FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Sylvie Stojanovski
FUTURES/forward Mentee, Sylvie Stojanovski — cohort #4, November 2021 to May 2022 — mentored by Laura Barron
As part of the triad model, Sylvie was placed as an artist-in-residence at Youth Challenge International (YCI), a global non-profit organization that explores the intersection between youth and innovation by addressing health, the environment and inequality.
Community-engaged arts project co-created with YCI — Postcards for the Planet — a series of collaborative workshops to help people, particularly youth, feel more hopeful and inspired to create sustainable change during earth month + all year-round through tending to their relationship to themselves, others + the planet.
SYLVIE STOJANOVSKI (she/they) is a multidisciplinary artist, creative facilitator and community organizer who lives on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, in what is currently known as Scarborough, Ontario. A recent graduate of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Arts Management and Studio Art programs, her creative work explores the myriad of relationships we have with the contemporary natural world—from the transience of reflections on water, to the complexity of memories of the land we hold from childhood. Sylvie is interested in probing the dualities of nature and culture, and the cartesian divide between the human (mind) from the wild (body). Her work is an intimate dialogue between lived experiences, perceptions, and the environments we occupy. Sylvie creates alongside nature and communities, inviting them to become active participants in the genesis of work. Her process is experimental and iterative–allowing meaning to seed, bud, and ripen over time until it is ready to be harvested. Since 2016, Sylvie has designed and delivered over 15 different “art-ivations” — interactive art installations — with members of the community in the greater Toronto area and abroad, including The Journeys Project (2019) which involved over 500 participants in the Scarborough community making artist tiles about their every-day life journeys. A self-proclaimed eco-feminist and embodied learning advocate at her core, she aspires to create biophilic experiences that promote radical connection and collective healing. sylviestojanovski.com + @sylvietheartist
Honouring squiggles; Holding space for messiness, possibility, + joy In dots hatch marks, + squiggles there lies a landscape of possibility. A garden of intentions, a river of ideas. Approach curiously. As a practicing multidisciplinary artist and an emerging environmentalist, I came into the FUTURES/forward program with a desire to deepen my community-engaged practice through thoughtful, and intentional eco-conscious artmaking. I craved to be a part of a community where I could have fruitful conversations around the intersection of art and environmentalism. I yearned to learn how to dance gracefully in the interstitial space between sectors. In the last six months, FUTURES/forward allowed me to do just that. With the help and expertise of my mentor, Laura Barron, and my host organization, Youth Challenge International, I had the opportunity to make idea squiggles, ask big questions, and co-create art alongside community members in the East Toronto area through the Postcards for the Planet project. This blog post provides a brief glimpse into how the process unfolded – squiggle by squiggle, circle by circle – and outlines some key resources and takeaways that may be of particular interest to community artists and organizers making art for social change.
Lines emerging: How it all started In December 2021, my mentor Laura and I connected for the first time over zoom after FUTURES/forward program staff identified that there might be synergies between our work. In this first meeting, we quickly discovered that we had a mutual love of resource-sharing and interest in exploring the power of language + interdisciplinary collaboration in our activist work. This naturally led to discussion around how we might best document our wealth of knowledge during our time together. We considered creating a formal minutes document; however, the term “minutes” felt restrictive… We wanted to come up with a term that captured our commitment to fostering a sense of openness and play in our mentorship, so we brainstormed a new title for our soon-to-be resource-collection through an associations game (pictured below)… and the “Squiggle Keeper” was born. Laura and I performed a brainstorm associations game to rename our minutes document – the “Squiggle Keeper.” The metaphor of following squiggles or lines of thought + intuition became essential to our work and informed how I approached the rest of my residency. In addition to making the Squiggle Keeper, prior to getting deep into the throes of project planning, we set aside time to consider what kind of space we wanted to co-create in our mentorship. As a facilitator, I often make a key differentiation between safe space and brave space in my work, as I recognize that everyone in a group requires something different to feel supported in a space depending on the intersections of their identity and lived experience. Individual needs change and evolve over time. Thus, rather than aiming to create safe spaces for collaboration in my work, which is something that is unique to each individual, I aim to create brave spaces where people feel empowered to bring their whole-selves and actively participate. This is in large part informed by Jermaine Henry’s B.R.A.V.E.R. space framework, and Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations model, which are often used in conversations around race, but can be extended into broader work around social change. This video by the Intersection Environmentalist provides some good insight into the intersectional history of environmentalism. In the context of our mentorship, creating a brave space involved making a “living” poem – one that could be changed and adapted during our time together – from the following prompts: To feel seen I need… To feel heard I need… and To feel held I need… Pause Reflect Simmer Ruminate Let go of judgment Recognize resonance Surrender assumptions Presence Input in action Turn-taking Affirmation Mirroring Ah-ha It was important for us to spend time considering how we wanted our mentorship to feel as we had identified that we both valued collective wellness, healing, and intuition in our work; we wanted to put these values at the forefront of our collaboration. In practice, this meant intentionally setting aside time to “pause” and “reflect” on our time together – having “check-ins” at the beginning of our meetings, and “check-outs” at the end of our sessions to ensure that we felt seen, heard, and supported. It also meant prioritizing fun and exploring alternative methods of knowledge generation typically undervalued in the Western canon, like drawing, sitting with breath, and dancing. Building on the metaphor of lines of thought that we established when renaming our minutes the “Squiggle Keeper,” we decided to periodically check-in and out of our sessions artfully through drawing lines that reflected our mood using the annotated feature on zoom; this eventually inspired our visual poem and score reflection found later in this post.
Squiggling Out As someone with a strong history of doing outreach work in the community arts sector, for the FUTURES/forward program I set the intention to work with an environmental organization that I hadn’t previously connected with to expand my network and push myself outside my comfort zone. At the beginning of the FUTURES/forward program, ICASC offered me the chance to work with an organization that I had previously collaborated with, and I turned it down in an effort to stay true to my personal professional development goals at the time. Moving forward, they made every effort to reach out to other organizations that were in line with my professional goals to no avail. Thus, a big part of my time in the FUTURES/forward program was spent exploring potential partnerships with environmental organizations. After reaching out to several organizations via email and over the phone, I began to realize that outreach work was not the same as I had remembered before the pandemic. Prior to March 2020, I could send a cold email or call and, 1 out of 3 times, expect an acknowledgement or reply back, but in January 2022 I found that my cold emails simply ran cold, never returned with a reply, and my cold calls left on voicemail would end at the dial-tone. It felt like I was running into dead-ends. After one particularly hard day of receiving no replies, I decided to speak to Laura and change my outreach strategy. From my previous experience with outreach, I knew that the easiest “asks” could be made to people who already existed in my network (i.e., family, friends, and co-workers), or friends of people I knew (i.e., second connections on LinkedIn). So, I began reaching out to people I know in the environmental sector whose organizations I hadn’t connected with previously to see if there was an opportunity to become an artist in residence at their organizations. I sent texts too and had asynchronous conversations. I followed phone number trails on the internet and spoke with people in real time on the phone until I finally had a list of potential organizations who were ready to support my work in the program. What I learned from my time looking for a host organization during the peak of the fifth wave of the pandemic was that for many non-profit environmental organizations the reality was that their staff teams were stretched thin, overworked, and dealing with audiences who had zoom burnout. What made things even more difficult at the time was that there were concerns around whether in-person programming was possible with the omicron variant on the rise, and if organizations had the necessary liability insurance in place to work with youth. Even though my journey to securing a partner was unconventional for the FUTURES/forward program, as they typically match mentees with host organizations from the get-go, I am grateful for the experience I had securing a host organization. As the old adage goes, if it’s not a blessing, it’s a lesson, and it’s not who you know, it’s who knows you. I am hopeful that the connections I made during my first months of the FUTURES/forward program may result in some collaborations in the near future. I met some real champions of art and creativity in the environmental sector, which I’m excited to connect with again soon. Following is a visual score Laura and I composed together that encapsulates our experience in the program, with commentary on symbolism provided by Laura…
Laura Barron: “As an artist who has entitled her Zoom account, Sparkles, Sylvie’s ebullient nature is undeniable. So, while I was aware that the gestures above represent both a wide range of challenges, hiccups, and detours that this project presented, as well as the ultimately successful outcome, I knew I had to compose the musical accompaniment to her visuals in a Major rather than minor key. However, I wanted to reflect the messiness within the beauty, so I used Major 9th chords which add a crunchiness to the open ease of Major triads. I also set these visuals to music without any narrative explanation from Sylvie, initially. So, I interpreted the ovals on the bottom as the phases of the project, rather than the 6 cohort calls as she intended. (the first two project phases starting strong – A flat Major9 – full of optimism; the next two more subdued and quiet – in d flat major9 – as we waited for plans to land; the fifth oval more sustained – g flat major9 – as the project hit several false starts; and the final oval as the resounding, triumphant finish – in a rolled and “sparkly” E flat Major triad at last). The green line, to me, represented the up and down nature of the relentless efforts Sylvie made to secure a community partner and land on a relevant and meaningful project concept. So, I set these to broken chord arpeggios that rise and fall. The light blue line is the stop/start nature of the Postcards for the Planet coming to be and are musically reflected by the gradual progression towards the E flat sparkle rolls. Finally, the pink line (though meant by Sylvie to represent the project development and all of its detours), to me symbolized the constancy of our vibrant exchange that had endless tangents which always returned to a central thread – our shared passion for community art. This passion I captured with a playful timbre, using a slightly kooky Roland synth sound. And while I wanted to edit this makeshift iPhone recording of me playing the tune on my old, clunky electric keyboard at home, we agreed that all of the creaks and pops suited the piece, by reflecting the beautiful messy nature of this kind of work. Most coincidentally, this bell tone quality, mixed with the rhythm of the arpeggios, ends up sounding quite a bit like a telephone ring, which both Sylvie and I found apropos of the many cold calls she made throughout this process. It’s as if the tune is capturing her ever-hopeful “play with me” plea.”
The FUTURES/forward program consisted of three different aspects that happened simultaneously over six months: (1) project development/implementation, (2) mentorship and (3) group meetings. In this visual score, I also added a line for reading + exploration as it was particularly important to me to set aside time during my residency to learn about the work of other artists, activists, and academics in the sector. Some of the books on my reading list, included: Art, Ecojustice and Education edited by Raisa Foster, Jussi Makela, and Rebecca A. Martusewicz, Matters of Care by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and A Textbook for the Ecoscene by Sarita Dougherty.
Finding Stability and Circles of Joy Finally, after months of coming up against challenges with securing a host organization, I connected with Youth Challenge International (YCI) and we quickly brought to life Postcards for the Planet — an interactive, evolving community art installation that invited members of the East Toronto community and beyond to collectively imagine the Ecoscene — an emergent geologic era where humans live in reciprocity with the earth — while taking action to nurture sustainable shifts in our reality today. The idea for the project emerged in the early days of my time in the FUTURES/forward program. In January 2022, Laura and I had discussed the idea of devising a project that employed a similar method of engagement to initiatives I had run previously, most notably: The Journeys Project (2019), an evolving art installation that involved over 500 participants in the Scarborough community making artist tiles about every-day life journeys; and Reflections of Home (2020) a multimedia installation that involved 7 youth (ages 16 – 24) from Scarborough co-creating visual art and poetry online exploring the places that bring them a sense of comfort, joy and calm even during times of crisis. Both of these pieces involved community members responding to prompts or a set of instructions and creating art as a reflection of their lived experiences. Postcards for the Planet employed a similar approach. Throughout the month of April, 20+ youth (ages 16 – 29) as well as their family, friends, and neighbours, engaged in the project in one of two ways:
- ASYNCHRONOUSLY – Through following a set of instructions on my website to design a 4×6 postcard independently or with a friend or family member on their own time; OR
- IN REAL TIME – Synchronously through engaging in exploratory visual art, creative writing and/or embodied movement workshop via zoom.
Through offering these two modes of engagement, we were able to reach a greater number of people within a short period of time. I believe that moving forward, offering asynchronous and synchronous (in-person + online) ways to engage in events and activities will become the norm as it allows people to contribute in the way that suits them best. The goal of Postcards for the Planet was to help people feel more hopeful and inspired to create sustainable change during earth month + all year-round through tending to their relationship to themselves, others + the planet, which is something that I feel we achieved. In all of the online workshops I led, people expressed in their check-out reflections verbally or in the chat that the experience made them feel more connected to their surroundings, and hopeful for the future. One participant in particular at a session with intergenerational participants remarked that, “There needs to be more programming like this. There needs to be more programming that connects people of different ages. That lets them share their concerns about the future, but also their hopes and dreams. Listening to [an 18-year-old participant] speak today about their connection to the earth and how they are helping in their community by organizing a native wildflower gardening day… That gives me hope. It’s going to get better. The earth will heal. We need to be a part of that.” All Postcards for the Planet submissions are available to view in this online showcase on my website, and select physical postcards are on display at the RE Place, a local shop in East York committed to making eco-friendly living accessible and helping others live more sustainably, until the beginning of June 2022.
What’s next? The Postcards for the Planet project will continue to accept digital submissions indefinitely at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the online showcase will be updated on a monthly basis. This means that you can still contribute to the project asynchronously here. Moving forward, I also plan to continue to offer in-real time workshops online and in-person. Thanks to the FUTURES/forward program, I was able to develop three hour-long workshops — Writing from the Heart, Drawing from the Senses, and Taking Action from the Elements — which mobilize different specialized forms of art (poetry, drawing, and embodied movement respectively) to generate dialogue around the past, present and future of our planet. These sessions draw on theoretical concepts and ideas I wish I knew about when first starting my journey as an environmentalist, including: the power of radical imagination, ecological empathy, and roles in the social change ecosystem. Overall, coming out of the FUTURES/forward program I feel a sense of gratitude. I came in with the intention to expand my practice as a community-engaged artist and explore eco-conscious approaches to artmaking, and I am leaving the program with a sense of joy and hope for the future. Although my time spent creating art and developing my community-engaged art project was limited due to delays in securing a partner, I am grateful that I still had the chance to develop and execute a community-engaged art project with an environmental focus with a new group of people. If there’s anything I’d like people to know about my experience in the FUTURES/forward program, it’s that I learned to expect and roll with the unexpected. As Laura remarked…
I was constantly surprised and impressed with Sylvie’s ability to remain positive and faithful through the process, no matter what challenges or hiccups arose. Contrastingly, while I always expect the best, I tend to prepare for the worst, to arm myself for potential disappointments. Of course, Sylvie also exercised tremendous resiliency, always with a Plan B, C & D in her pocket, but she did so with an unwavering buoyancy I found refreshing.
What I’ll cherish the most about my experience was the time I spent with Laura and YCI discussing the intricacies of working with audiences online, navigating tensions around the artistic process vs product, and learning how to integrate climate action concepts into my creative work. I will conclude with a quote from my cover letter to ICASC when applying to FUTURES/forward that still rings true for me at the end of this experience:
I believe that in order to address the most pressing climate issues of our time we need to cultivate a love for the places we call home, an eco-consciousness if you will — seeing the spaces we occupy as an extension of ourselves, rather than a commodity; centering deep, intentional, intuitive listening, reciprocity, and connection above all. I believe that the future is interdisciplinary and I am deeply grateful to all of the environmental organizations who opened my eyes to challenges and benefits of art making for social change.
We wish to thank Youth Challenge International for this collaboration and hosting Syvlie’s amazing artist-in-residency! FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Sylvie’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the BC Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and Judith Marcuse Projects.