Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Re-Leaf Gets No Relief

On June 21, District of North Vancouver councilors unanimously agreed to prohibit Re-Leaf to operate a non-profit dispensary for medical marijuana in the Deep Cove area.

Re-Leaf founder Ken Starr's attempted grand opening on June 11 was met by RCMP and district officials who let him know they would take further action if he kept his doors open.

The issue, many councillors agreed, is how the land - not the drug - should be used.

“We are not debating the benefits and merits of marijuana, we are debating land use and whether this business is appropriate for the district. I believe it isn't. The public clearly demonstrated that,” Counc. Robin Hicks said about the comments made at the June 14 public hearing by community members.

Counc. Lisa Muri said the debate about legality of dispensaries – often known as compassion clubs where they operate illegally in other locations around the Lower Mainland – is for senior levels of government. “Our powers lie in land use. We work with our community to determine how best to serve our neighbourhoods and we zone accordingly. This is not our fight.”

Several councilors welcomed a clear directive from the federal government on what to do about dispensaries and called for better access to the plant through the health system.

But Ken Starr said described this kind of reaction as a typical form of nimbyism.

“In my opinion, they've just passed the buck. They're not wanting to deal with it at all. They all said they are compassionate for it but not in my backyard,” he said.

However, many councilors acknowledged a clear need in the community for medical marijuana on the North Shore.

But Counc. Mike Little said there is a stigma in the community against those who seek it for pain relief.

“I want to do everything in our power to show that our community can be a compassionate community,” he said. “The way to get the broader community away from a stigma issue is through good regulation. If this was coming through a doctor's prescription or through a pharmacy, I don't think the community would have the same kind of response.”

Counc. Alan Nixon expressed his concern that a business owner wouldn't first establish approval from the district in the form of a business license and a building inspection before opening up shop saying Starr went “around the rules”.

But Starr said that wasn't true. In August 2010, he said he was told by the District office zoning department that if he could find a location on the North Shore that would lease their building to him, he could go ahead.

“Every time I called and asked about a location - they told me they knew what I was and I explained what I was, they were very clear on that - and they told me if I found a commercial retail zoning spot they would be extremely happy and that is what I found,” Starr said.

Starr believes it is a good place for it, despite council arguments that it is in the wrong one from a planning perspective.

“I researched how many people on the North Shore how many people had a need for it and it seemed to be between Deep Cove and Lonsdale where the majority of the people were,” he said.

But Counc. Nixon said that for many living in the District it would be faster to go to a downtown dispensary than to Deep Cove.

At deadline, Starr was unsure whether he would further pursue his goal to open a dispensary.

A Living Canvas: Jordan Bent Takes His Brush to the Street

Heading down the hall to Jordan Bent's live/work space in the ARC building at the bottom of Vancouver's Commercial Drive, I hedge my bets that his studio is the open door at the end of the hallway. There is rakishly thin Bent in rolled up jeans, a cardigan and standing on cold tiles in his bare feet in January, his face as wide open as the threshold to the studio. He was preparing to make tea. Not just any tea, tea he ventured down to Chinatown to procure from Daniel, his supplier who sourced this particular block of 12-year-old Pu-er from the Yunnan province.

It's his way of inviting ritual into his life, he says softly, handing me a tiny clay cup and calmly watching my face as I tasted the first flavours of what will become many ceremonial pours throughout the afternoon.

We sit at the East-facing window perched on stools and looking out at the reflection the sunset makes on the snow-capped mountains. On Bent's walls are pieces from his last show False Teeth: Real Bite and a mural with the word IGNORANCE in block letters and filled in with his signature figurative drawings.

The show was what several hundred people viewed on Vancouver's famous East Side Cultural Crawl, an art walk that draws crowds - and his art - out of obscurity.

In watching people wander into and out of his studio, he said he gained “a statistical access” to people which sharpens his ability to produce public art that jumps off a wall and really speaks to people.

Bent made the transition from doing exclusively gallery and commissioned work to painting on brick and concrete canvases in 2007 when the city approved a two mural proposals for Charles and Graveley streets off Commercial Drive. Though he describes the early stages of choosing what to put on the wall and as daunting, he has since became enchanted and humbled by doing work that is transient, so much so that it has become the thrust of his artistic vision.

“There is something beautiful about doing something that is non-consumable: you can't take it home, you can't buy it, you can just observe it and let it impact you. It is by nature just an idea.”

His impassioned speech borders on political commentary. As he talks about his work in the context of social reform, he takes on the air of a young revolutionary.

“It's a beautiful confidence to feel that the world is changeable, that it's no longer as it seems and that we can continue to alter it. That is a huge feeling because we get so daunted by systems and oppressions around what we should be and where we should be and so it's great that graffiti as a nature can really change that view on just a very visceral level – something that wasn't there before is now there.”

Looking at his murals, you feel like he first dips his paintbrush in a mythical dream before setting to work. His Pirandello-like characters that have stepped out of another dimension. His work is powerful enough to catch the preoccupied eye of the busy daily commuter, almost forcing them to look up from their iPhone and pause to ponder. He is someone you can picture sitting by the glow of a kerosene lantern, smoking a pipe and typing out a Once-Upon-A-Time story on an ancient Smith Corona he fixed after lovingly rescuing it from the back alley.

It wouldn't be the first thing he rescued from the back alley, having restored the well known wall of Aisle 45 in the Downtown Eastside - popularly referred to as Canada's poorest and most drug-addicted neighbourhood with a mural.

The wall was badly dilapidated – chunks of brick would break off – and the mural would, at most, last for two years. Showing up some days, he would often find people sleeping in the doorway he was supposed to paint. But for Bent, the experience is what makes it the most rewarding journey of discovering how to refract a very intense but beautiful culture, he said.

“This is a place where street culture lives, where they do their drugs, where they sleep, where they throw up, where they fuck. This is where they lose themselves or maybe gain themselves.”

But in creating temporary wallpaper for the homeless' collective outdoor home, Bent's face troubles with concern as he talks about the darker forces at work behind the project. He acknowledges that his presence there could be just another wave of gentrification that is quickly spreading throughout the city.

“The small gesture we're doing is part of that change that might even push them out of there or alienating them. Making that first aesthetic difference, saying, “Actually, you know what, you guys should probably move on. There's a hint of that too.”

Speaking about his own home as we moved onto eating dates and Lindt chocolates, Bent said he will have to pull out of his space at the ARC - known as a hub for artists – simply because it is too expensive for him to maintain.

It has been a hard slog to foster imagination in a city that seems to pride itself on leaving concrete walls bare as a sign of its safety and cleanliness, and by extension muzzling the smattering of artists that have managed to survive the post-Olympic cost of living here.

However, Bent seems to buoy above the burden of obstacles. There is simply no room for them in his idealistic personality. The process of overcoming bureaucratic red tape looks like this: he creates the dream, sits through a bunch of meetings with the municipality and then, somehow, the technicalities are sorted out and it happens.

He is currently waiting on securing financial backing for his next project called Whispers, a multi-media piece that will record the voices of those living in the Downtown Eastside and post their comments throughout the city on different alleyways. The quotes will have little icon tags with them so that people's phones will register them and then feedback to a website where the longer stories are posted. The cyber version of a down-the-rabbit-hole art walk.

What he loves about the medium are all the unanswered questions that live in him afterward as he produces new material. He sees the artform as a highly visceral public process that engages people in discussions about how their neighbourhoods are defined.

But while pushing the envelope, he is still respectful of the fact that there are still some tensions around what he does, despite galleries legitimizing it and graffiti artist Banksy's popularity. He is highly sympathetic of building owners who have to pay a pretty penny to remove bullshit from their walls and might be hesitant about a mural going up, but that is all part of what makes the work so vital, he says.

“You have people with negativity. Some people slam me just because they can, because they're aggressive by nature and they'll sort of lash out, but that's kind of interesting too. I need to associate with it and not ignore it and say, 'Yeah, I hear your concerns. I'm doing a specific thing here'.”

On top of the maelstrom of dissent, his work is sometimes defaced. His Aisle 45 mural was tagged already. But Bent doesn't seem to be affected by this. In fact, he is almost the happier for it.

“It's an alley. That's going to happen. That's the nature of it. That's the nature of people - no matter what, they want to be seen. They want to be heard. The scribbles on the wall, they look stupid, they are stupid, but they're a voice, They're a necessity for people to get out of that place where they don't feel any power. We're dominated by remarkable forces around us that sustain our comfortability.”

His big blue eyes bulge with a vision: the possibility of a world bursting with legalized public expression.

Full of ethereal delight and refreshingly na├»ve curiosity, he asks me “Would people burst past apathy and do it? Would it actually explode and there could be something quite different appearing each day instead of all of these images that keep us trapped and only associating with advertisements?” He looks at me like I have the answer.

The conversation rolls into guerrilla initiatives of removable wheat puppets and laser graffiti, New York City's Swoon and a whole host of other artists who create brief monuments that are built on principals of freedom that get people thinking without pissing them off.

We have digressed, but in the spirit of a true artist, Bent trusts the creative flow of ideas and seems to relish in the company of people who drop into and out of his day to deliver messages of inspiration, essential ingredients to grow his mind for his next project Mapping: City of Dreams a multi-media performance piece for the PuSH festival.

When I am on my way out the door, young neighbour enters with a teacup and saucer. Bent warmly invites her in and she is absorbed into his ever-changing, living canvas. One more colourful character to set the tone in his evolving fairytale. It is time, again, for tea.

Patrick Swann, Slam Poet

If you've never been initiated into the world of slam poetry, your reaction to being dragged to a show might be - “A poetry show. Huh?”

That's what Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan native Patrick Swan overcomes when he tries to break the stigma of the stuffy, academic side of poetry. Swan lives in a world where cunning words aren't housed in mouldy, leather-bound, 5th editions of Oxford Companions and Norton Anthologies. Rather, he takes to the stage to get political - and often controversial - about pop culture icons like Michael Jackson.

He isn't the least worried about being heckled by a crowd of boisterous ball cap wearing drinkers whose last encounter with a poem could easily have been Grade 12 English.

Swan is used to people not understanding what he does which is why when he opened for a band in Regina one of the members said:

“'Yo, dude, I'm not going to lie, when we came in and they told us a poet was going to open for us we were like, 'Ah...that's really fucking weird,” he said.

His poems live off the page, infecting those watching enough to give up their loud boozy chats to simply listen.

“When I first started doing it, it was all about making the world a better place and all that crap that everybody was talking about. But now I'm more jaded and I write about being hungover and heartbreak and pop culture,” he said.

Swan first started slamming in Vancouver in 2003 when he made it to that year's semi-finals, nearly earning the winning title. He then found his way back to Regina where he was recruited by a friend's band to go on a Canadian tour.

“At the beginning of shows I'd jump up and do one or two poems and go back to selling t-shirts for them,” Swan said.

Touring gave him a taste of what people want to see and hear and he then set about separating the wheat – his good poems –from the chaff – everything else. Then he headed back out West to give the Vancouver slam scene a run for its money, performing in more slam competitions. He later found he began to outgrow the competition aspect of it and started headlining as the feature poet at shows.

“When I was slamming I found myself at that point where I was just like writing three-minute poems that sounded good but I wasn't necessarily completely satisfied with. I wanted to try writing different styles so I started moving away from it,” he said.

Swan claims he isn't really a book man, so not surprising that he doesn't make it his aim to appear in literary journals or get a masters degree in creative writing. Instead, he produces his own books. His first, Texas Hot Talk, was a collection of poems he had printed at Staples and his second, Aesthetically Absurd Young Drunk Monuments was a collaboration with a friend who is both fan and graphic designer.

He also isn't one to fill pages and pages of notebooks on a constant basis but instead takes his creative cue like a Saskatchewan farmer reads the weather – working with what you've got and realizing you can't do much about it when it works against you.

“I don't write a lot. I don't force myself to write. I take notes here and there and then write when I've got something. I write when I'm happy and when I'm bummed out. But most of my better stuff comes out when I'm angry or feeling shitty. That's where the funny stuff comes from,” he said.

The funny – and often tragic – stuff also comes from Swan's Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition which is typically misrepresented in mainstream culture by television shows that parody the symptom of uncontrollable swearing.

Diagnosed when he was 18 – he is now 28 – Swan said he didn't really develop a complex about it and as a result, isn't hindered by the psychological label.

“I didn't have a clue what was going on until way later. After I first got diagnosed it was a little bit of,“Oh, this sucks” and then I got over it pretty quick and now it's just something I live with. When I'm on stage I'm very focused so it never really interferes. Sometimes, just before I start I feel like I'm going to twitch a bunch but then as soon as I focus on what I'm doing I'm good to go,” he said.

It has certainly provided food for creative fodder. He has written a piece called Tourettes that, if you are the sensitive type, will make you weep harder than a late 80's Bell Long Distance commercial.

What results from his maelstrom artistic process varies. He hit a creative drought and didn't write or perform for a year, brought on by the fact his latest material was not well-received and everyone wanted to hear popular favourites that he was tired of doing.

“I was presenting some of my new ones that I thought were some of my best work that I've written and people were saying, 'Let's hear Michael Jackson' (a humourous poem he wrote about the icon) and I thought, 'F#$% this',” he said.

It was a friend who pulled him out of his slump.

“My friend Owen said, 'Okay, so you're going to start writing again and we're going to book you some shows' and I said, 'Okay, I guess that's what we're going to do'.”

It doesn't come as a surprise to Swan that reactions to his work have been run the gamut from positive to negative.

“I got every little thing from people telling me they liked what I was doing to dudes throwing ice cubes at me,” he said.

At any moment, Swan has 16-or-so poems memorized with a lot of new stuff waiting to be committed to memory. He gauges what the crowd will like like a meteorologist assesses the weather patterns during Mother Nature's climate change-induced hot flashes.

“I'm at a weird point in my life where I actually have to select the poems instead of doing all the poems I have,” he said.

He goes with his gut and just rolls with it, depending on how he's feeling on the day. He hopes to eventually carve out a niche for himself outside of North America. But for now, he is content to march the untrodden ground of the modern poet across Canada and the U.S. The good thing is that he doesn't have to contend with getting stopped at border crossings like many other artists on tour.

“They'll ask, 'What are you doing?' and I'll say, 'I'm going to a poetry show in Seattle' and they don't really ask a lot of questions. They just say, 'Okay. Poetry show. How harmless is that?'” he said.