Rethinking Harmony: Reflections on a residency at Cyril Jackson Senior Campus ArtsHouse

Words by Elizabeth Pedler

October 2018 to April 2019
ArtsHouse Cyril Jackson Senior Campus Residency

From October 2018 - April 2019 I was artist-in-residence at ArtsHouse, a residency program supported by Artsource and the Copyright Agency, located within Cyril Jackson Senior Campus (CJSC) in Bassendean. The residency culminated in eight projects produced by the students, for Harmony Day in March 2019, exploring and expanding on the concept of harmony.
Before I was artist-in-residence, I went to ArtsHouse at CJSC to write an article about Sharyn Egan’s residency for Artsource (the article was published last year on the Artsource website). I was immediately impressed by the school’s approach to learning, and the design of the ArtsHouse program to bring artists in to contact with students. As I continued the conversation with Marie Molloy (the ArtsHouse coordinator) I came to appreciate and be inspired by the focus on building a community around creative practice, and how artists were folded into the educational environment at the school. Our conversation turned to my own practice and from there began a series of conversations leading to, and continuing through, my six-month residency at CJSC.

The residency, like much of my practice, focused on a dialogic approach to collaboration. Practice as dialogue is a concept I’ve been circling for some time. My creative focus is on experience and engagement rather than specific materials, which often leads to interactive, participatory, or collaborative artworks. Something I’ve discovered through my practice is the importance to any dialogue, of listening.

Listening was foremost during the residency at CJSC. The first half of the residency, Term 4 of 2018, was devoted to research. Through listening and observing, I began to approach and understand the residency and the school. I spent time in classrooms talking to students about their work, interviewing teachers and watching how students related to the teachers, the space, their work, each other and to me. From this experience at the school, a few things stood out. Harmony Day, and the concept of Harmony, was a focal point for the school. The students themselves also stood out as particularly mature, with many of them approaching their classes more like a workspace than a school environment. The teachers revealed a passion and appreciation for the experience of their students, sharing with me their insights into how the culture of the school is formed, and how the ArtsHouse program fits into and extends that culture.
From this research, I was interested in how harmony was something shaped and understood by both the students and staff of CJSC. Through conversations with several staff members, I began leaning towards a project exploring harmony, and invited students to contribute what harmony means to them. I developed a series of workshops to draw out and reveal the complexities and depth of a concept that is often applied very broadly.

These workshops took place in Term 1, across four short weeks before Harmony Day. I spent three sessions, 90 minutes each, with each group. I worked with seven groups, some of which were two classes brought together, from the varied learning areas of Photography, General Art, Community Service, Health, Educational Support, and Drama. The first workshop with each group began with a listening exercise, a moment of mindfulness to open a space for inward contemplation. In the first workshop, each group wrote a manifesto about 120 words long; a unique and powerful expression of what harmony meant to them.

From one of the manifestos: “Harmony feels like home, where you’re meant to be, a free flowing motion, a never ending circle. When it’s wrong, or missing, it feels like emptiness, an icy wind, scratchy, anxiety, pain.” These words became a guide, used throughout the project for inspiration, and as a reminder of the focus and purpose of what we were doing.

Each manifesto was revisited in the second workshop, when the students were facilitated in planning a project communicating their vision of harmony. In the third workshop the students carried out their vision, and were guided in rehearsal, production, or testing. The results were as diverse as you could imagine from the subject areas, including: a decorate-your-own cupcake and cookie stall; the performance of an original choreographed dance work; installations wrapping and decorating the trees in a riot of colour; hand painted and photo collaged miniature houses, hanging from the same trees; more cupcakes; a photo-collage mural; frozen fruit cups — “to help people chill out,” and manifold other expressions and decorations of harmony spread throughout the school.
The students’ ideas and enthusiasm were visible, permeating the school and bubbling through in the energy of their performances, the generosity of making something to be shared, the dedication to create something, knowing it was just for their fellow classmates. Their in-jokes and humour too, were always just beneath the surface. When I saw the results, I saw their own pride in having made something of their own, something that perhaps wasn’t as clear or simple a picture of harmony, but something that was specific to them, and made the day how they wanted it to be shared.
But it wasn’t just the students who made the project happen. Throughout the workshops, and the day itself, I worked alongside teachers, and it was their enthusiasm and willingness to engage in the process that fed my energy and made the projects possible. The most notable of these was the ArtsHouse coordinator, Marie Molloy, who advocated for the project and supported me in building relationships with all the other teachers who took part.
The residency at CJSC came to an end quickly, with just a few reflections and discussions following the event, to consider what it was that we had done, where it perhaps fell short, and what we could do differently. What I learned from the residency was again, how important it is to make space and listen to what others have to say.

Listening, and asking questions, creates opportunities for things unspoken to come out, for those who have been spoken to and spoken at, to respond in their own voice. What they have to say may surprise you.

IMAGES (from top to bottom):

House by Cyril Jackson Senior Campus students for Harmony Day, 2019. Photographer: Elizabeth Pedler
Elizabeth Pedler with students during her residency, 2019. Photographer: Elizabeth Hinton
Elizabeth Pedler on Harmony Day, the culmination of her residency, 2019. Photographer: Rose Barton
Footprints of the world, walking in harmony, 2019. Photographer: Rose Barton

Harmony Day was celebrated at CJSC on Wednesday 20 March this year, rather than 21st, as all students are on campus on Wednesdays.

Elizabeth Pedler is an artist, writer, curator and advocate based in Perth. Working as a socially engaged artist, she likes to tackle problems, questions, and situations creatively, working across social practice, sound, installation, photography, food, and performance. Working together with Alex Desebrock and Daisy Sanders in 2018, Elizabeth co-founded FLOCK, a support network for independent artists across disciplines.