Local artist uses art to build resilience, community

Maigan van der Giessen knows that confronting injustice can be overwhelming. That’s why she approaches injustice through art.

“I think art is one of the best ways to approach social justice work because you’re often dealing with issues that can be controversial or difficult,” says van der Giessen. “[Art is] an easier way to interface with people about bigger issues that feel either far away or too difficult to tackle.”

Van der Giessen combines art and social justice in personal creative projects, which include spoken word poetry and music albums, but also in her work with two local organizations: the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights and iHuman.

Students build resilience through art project on health and human rights
Local high school students create an art project that expresses their concern with health and human rights. Photo courtesy of Maigan van der Giessen

Through the John Humphrey Centre, van der Giessen conducts education workshops with youth on human rights issues. Typically, her workshops begin as conversations with participants about social justice issues that are important to them. Once the participants have identified a problem they feel passionate about, they work together to find a way to express creatively what they have been discussing.

These creative expressions can take many forms, including visual art and performance art pieces. One of van der Giessen’s projects was to work with a diverse set of youth to explore their perspective on poverty in Edmonton and how poverty affects human rights. Together they identified four pillars of human rights and made physical creations for each one, using materials from the river valley. As part of one of their pillars, they used a wasp’s nest to help represent issues of security that come with poverty.

At iHuman, where van der Giessen works on various art projects with youth who have had traumatic experiences, art can also take many forms and use diverse materials. One youth at iHuman turned her old and tattered shoes into an art project by placing them on a board with the question “would you walk in these shoes?”

Using old and worn objects is a way of making art accessible to everyone, explains van der Giessen. “I think it’s really important to remember that art is for everybody, it’s not just for someone who can afford to buy a canvas. The world is your canvas. Let’s try to think of ways to make it open to everybody.”

As a way of allowing people to express themselves in relation to issues of injustice, art can build resilience and strengthen community. “I see how art impacts resilience,” says van der Giessen. “It makes me a more resilient person in my own life. I see it with young people that I work with. And I see its potential for bringing communities together.”

Van der Giessen’s interest in art and resilience informed her decision to hold a workshop at the upcoming Edmonton Resilience Festival. While explaining why she chose to do a workshop for the festival, van der Giessen discusses her interest in community building. “I’m really interested in how different communities use art to gather people together and promote inclusivity but also talk about their communities through art,” says van der Giessen. “I think of 118 Ave as a really great example of how they’re bringing people together and trying to transform their neighbourhood.” She says she hopes to see more projects in Edmonton that “that bring together all kinds of people and promote creativity” and give people a voice in shaping their community.

During her workshop, she said she plans to provide a couple of examples of communities facing adversity that have used art to promote change, connection and resilience. Afterwards, participants will have the opportunity to create art while asking questions about building community and their role in that process.

Van der Giessen’s work shop, titled “Artistic Justice: The Transformative Power of Creativity” will run at the Resilience Festival on Feb. 8 from 4 to 6 p.m. as part of the workshop stream no.11.

Those who can attend the workshop have the chance to collaboratively explore using art to build local resilience. Those who cannot attend the workshop can take inspiration from van der Giessen’s suggestion that “the world is your canvas.” Using art to tackle injustice and build resilience can be done anytime, anywhere with whatever materials are available.