Welcome to our third edition of A Labour of Love: 10 years of creativity, community, and care, our special series of interviews celebrating the past decade of The Public! Each month we're taking a moment to speak with someone we've had the pleasure of working with over the last ten years to reflect on how The Public has impacted them.
In this issue, we speak with Rinchen Dolma, one of our gallery’s past featured artists and Artistic Director of Made in Exile, a youth-led community arts initiative run by and for Tibetan youth to explore their stories of living in exile while navigating life in diaspora. Rinchen’s exhibit What time is this place? was a visual documentation of her family’s migration from Tibet and her community’s experience of displacement, and a catalyst for a community conversation about migration, exile and involuntary settlement.
The Public: We’ve been trying to reflect on what it looks and feels like to create a caring community space since we moved to the neighbourhood. What has your experience been working with and at The Public?
Rinchen Dolma: My experience with TP has been such a powerful experience. I first got involved after I took a workshop that Sheila had facilitated at another arts organization, that’s how we got connected and we were in touch for a little bit. Then she reached out to me about doing an installation at The Public and I offered her an idea that I had that I wanted to manifest. She was supportive and what I really appreciated about my experience through that work was her giving me this important mentorship that I really needed for myself at that time and that I continue to need.
When I was doing my installation work, there were obviously a lot of logistics to it, but sometimes when I would come in to the studio, it felt like what I needed that day wasn’t necessarily to figure out the logistics, it was just like I needed to talk through this idea, and also not even just the idea, but also the doubt that I hold around my idea – and this was something she was able to name. When I was talking with her, she told me “Rinchen, I also experience this impostor syndrome, that what I’m doing is not real, that what I’m doing is not legitimate, because we don’t have this kind of background, or we don’t have this kind of social capital, we don’t have these things, and how dare we call ourselves artists?” She said “I still struggle with this to this day” and I found comfort in the fact that someone who is so accomplished still struggles with that, and that it’s so normal.
There was so much care and time that she put into just hearing me out, and then also being able to share what it means for her to navigate this kind of experience of wanting to do an arts practice that’s community engaged, but having to go through all these institutions for different resources and opportunities that make us feel small, that don’t at all empower us. I literally couldn’t have done this installation without her, because it was so affirmative just to sit with her and talk with her and obviously go through the motions of the process of how to do an installation, what it means to create a bio, all these tangible things, and then the more important thing that I felt that I really took away and that I continue to benefit from is the way she put so much care into listening to me and really framing what I was experiencing as something I wasn’t experiencing in isolation. This is something we especially experience as racialized people, as kids of immigrant folks, or as immigrant/refugee folks, our work is not something we do in isolation, and that’s why we also really struggle, because there’s so much responsibility and accountability in the work that we do.
I love that I get to have a conversation with someone like Sheila who understands what it means for me to feel deep accountability and responsibility in my work, because it has everything to do with my community. I think that that’s what The Public actually represents, because I know that it’s the vision of what Sheila had, and to see a space where other folks at The Public share that vision and have worked so hard to continue it now for a decade. That’s intense and that makes me feel, as someone who has just started an initiative and is really getting into their practice, I feel so empowered and so affirmed having that space. Not just the physical space, but also how that space is actually held by everyone at The Public. It’s literally what drives me to be able to feel a lot of comfort in the work that I do.
For someone like me who’s very protective of my community, when Sheila was opening up to me, giving me all these resources and I was experiencing all this really powerful mentorship from her, I felt more and more comfortable inviting people to my community. It’s not just that I was more comfortable, I was adamant, I was like “people must be here,” because it’s such a beautiful space, people won’t be weirded out because someone doesn’t necessarily speak the same language as them, or we know how to make those accommodations because we come from immigrant families and communities. So it made me feel that people won’t feel so out of place when they come to The Public.
When I was putting up my installation, I was in the front window, and people were walking by asking “what are you doing?” and stuff. Just the fact that they got to see me was really powerful and that’s actually what I wanted. During my exhibit, I remember when I was walking over to The Public, down Seaforth, and I remember the lights were just shining in the front, and I was like “wow”. I was glowing, because I was thinking that someone’s going to be like me, walking up to Seaforth and Lansdowne and they’ll see my piece, and think “that’s me too, I’m in that piece”. That was exactly what I wanted, and I saw that Sheila saw that vision for myself and did everything she could to make it happen. On top of that, she also facilitated a space where I could have a community conversation, and open up my work. Not just sit there and have it framed in this window, but actually have a conversation about it, and then encourage people to add to my piece.
So since then, I’ve wanted to include The Public in my other ventures, like my community arts initiative, Made in Exile. The Public is our strongest partner, and it’s because every time I talk with Sheila, she always frames it like “This is possible. Let’s figure out how this is possible” and I really love that when I come to The Public, I feel like I come to a place where there’s so much possibility. I see a place that someone literally built, one by one. Whether that be relationships with the now existing staff, or the desks, or all the beautiful work that you all have created. Everything I see there is definitely a labour of love, but also a collection of all these different energies and people who have made it what it is right now. I aspire to that in my work, so I feel like going to The Public makes me feel like I’m also on that right path to do that work. Because I don’t actually know another space like The Public.
TP: How has your relationship to The Public continued since your exhibit and community event?
RD: Since my exhibit, my community work has allowed me to go into a conversation with a seminar at Brock University, because a professor had seen my work on display at The Public and contacted me. I’m actually going again in November to do another talk, but in my lecture in the seminar I was able to say that I am also a product of other community members like women like me, who intentionally want to resource other people so that they can further their conversation in their own community. Especially as involuntary settler folks, racialized, immigrant folks, we need to have those conversations. That’s why for the Made in Exile launch event I wanted to have it at The Public very intentionally, because I wanted other community workers and other community leaders to know that this space is accessible to them too. I wanted them to see where we get to work out of, but that this is also a space that has welcomed us and continues to welcome more people.
When I had that event, I wanted Sheila to meet these folks, but mostly for people to see The Public, not just as a design firm so they could be a client of yours, but also tell them that if they need to know how to build something for their youth, their seniors program, their immigrant women’s program, all of those things The Public actually has already done. You have such great experience in all these different kinds of engagements with those aspects of community. So I wanted people to know that that’s all housed under what people might just think is just a design firm. Because I don’t think that people realize that something like The Public, which is technically a business, can actually be more, and can re-imagine what a business looks like.
I remember when Sheila said that you were moving from one space to another, she was very clear about what The Public’s intentions were and being aware of how there’s a very intense gentrification process happening in Parkdale and being very mindful of where The Public sits in that changing landscape. I really appreciated seeing how The Public engages the community that asks “what does it mean for us to be in this space” and actually works through that and continues to have a conversation with the community about what that is. I really appreciate that, because no business here does that, so I was able to see that thinking process, and now I’m actually reaping the rewards of what that intention was. I really like that The Public is very mindful of what it means to have an intention, and then to deliver that intention, to complicate that intention, to work through that intention.
TP: How have you noticed your arts practice evolve while at The Public?
RD: The Public is a place that has nurtured my arts practice and me as an artist, but then also supported my work in engaging the community with my art. I feel like it’s limitless what the offerings of The Public are for me, and since the installation I feel more inspired to create more installations. I want to test out ideas, and I want to test out these ideas at The Public, like have you literally see me talk through something, perform something, or project something, anything. I now recognize that The Public is a space for me to play. It becomes a playground for incubation, for cultivating a practice as well, like it’s not just a place where you deliver a product. Yes, a part of the process is me putting out a product like the installation, but it didn’t end with it. I feel like there’s been so many ideas that have come to mind, like a podcast that Sheila has mentioned that I’m now interested in. There’s playfulness, there’s creation, there’s care and affirmation and healing. In my own arts practice, I actually need all those things to feel secure about how I want to work and create. I think of The Public all the time, because I’m so interested in how I can continue to use the space to maybe create a space where people can do storytelling or poetry sessions. To just start to cultivate an understanding that we can play with space, that we can create in whatever small ways we have. It’s an organizing space that I feel really playful and creative about and it’s really rare to find a place like that. It’s not a space that associate with heaviness. Some heaviness is good, but I feel a lot lighter when I’m there, because I feel free to think of all these things, and I know that there are other thinkers like me that also see what I see or will hold space to at least talk through what we see.
TP: What role has healing played in your process and work as an artist and community organizer?
RD: It’s definitely been healing, when I think about how this all started, when I think of the installation and I think of manifesting it, putting it out there, for me it was really healing, because I wanted to tell the story of my family’s migration story, but I wanted to put it somewhere public. For me it was really healing for me to be able to put myself out there, because there are small things that I wrote in my piece, that are part of my family’s history, and I know that it’s a history that isn’t only held by my family. I was able to put something down and put it out there for people to witness, and that’s been so healing because I’ve had people in my community tell me “Rinchen, I walked past your installation, I walked by twice; and I understand” and that means the world to me that they understood, but also I know that I was affirmed in hearing them say that, but they were also affirmed in seeing my story, because they know that their story also lies somewhere in mine.
In terms of my community arts engagement work, when I’m in The Public, and dreaming, planning, and designing all these things, I am in a space that facilitates an arts practice that allows greater space for community members to heal through the work. So, Made in Exile was for me to create intentional space for Tibetans by Tibetans to navigate our experiences of being young people in exilehood. It’s a very complicated relationship that we have with our identities, and it really takes a psychological toll on us to navigate that. When I’m able to design, program, and create these things, I’m doing my own healing work, and I’m facilitating a space where I can create more healing beyond me. I can do that, because I’m being supported by allies and friends like The Public that create the space, mentorship, time, labour, and the care for me to do that work, and to do it in a way that feels right and that I’m not alone in my work. The whole process has been very much steeped in care. I know care is there, because I know the intention is there for us to thrive, for us to complicate things, for us to express ourselves in a way that feels good, because often we’re not made to feel good in different aspects of our lives.
So in my own arts practice, I was able to do that in my delivery of my installation and also in wrapping it up with that community conversation. Also it’s really healing knowing that I have a place that wants to facilitate and incubate my work in creating more healing spaces for my community. It just becomes this ripple effect, and that’s what care does, when you’re able to afford a person a space and a time and the resources to be given care, that person usually will be able to exude that care in a different capacity or a different way maybe, but will continue that work of care on and on. That’s really what happened with me, as an individual I received this experience of healing through the care I was given through the mentorship and installation, and now I’m able to house another space for care, to design an initiative that is rooted in the intention to do healing work. The arts become a catalyst for us, a tool that we can use to be able to work through those hard things, but also those beautiful things, those hilarious things, those celebratory things. I like that it’s a space that recognizes that all of those experiences matter.
TP: Thank you for sharing your experiences, Rinchen, and we can’t wait to see what you’ll create next!