Come together, right now

It would be hard to imagine how a Stitch and Bitch event fits in with Stephen Harper’s description of artists as a bunch of snobs at “a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough,” as seen by the “ordinary folks” of Canada.

It’s Thursday night at a laid-back bar in downtown Winnipeg and you’ve got a familiar variety of people; those immersed in intimate conversation, a few musicians jamming, and the usual influx of those coming in for a cheap drink. There also happens to be a small group settled informally around a long piece of canvas sewing. Next to the usual pints of FGD and other assorted beverages lie packages of needles and enough embroidery thread hues to make any colour-crazy heart weep. While some people at the table work on pen-marked designs, others work freehand and a few just stop in to chat. If you really want to believe that there is a line here which demarcates the “artists” from the “ordinary folks,” then it’s one which definitely has nothing to do with formal dress or martini glasses. The only tablecloth here is the one being stitched on.

The piece in question began its life as a drop cloth for potluck dinner parties held at Ace Art Inc., through a program called the Feast project, where everyone who came was invited to sign it; an idea began by Program Director Hannah Godfrey’s mother. Although initially she had planned to embroider all the signatures herself, it quickly became apparent that this was not the work for any individual not planning on cloistering themselves away in a nunnery for awhile. The expanse of white cloth and stains could have become a millstone around her neck, but instead she turned it into the impetus for a whole new art programming event, the monthly Stitch and Bitch, now held at the Lo Pub.

Godfrey explains: “It’s not about everyone participating in terms of sewing and actually making this thing but [ . . . ] actually about participating in a community event, and it doesn’t have to be an art community event; it’s an event which is involving people who associate with different areas of the city and are brought together by geographical location.”
On the last Thursday of every month the cloth and appropriate equipment are taken out to a public space where anyone can join in. Consequently, the circle of those involved with the project has expanded exponentially. A substantial percentage of participants literally stumbled in to the event off the street and then came to hang out for a while. Others were brought along by friends or knew about it through other arts organizations in the city. Though eventually the cloth may reach a state of completion that allows it to be placed on display, any potential exhibition certainly isn’t the point. The piece already holds meaning for a vast number of people outside of any aesthetic judgment — though, for the record, it also happens to be beautiful.

For anyone who has taken half a glance at the condition of the arts funding in Canada, Harper’s image of artists as a bunch of wealthy government subsidized whiners is clearly ridiculous. Realistically, even the rare few who get any of Canada’s paltry grant money are probably still stuffing canapés into their rented formal-wear. Still, Harper’s statement gains support from some precisely because it relies on tired, but well-established stereotypes of the arts as the exclusive domain of a few elitist gatekeepers, and their social role reduced to purely decorative, a vice to be partaken of in the appropriate circumstances once you’ve finished with all the really important things.

In this version, art is something to be consumed because it is supposed to be good for you — on par with swallowing cod-liver oil — not something you do for enjoyment. It’s a philosophy built on an expected one-way transaction between audience and art, no matter what the medium. Becoming “cultured” is equivalent to attaining a sense of moral betterment because you’ve familiarized yourself with the right names to make you sound smart, in the odd cases you are one of those rare individuals who gets invited to cocktail parties. More broadly, it’s built on reverence for the individual genius, ideas of intellectual property, and — for some — the idea that there is a set message which you either get or you don’t. “Artist” is a category which you either do or don’t belong to, and to be a good one is to produce work which other authorities must agree has value.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many people feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with them?
With collaborative art, all these assumptions go out the window. For the purpose of this article, what I define as “collaborative art” is any creative project in which the production of a finished work is of less importance than the participation of a group of people. Although the term refers to the growing movement of Stitch and Bitch craft events which have been popping up, it also covers activities such as collage parties, postcard exchanges and community center organized pieces by kids where everyone contributes a handprint — basically, anything where the process of collaborating is a significant part of what comes out of it. It can either be a case of everyone making something individually or contributing to a singular work. Whatever the specifics, what collaborative art is not is “elitist” or “inaccessible” — all the things which the clichés would have you believe it is.

One of the organizations in the city which provides the clearest examples of this philosophy at work is Ace Art, an artist-run centre situated in the Exchange District with the mandate to support emerging artists, as well as those of Aboriginal heritage or who self-identify as LGBT*. In addition to running regular art gallery exhibitions, Ace also runs regular programming which is accessible to everyone, made possible by three full-time staff as well as a board and a membership base. Becoming a member costs $10 for students or $25 for those of adequate income, which then gives you access to the extensive journal library, project room space, full woodworking studio, computer and scanner, a copy of their annual publication Paper Wait, as well as the ability to participate in a few specific member-only events.

Ace Art is not unique in offering these services, although they certainly offer an impressive array of programming. What is important to note here is that the vision of artistic enterprise is one where creative endeavours are linked intrinsically to other parts of social community life. In an interview, Hannah Godfrey described the diversity of public response to an exhibit by Alexander David in which a huge wooden curve was built within the gallery space; instead of passively observing the piece, the transformed space was then used by skateboarders, for secret cinema, live band performances and a book launch. She explained that, for Ace, this reaction meant it was a successful exhibition since “[p]eople were really being creative and making their own culture and so that’s what I felt was being suggested, was that people had this place where they could make something of their own.”

Although it might seem that hosting an exhibition and running a Stitch and Bitch are activities on almost opposite ends of the spectrum, where they meet is in allowing people to engage actively in creative activities. Radically opposed to the consume good art because it will improve your moral fibre model referenced by the Stephen Harpers of the world, the people who work in the arts as organizational staff or artists are there to make resources accessible. As Hannah Godfrey explains, “We’ve got so much bounty, we’ve got so much treasure here [ . . . ] it seems such a shame that we can’t share all of this with everyone in the city, it’s exciting, like having a huge dinner party and only having half the seats around the table filled. I want all the seats filled.”

For Hannah, running collaborative art projects is just one way to do that, but also to “involve Winnipeggers who are artists or non-artists, or whoever in different cultural activities, or just fun really.” Participation in a non-judgment based activity allows people to go back in time to the point to when everyone just grabbed the crayons before they learned that there was a right way to draw. Collaborative art projects are a tremendously valuable social entity because they go a long way to removing that sense of competition from people’s dealings with each other.

Although I suppose you could try, it would be hard to hog the glory as the most brilliant finger painter at a party because the skill levels of individual participants is so irrelevant to the process.
For professional artists, collaborative art can provide great networking opportunities, but they are almost more valuable for those who aren’t. Many people, especially those who are in the university system, spend vast amounts of time working alone on projects like essays, which are then subjected to external judgment. In addition to creating stress, it also creates isolation, to which art can be a potent antidote. This type of art builds genuine community spaces in which people can release their expectations of themselves and be free for a while. This feeling of validation can then be transferred into other aspects of life, allowing us to let go of some of the fear instilled in us as adults when we learn social rules.

At a time when the federal government is making so many cuts to arts funding, it can be easy to follow their rationale that this money could be better used for other things since the arts are in fact “something separate from the rest of society.” Then you have to consider that when this funding gets cut, it isn’t the big entities like national galleries which suffer; it’s places like Ace Art, the ones who are working to serve much-needed roles in community building. When it comes to the functioning life of a society, the arts serve needs that are fundamental, prosaic, and profoundly humanizing. They allow people to be in dialogue with their world as opposed to passive receptacles for external voices, to become part of something larger than themselves. And that is something that even Stephen Harper can’t find fault with.

For more information on Ace Art’s programs visit