FLOOD: From a photographic series by Max Ciesielski, a long-time This Is My City participant.

FLOOD: From a photographic series by Max Ciesielski, a long-time This Is My City participant.


Calgary currently has a population of over one million. One million individuals, each with our own thoughts, our own values, our own backgrounds. We are doctors and students and masseurs and grandparents. We all have a voice, and we all have a story to tell.

But the fact is, some of our voices are louder than others and some of our stories a little easier to hear. For some of us, life isn’t simple. For some of us, home is a shelter, or a cold city sidewalk.

According to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, on any given night, over 3,500 people in Calgary are sleeping in shelters, in parks, or on the streets, with 14,000 households at risk of becoming homeless. These people in the margins are forced either to be silent and ignored, or to have the brightest of spotlights shined on their every mistake. For many of us, the images that we have of these people are incongruous with the idea of them as individuals with dreams, skills and ideas. The idea of beauty being created by homeless people is difficult to align with our perhaps subconscious view of these individuals.

Since its inception in 2008, This Is My City has endeavoured to give a voice to these Calgarians who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Originally a program of The City of Calgary’s Arts & Culture Department, This Is My City (TMC) became a nonprofit society in 2010, with the dual objectives of providing opportunities for homeless and at-risk individuals to engage in creative expression, and to share the resulting pieces with the broader community.

“Being involved with TMC has actually changed my life,” says Bill, who lives out of the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre. “Before my involvement, although I knew I wanted to do art, I had no direction… I was often angry at the world and everyone in it because I could find no purpose to life. TMC allowed me to find some focus by letting me explore a variety of visual art styles and find my path.”

Throughout the year, This Is My City volunteer artist mentors work in agencies around Calgary, including the Drop-In Centre as well as Inn from the Cold, The Alex Youth Health Centre and Alpha House. For many of these volunteers, their own lives are as deeply impacted as the lives of the individuals with whom they work.

When Patricia Lortie began volunteering for TMC a year ago as an artist mentor, the painter-cum-sculptor admits she was nervous. “It was a world I had never been exposed to,” she says, “and society carries a lot of pre-conceived ideas about it.” But after helping individuals like Bill discover their creativity at the Drop-In Centre’s Wild Rose Studio, all her hesitations melted away.

A painting from the Drop-In Centre.

A painting from the Drop-In Centre.

“As a result of being in contact with the clients of the DI, my definition of life is broader than it was,” Lortie says. “Each of the people who sit at my table to draw or paint has their own story, their friends, their life that they carry on with. Sitting together is an opportunity to share this and get to know the person, not just the fact that he/she is homeless, but a bit more about who they are.”

Even though each workshop is temporary, as Lortie explains, the effect is pronounced. “What we provide through the art opportunity that we bring to the homeless population is a moment of peace and creativity,” she says. “They are small moments but they do bring some joy and some calm and an opportunity for self expression, which can be therapeutic. One of the comments that really struck me came from a young woman who sat with me. She said, ‘I love it when you guys set up the art table. When you are here, I don’t think about getting high; I just think about painting and drawing.’”

This month, the work is created at workshops throughout the year will be showcased during the This Is My City Festival. With the theme, “Telling Our Stories: Flood 2013,” the festival will explore how the devastating June 2013 floods affected our city and how its impact can still be seen across Calgary – not only in the buildings that are still to this day in a state of disrepair, but also in the people, the stories, and the community that the flood created.

The festival opens on April 3 with “Telling Our Stories: A Musical Revue,” which features original and popular music performed by homeless artists that have worked with musical mentors from the community. Over the next two weeks, Calgarians can experience a number of different events and exhibits: from visual art installations (“Inspiration In Our Hands: Artwork from the DI”) and oral storytelling (“Six Minute Stories: Tales of Rebuilding”), to film (“Festival Film Night”) and even inclusive visual statements (“Wrap: A Conversation in Movement”), there is truly something for everyone.

For Bill, the opportunity to create, and to show these creations through the Festival, has been life changing. “Art has taken over my life and I give thanks for that every day,” he says. “I have been told by people that I have known a while that since I have found my art, they see a total transformation to a vibrant happy outgoing person. I feel that I have found peace.”

From the book project Flood Stories: Creative Flotsam on the Edge of High Water

From the book project Flood Stories: Creative Flotsam on the Edge of High Water

The This Is My City Festival takes places in various venues throughout the city from April 3-17. Many events are free; for a full festival schedule, visit

By Sara Elizabeth Taylor
Photo (top): Max Ciesielski

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