Community Arts Space: Turtle House Art/Play Centre

One of three online exhibitions featuring works from the Gardiner Museum Community Arts Space program, March - December 2020

By Gardiner Museum

Community Art Space: Community is Essential (2020) by Gardiner MuseumGardiner Museum

About Community Arts Space (CAS)

Grounded in the real and metaphorical ability of clay to transform, the Gardiner Museum’s Community Arts Space is a platform for experimentation and socially engaged art. We work within and beyond the Museum’s gallery walls to re-envision what equitable community engagement looks like at a cultural institution. In 2020, the Gardiner partnered with Turtle House Art/Play Centre (Turtle House), FCJ Refugee Centre (FCJ), and ArtHeart Community Art Centre (ArtHeart) to engage forty participants, ranging from youth to seniors, in clay-making activities. The group represented diverse experiences and cultural backgrounds, with participants from countries including Barbados, China, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Libya, Mexico, Namibia, Saint Kitts, South Africa, Syria, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. At the start of 2020, we planned to offer in-studio workshops from March to May, followed by a showcase in the Exhibition Hall over the summer. However, with the onset of the pandemic and the Museum’s temporary closure, we reimagined Community Arts Space (CAS2020) as a ten-month-long project that safely offered participants technical skills, an outlet for creative expression, and most importantly, a sense of community.

Creating in the Studio (2020) by Gardiner MuseumGardiner Museum

CAS2020: Community is Essential

When the Museum reopened in July, we were pleased to invite the participants back into the studios. With new health and safety protocols in place, instructors Aitak Sorahitalab and Adam Williams supported the participants’ work with fired clay. It was wonderful to have people work in the Museum’s studios again, animating and enlivening the community and 4 educational spaces that are central to our mandate. As these workshops were the only opportunity for many participants to gather outside of their homes, the studio became a safe space to develop new friendships and support networks. Inspired by the treasured relationships built over the past months, we reframed CAS2020 as Community Is Essential. This title honours the resilience and creativity of the participants, while recognizing the crucial work of the community partners, each of which serves historically marginalized populations. We were grateful to be able to provide the participants this opportunity to work with clay, particularly during this challenging time.

Building Don the Planter (2020) by Carine NasriGardiner Museum

Turtle House Art/Play Centre

Turtle House Art/Play Centre was designed primarily for children and parents from refugee backgrounds to explore their creativity and make meaningful connections. Turtle House envisions and is dedicated to playing a vital role in building a Toronto where refugees and immigrants are welcomed, arts flourish in every neighbourhood, and people are encouraged to explore their creativity.

Cooperation (2020) by Abdulhakim ElmshartaGardiner Museum

Message from Turtle House - Tamam  McCallum

My involvement as founder of Turtle House began in 2003. I started by interviewing key people from a variety of organizations working with refugee families to discuss the vision of an arts project for children and parents from refugee backgrounds. The Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) recognized the importance of this project and assisted by acting as our Trustee to funders.

Covid-20 (2020) by Abdulkerim BozanGardiner Museum

In January 2008, after receiving a grant from United Way Toronto, Turtle House began offering our special Family Arts Program—painting, clay-making, puppets, and music—to refugee families. As clay was one of the most popular activities, Turtle House began offering free clay workshops to newcomer artists and non-artists, primarily from refugee backgrounds, under the name Turtle House Ceramics.

COVID-20 by Abdulkerim Bozan

Community (2020) by Sama KokabiGardiner Museum

In 2017, I had approached the Gardiner Museum’s former Senior Manager of Education Siobhan Boyd about an opportunity to collaborate. The timing was right.
The Gardiner was just about to open their new Community Clay Studio, and they welcomed Turtle House to animate the space through a series of workshops, taught by Aitak Sorahitalab. In April 2019, Turtle House Ceramics held in the Gardiner’s lobby a wonderful reception and exhibition titled Mixed Feelings: Leaving Home, Finding Home to celebrate Refugee Rights Month.

Community by Sama Kokabi

Simurgh (Phoenix) (2020) by Mozhgan AbbasroohollahiGardiner Museum

When the Gardiner invited Turtle House Ceramics to participate in CAS2020, we partnered with FCJ Refugee Centre to bring in new participants as well as our former artists, with funding from Ontario Arts Council and the support of the Gardiner.
Though COVID-19 disrupted our original plans, the Gardiner staff and our artists were nimble. We redesigned the project to hold online Zoom workshops, bridging
participants’ isolation until they were able to safely return to the studios.

Simurgh (Phoenix) by Mozhgan Abbasroohollahi

Surviving (2020) by MehrnoushGardiner Museum

I’d like to thank the Gardiner Museum for partnering with Turtle House Ceramics since 2017. Through this partnership, the Gardiner has played a vital role in the settlement process, welcoming and connecting newcomer artists and non-artists to cultural institutions within their new home.

Tamam McCallum
Former Executive Director, Turtle House Art/Play Centre

Surviving by Mehrnoush

Are we all in this together? (2020) by Diala AleidGardiner Museum

Message from Turtle House - Aitak Sorahitalab

Thinking of the past three years of Turtle House Art/Play Centre (TH) Ceramics Program in partnership with the Gardiner Museum, I am thrilled to serve as an artist and educator in this practice. The Gardiner Museum’s Community Art Space program that embraced this is an excellent initiative toward collaborative community art practice in the current unprecedented crisis and in the midst of equity-seeking movements. Art organizations’ accountability in developing such communal narratives seems imperative in this challenging time.

Untitled (2020) by Ahmed BabollyGardiner Museum

Holding on to this collaborative form of art education, I see my classes in this program as a forum, and the students and myself as the participants in this forum. We are all viewed by personal character, productivity, interests, and artistic perspectives as members of a collective discussion. This forum sees each participant’s art project as a different approach to our current situation and identity. Any question, argument, inquiry, concern, or emotion—collective or individual—is valid to bring to the forum as a ceramic or mixed media piece. Instead of focusing on talent, accomplishment, or achievement, we aim to unlock the knowledge, lived experiences, and creative responses in the process of creating.

Untitled by Ahmed Babolly

Beans (2020) by Tugce AlemdarGardiner Museum

Following this flow, in the online sessions in the summer of 2020, my suggested theme of “We are all in this together” altered to a question, “Are we all in this together?” The artworks were a response, or a reformation of this question, and were shared with the forum to be discussed.

Beans by Tugce Alemdar

Don the Planter (2020) by Carine NasriGardiner Museum

During the studio phase in the fall of 2020, the Museum brought forward the theme Community Is Essential. Discussing the approaches, ideas, and experiences around this concept, one of the participant’s definitions stated that this group of participants meant community for them, and revealed another way of looking at the meaning of community.

Don the Planter by Carine Nasri

Playing indoor, playing outdoor (2020) by Ghazaleh NaderianGardiner Museum

Creating an art-based forum that provides playfulness, openness, and curiosity has always been my vision as an educator. Admittedly, a constructive collaboration between the Gardiner Museum and Turtle House encouraged and promoted such work in this program. The evaluations and consultations reveal that holding a collective initiative with this framework is not only essential in the current time but
also remains significant, relevant, and progressive in the post-pandemic time.

Aitak Sorahitalab
Community Arts Space 2020 Instructor

Playing indoor, playing outdoor by Ghazaleh Naderian

CAS 2020 Acknowledgments (2020) by Gardiner MuseumGardiner Museum

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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