this is WHO I AM

The Thursday afternoon before Easter was one of those bipolar days of early Spring: sun, then rain; warm, then cold; then pellet-sized hail; then marble-sized hail; then run inside-sized hail — a wild, arrhythmic display of Nature pulling Her instruments out of winter storage and tuning up Her orchestra. But if you dared venture out to ramble aimlessly around town on such a day, you just might have stumbled into the grand opening of a group art exhibit by the Gulf Islands Families Together Society (a.k.a., GIFTS), titled "this is WHO I AM."

It would be hard to recall a warmer, friendlier greeting accorded to an exhibition visitor by participating artists, gallerists, and various personnel. The first thing that catches your eye as you enter the lobby is a small Fauvist painting of a guitar, rendered with strong, vibrant splashes of sunny yellow and enthusiastic orange, echoing artist Claire Motherwell's love of folk guitar music. The second thing you see in the lobby (which you should have seen firstly, given its size and prominence), is the GIFTS Gratitude Tree, whose backstory would be revealed shortly.

Painting by Claire Motherwell

The requisite art gallery exhibition opening day lute player in the corner was provided in the form of an interview-shy baritone ukulelist, whose on-the-nose cover of "Paint It Black" was followed by a crushing free-form jam. It was the perfect accompaniment to the series of miniature abstract washes in front of which he played, the mostly blue color fields of David McEachern, which flanked one larger piece, a kitchen sink of anything goes wide brush swatches.

GIFTS has been operating on Salt Spring for almost twenty years, supporting people with disabilities by recognizing their right to employment and access to social, recreational, and educational programs, including housing. (Community Living BC provides province-level funding.) Disabilities, diverse abilities — no one here is hung up on words. At the center of the discussion is the desire to build community and create a network of support, while embracing diversity, inclusion, and individuality. All participants live on Salt Spring, and have a wide range of independence.

GIFTS has been run by Program Coordinator Denise Devlin for the past four years after serving in similar positions in California and her hometown in Ontario. "It's engaging and individualized," explained Devlin. "Participants work with a support worker on a one-on-one basis and develop personalized plans of art. They develop their own work."

The new show was designed for the twelve participants so they could share insight into their sense of self in relation to the community. Such was the work of Max Haffner, whose collage celebrated his African heritage. Next to Max was a particularly touching photo exhibit featuring Amy Fortin, which displayed images of her life as a volunteer visitor and companion to several residents at Greenwoods Eldercare Society and Meadowbrook Seniors Residence.

Now, some so-called art lover and critics are well-known for attending events such as these simply to raid the snack table; judgment of a show's merit can often hang in the balance, based on the spread. Such bias aside, it was easy to imagine one of the half dozen bistros, cafes, and restaurants, all within walking distance, kicking in a platter or two to spice up the celebration for non-profit, socially conscious organizations such as GIFTS, for future exhibits. Most visitors would probably toss in a toonie if a tip jar was set out. #justsayin'

Food was on the mind of Chris Joynson, a conceptual artist and photographer, as he introduced himself with a gusto of Salt Spring friendliness, jumping right into a discussion of which would be a better dinner choice for that evening, nachos or pizza. (Nachos were mutually agreed upon as a proper Thursday evening meal, pizza of course being reserved for Fridays; olives were roundly dismissed as inappropriate toppings for either.) Initially apprehensive about the idea of being an artist, and art in general, Chris is now is the biggest proponent at GIFTS, a mainstay of the program.

Indeed, one gets the impression that Chris brings vitality to everything he does. And he does quite a lot, by any standard. He has several jobs and volunteer positions in town, including Country Grocer, Mouat's Hardware, Blackburn Transfer Station, and the Salt Spring Fire Department. Chris also serves on the board of directors at GIFTS to represent the voice of his fellow participants, and he also takes care of building maintenance. Chris's installation of his fireman's regalia, from helmet to boots, was a life-size display for a larger than life man, hitting the nail squarely on the head of the show's theme. He also had a splashy colorful video presentation of his photography, showcasing scenes from his life and travels, including a highlight trip to Disneyland, with every shot featuring his big, wide, infectious smile.

"Shauna" (closeup of installation by RhiAnnon Klassen)

GIFTS has had three major milestones in the recent past, which were reflected in their group exhibitions. The first show, "Wishes," coincided with the buying of their building on McPhillips Avenue, no small feat given the avaricious hold that real estate has over this island and the province in general. The second show, titled "Gratitude," was the celebration of the building's purchase (made possible by a sizable donation chunk from former board of directors Norman and Diane Elliot, well-known philanthropist angels to GIFTS over the years), and spawned the Gratitude Tree, which became a lobby fixture.

The current show focused inward. "Now that we're centered, we want to start exploring what this community is about," said Greg Klassen, GIFTS Art Coordinator and accomplished photographer, who will have a show with his partner Andrea Locke this August at ArtSpring. "Everyone includes aspects of their identity."

The focal point of the exhibit could be found along a row in the middle of the space, an installation of eight plus teddy bears whose costumes were designed by RhiAnnon Klassen (Greg's daughter). A personal tour of her work came with a strong bear hug, which belied her delicate frame, and a sweet holding of hands throughout the entire conversation. RhiAnnon's work was accompanied by a series of photographs of the bears she had taken at Mt. Maxwell, and one of the photographs served as poster for the exhibit. Most of the bears in her installation were named Shauna (which, coincidentally, just so happens to be the name of her support worker). The installation was a big soft splash of warm purple, RhiAnnon's most favorite color, and which underlined the childlike warmth and simplicity of the exhibit and the vibe that is GIFTS.

Like any precious jewel, the GIFTS building is well-hidden, nestled across the street from ArtSpring beyond the end of McPhillips Avenue, with plenty of trees for camouflage. You can pop in to view the exhibit most weekdays and experience this local treasure. Gratitude tags are available on a side table to the right as you enter, so feel free to fill one out. You can't miss the tree.

Gratitude Tree

The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.