A celebration of community, creativity and Deborah Barndt’s legacy

Deborah Barndt

On Nov. 2 in the historic Gladstone Hotel, more than 200 people, including members of the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the community, as well as students, alumni, friends and family, gathered to celebrate creativity at Viva La Creatividad! But more than that, they united to celebrate a lifetime of activism, influence and mentorship; they came to celebrate Deborah Barndt.

Deborah Barndt with FES Dean Noël Sturgeon
Deborah Barndt with FES Dean Noël Sturgeon

Beginning in the early evening, Viva La Creatividad! lit up the second floor gallery of the hotel with a mosaic of artwork, multimedia installations, films and smiling faces. Everywhere one turned, there was a new piece to explore. One long hallway featured Barndt’s photo exhibit From Spark to Fire: A Community Arts Retrospective, a reflection on the work of the Community Arts Practice (CAP) program at York University, which is housed in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES). Displaying student and community initiatives, the work shed light on the intimate connections the Faculty shares with the community it surrounds, and the engagement of its students in projects outside of the University.

Branching off from this corridor were several film and multimedia installations. In one small room, audience members could sit and take in one of several student-made films. In another, a collaborative installation between Barndt and filmmaker Min Sook Lee was assembled. The piece, comprised of two small shrines devoted to migrant farm workers, was a powerful one; drawing attention to the violence of the Canadian food system, as well as providing an intimate and extremely personal view into the lives and struggles of temporary foreign workers.

Deborah Barndt's exhibit From Spark to Fire A Community Arts Retrospective
Deborah Barndt’s exhibit From Spark to Fire A Community Arts Retrospective

Wandering out of these rooms, individuals were brought into a larger gallery, the walls of which were adorned with paintings, photographs and a wide array of other mediums of visual art. One piece, created by artist and master in environmental studies graduate Sau Wai Tai, brought attention to the ongoing Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. The installation invited individuals to try their hands at creating their own origami umbrellas. The installation, accompanied by a masterfully sculpted origami umbrella, displayed the far-reaching connections of master in environmental studies graduates and their activism within communities.

Winter by Melanie Skene, MES graduate
“Winter” by Melanie Skene, MES graduate

Throughout the space, there was also a variety of snacks. While some of the food and beverages were provided by the Gladstone Hotel, the majority was catered by local organizations started by master in environmental studies graduates. Attendees could indulge in delicious chocolate produced by ChocoSol, which was founded in 2004 by alumnus Michael Sacco. Black Creek Community Farm was also in strong attendance, providing information about its projects and a wide assortment of freshly made dips, all of which were produced on the farm. Also in attendance were several other food-based organizations, including FoodShare, Not Far From The Tree and Afri-Can FoodBasket.

As the gallery began to fill up, the host of the event, Blakka Ellis, another program graduate, grabbed the crowd’s attention for the night’s performances, including a powerful one by Mosa McNeilly, a current master in environmental studies student. Delivering a poem – half sung, half slammed – she drew attention to racial, colonial and gendered inequalities and violence, poignant topics given the event’s focus on social and community activism.

Exhibit on migrant workers in Ontario
Milagros for Migrants: An Immersive Installation Honouring Ontario’s Migrant Farm Workers” is a collaborative exhibit by Deborah Barndt and Min Sook Lee, Master in Environmental Studies (MES) graduate and documentary filmmaker, which relates to Barndt’s research in the Faculty of Environmental Studies on the global food system.

Following some of the performances, Faculty of Environmental Studies Dean Noël Sturgeon reminded everyone why they were there. After 21 years of work in the Faculty and the community, Barndt was retiring from her position as professor of environmental studies and coordinator of the CAP program. Viva La Creatividad! was not only a celebration of the creativity of those who have worked with and in the CAP program, but of Barndt and the powerful impact she has had on those she has worked with.

Indeed, the gallery itself and the performances throughout the night were evidence of this. The enthusiasm with which everyone participated in the event, whether through providing artwork or performing poems, stood as a testament to the admiration and respect Barndt has garnered from the community.

As Professor Honor Ford-Smith, who will succeed Barndt as the CAP program coordinator, said: “Thank you, Deborah, for the path you have forged, which is a hard one to walk behind, but we will try.” Later, Ryan De La Cruz thanked Barndt for her encouragement and help with beginning his dance program and “sparking that wild fire that [Deborah] believes in.”

Food from Black Creek Community Farm
Food from Black Creek Community Farm

Although Barndt is leaving, that wild fire is now burning hotter than ever. With a $50,000 donation from an anonymous source, the CAP program is launching the Deborah Barndt Environmental and Community Arts Innovation Fund. This endowment will go towards building the CAP program at York by aiding artists and students to engage in the production of their works. Particularly, the endowment will support artists in the Faculty of Environmental Studies and in the community, and will provide scholarships to community artists who may not otherwise be able to afford tuition. The endowment will also be funded by an auction. The public can bid on all of the pieces of art featured in the gallery space, as well as several other packages donated by the community, including a catered weekend cottage getaway, a kayaking/bird-watching tour, and a wine tour and tasting.

Deborah Barndt at a celebration in her honour
Deborah Barndt at a celebration in her honour

When it was Barndt’s turn at the microphone, rather than talking, she sang. Slowly the crowd joined in, until the entire group in the gallery formed a chorus, singing, in true environmental studies fashion: “We and the earth are one; under the moon; under the sun.” It was a potent display of the crowd’s attachment to their mentor, collaborator and friend.

Following the singing, Barndt gave an encouraging and spirited speech thanking the community and everyone she had worked with throughout the years.

"Iyah yant" performing. Musicians include Anan Xola Lololi, MES graduate and founder of the Afri-Can FoodBasket, Ras Chikuyu, MES graduate, Lamfall Wendel Scott and Alvis Julian
The group “Iyah yant” performed at the event with musicians Anan Xola Lololi, MES graduate and founder of the Afri-Can FoodBasket; Ras Chikuyu, MES graduate; Lamfall Wendel Scott; and Alvis Julian

By the end of the night, Viva La Creatividad! had delivered exactly what it promised: a celebration of creativity and community. But it also did much more. It stood as a visual representation of legacy and the capacity of a single person to affect the lives of a great number of people. It demonstrated how much of an effect Barndt has had on the Faculty of Environmental Studies community and how much she will be missed. Yet, even in her retirement, her legacy and endowment fund will perpetuate inspiration within students and artists, and will continue to help them achieve their goals.

If you would like to purchase art generously donated by students, faculty, alumni and community members, visit the “VIVA FES!” auction website. All proceeds will go directly to the Deborah Barndt Environmental and Community Arts Innovation Fund.

By Dylan McMahon, Faculty of Environmental Studies graduate assistant