitcase exhibit at the Yukon Arts Centre will be on display for more than a month, those who attended the unveiling from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 15 also took in a performance featuring music by some of the artists, including songs they have written.
Fauve Berrel is among the song writers who have been working with Andrea McColeman on the music.
McColeman, who’s known and written music with Berrel for years, said they often come up with songs about whatever might be happening that day.
One such song — Forget It — was inspired when McColeman came to visit Berrel on a day when Berrel was feeling down.
The result ended up being an upbeat, catchy tune accompanying lyrics that sum up those days everyone has from time to time.
“I really don’t feel like talking today,
“I don’t wanna go, I just wanna stay,
“There’s nothing you can do, you should just go away,
“You won’t change my mind, no matter what you say,” reads the song’s first verse.
Throughout the performance, Lien provided sign language.
It’s one of many roles Lien is taking on in the project that have ranged from spending two months working on her Cruella de Vil-themed suitcase creation to evenings spent learning the runway walk, under the instruction of dance teacher Chérie Coquette, to take on the role of Cruella de Vil for the film portion of the project.
Lien said she was very excited when she first watched the Cruella de Vil movie and pleased she could bring that into the art project.
The film is now in the editing stages and it’s hoped it will be finished in time for Christmas.
Efforts are also underway on the podcast portion of the project as some parts of that had to be put off due to COVID-19.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org