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In-Visible: New Westminster art project brings together students, elders

Elders in Our Midst paired NWSS art students with senior subjects – and the result is an eye-catching exhibition at Eighth & Eight

When Chinu Das was approached to take part in an intergenerational art project, she didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Bridging the divide between diverse groups is a mission she’s embraced throughout her life.

“That intergenerational, community-building thing really appeals to me,” said Das, who has served as a New Westminster city councillor since 2018. 

Das brought her life story to the table for Elders in Our Midst, an art project that paired student artists from New Westminster Secondary School with an array of elders from the community. The teens met with the elders and interviewed them about their lives, then painted portraits based on what they had learned about their subjects.

The results of their work can be seen in In-Visible, an exhibition that’s now open at the Eighth & Eight arts space. 

The project was the brainchild of Louise Cournoyer, who came up with the idea as a way to increase the visibility of older adults in the community.

“I had noticed how older adults were not a very big part of our visual landscape, or the way they were portrayed was not reflecting how I saw older adults,” Cournoyer wrote in an email to the Record.

Cournoyer applied for, and received, a Neighbourhood Small Grant for the project. She reached out to NWSS fine arts teachers Amie LeBlanc and Keith Randall, who adopted the idea and made it a reality. They pulled in close to 50 student artists and recruited more than 20 elders from the community to serve as portrait subjects. 

The grant allowed them to bring in artist Cara Bain, a former student who’s now an artist herself and who came on board to mentor the students.

It was an eye-opening journey for many of the young artists, Cournoyer noted.

“The students reported how the story that the elders shared was special, and how it was a new experience for them to have older people confide and entrust them with their story,” she said. “Some were surprised they would not be talking about knitting and instead discussed experiences of grief, or of an exciting and fulfilling life filled with travels and adventures.”

'It was quite astonishing': City councillor paired with student artists

For Das, talking to the two young artists who created portraits of her was a way to help the next generation understand the need for inclusion and diversity.

“If this project was going to be fully representative of the community I love so much, you need some people of colour in it,” she pointed out. 

Das’s story is one set in two countries: India, where she grew up, and Canada, where she moved at age 27 to pursue her PhD at the University of British Columbia. She met her now-husband, a Canadian, and decided to stay; they raised their three children in New Westminster.

“The values that shape me, that drive me, who I am today, came from my life experiences in India,” she said. “As much as I’m so Canadian, I’m so Indian. First-generation immigrants straddle both cultures, and so well sometimes that people don’t see the struggle in them.

“At least for the first generation, you don’t feel like you belong. Creating a community, belonging to a community, is at the centre of what I have always done.”

That work has taken many forms in Das’s life – from the early days of volunteering with her children’s sports teams, to her work with the New Westminster school district’s community schools, to her volunteer years on the city’s multicultural advisory committee and with the women’s immigrant group she formed to bring newcomers together.

She found a new outlet for those efforts in 2018, when she was approached to run for city council.

Das was persuaded to do so by her mother, whose own father was a member of Parliament in India at the time of Indian independence, serving in both opposition and government with Nehru’s Congress party.

The same desire for social justice and a stronger community that drove Das’s grandfather decades ago drives his granddaughter to this day, as she strives to use her voice at the council table to ensure a more diverse and inclusive community for all.

At closing in on 71, Das embraced the chance to tell her story to members of the next generation. 

What impressed her most out of the experience is how the students took that story to heart – and, in turn, represented it in the portraits they painted of her.

“They heard that. They gleaned it from my love for New Westminster and the community,” she said. “This isn’t just ‘Did they draw a perfect portrait of me?’ It was ‘Did they capture the essence of who the subject was?’ They did. It was quite astonishing.”

See In-Visible at Eighth & Eight

In-Visible is open at the Eighth & Eight art space, in the Massey Theatre complex (735 Eighth Ave.) until April 29. You can check out the show during opening hours, Tuesday to Friday from 1 to 4 p.m.; during shows at the Massey Theatre; or by appointment at 604-517-5900.

(Note the show is not in the Plaskett Gallery, but in the corridor exhibition space around the corner.)

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