photos: Dalannah Gail Bowen runs the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts. Photo by Tracy Giesz.

Art heals

Arts Profile: The Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts hosts first all-female art exhibit this month. 

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By Tracy Giesz

 

At the intersection of Carrall Street and East Hastings, Dalannah Gail Bowen is seated in her open-access office. She offers up a freshly steeped chamomile tea, and with her inviting smile opens our chat with an ingrained wisdom of gratitude and recognition for where she sits today.

"It's wonderful. People have dropped in and just wanted to talk ... that's why I'm so grateful for this place: right on the street where they can walk in and share whatever they want to share."

Bowen runs the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts, a grassroots organization at 7 East Hastings St. It's a project she began in collaboration with the Portland Hotel Society during the early 2000s with the sentiment that "art heals."

More than a number
Bowen emphasizes the importance of cultivating this type of connection.

"Their norm is sitting in a welfare office or a doctor's office and being paid lip service, in so many words. It's an art to truly listen; we need more people who are in my position instead of just shuffling them through with great disrespect.”

If you’re only seen as a number, you’re not treated like a person, she says.

Bowen has her own personal history with hardship and marginalization, having struggled with homelessness and addiction in the late 1990s. When she started out on her own path to recovery, Bowen made an effort to go to various organizations to participate in art programs—but she faced barriers.

"At the time, it was challenging because it [was] conditional participation. By that I mean you had to have HIV, AIDS, a mental illness or otherwise," she remembers.

So when a connection was made with Portland Hotel Society, Bowen approached her dream of creating a no-barriers, unrestricted art community where anyone could submit their art, take a class, or pop by to chat in a supportive space in the Downtown Eastside. The society’s former executive director agreed “that art was a powerful healing tool,” and gave them access to the space.

Both the art curator's gratitude and her advocacy remain unflinching. “I wanted to do something that was an open door policy. And so we have made every effort to do that and have been quite successful at it.”

When looking at addiction recovery rates, consistency helps. Bowen shares her own background bouncing between unreliable assistance programs.

"I know when I was living in that experience, the inconsistency of programs and what was offered to the community made it difficult: you [would] get involved in a program and then in two months it's over.

Often in the surveys that we [conducted] we saw that this was when people relapsed."

‘Be consistent’
Bowen upholds her past as a key to future solutions. "It's not the easiest thing, doing this work down here, [both] because of the opioid crisis and because you have to recognize that we're dealing with unhealthy people who could be healthy given the right opportunities,” she says. “So our task is to just keep on doing it and be consistent."

The space where the art exhibits take place, Interurban Gallery, is around the corner; their installations happen four times a year, sharing the open room by rotating with the nearby Portland Hotel Society building and The Window Community Art Shop. "In the gallery right now is the Community Quilt Exhibit: we completed four months of [quilting] workshops and then created these quilts."

The Downtown Eastside Art Centre’s mandate of encouraging participation and possibilities for people in the community through the arts also fosters dialogue and connection that may not have happened elsewhere.

The program director recalls an instance at a quilting workshop where one woman had difficulty sitting for the duration of the workshop and would leave unexpectedly only five or 10 minutes in. However, she was always welcomed back. Eventually the woman was able to complete a fabric square for the quilt.

On Oct. 18, Interurban will open its doors to Bowen's first ever all-women art exhibit, The Feminine Touch. Bowen is excited about featuring solely female artists in an exhibit because it’s the first time she has ever seen a show like it in the Downtown Eastside. “And I've been down here for 15 years. So it'll be a marker in that way."

Encouraging opportunities
The exhibit is Bowen’s response to the number of talented female artists she’s seen in the Downtown Eastside and she hopes this show will give them exposure to the local art scene.

“We balance community artists with professional artists as an opportunity for them to get showcased with professional artists. It is also important in their journey to have aspirations,

and this is to encourage possibilities,” she says.

Bowen discusses the importance of femininity in society and how she sees a shift coming our way. “Indigenous people all over the world believe the way women approach issues and personal challenges is quite different from men—and so it should be. There's nothing wrong with that.”

However, she notes that society created a new dynamic where she believes men came to make all the critical decisions, and she believes that should shift back. “In Indigenous culture, you always went to the matriarchs: they sat in council, discussed the issues, made the decision, and then the chief would act.”

Bowen points out that many of the Indigenous nations of North and South America as well as overseas are returning to the old ways, and she wants to be a part of that newly turned leaf. “Since it's such an important time for women in the world, I wanted to make that kind of a statement. A stern hand with love behind it has a completely different effect.”

 

The Feminine Touch will be on display at the Interurban Gallery from October 18 to November 11. 

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