an interview with Jenny Hawkinson by Trudy Smith
Jenny Hawkinson is a visual artist based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Her neighborhood is known as Canada’s “poorest postal code,” notorious for drug addiction, homelessness, and prostitution—yet Jenny’s art bears witness to the beauty of the vibrant community she has discovered there. Ever since I met her, I have been fascinated by her creative process, and the way that her unique voice as an artist has been shaped by the trajectory of moving from well-meaning outsider to insider who truly belongs in her adopted home.
TRUDY SMITH: What led you to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and how have you made that your home?
JENNY HAWKINSON: I went to school at Trinity Western University, and through an anthropology field study trip, we went there for a weekend to do research and ask people questions. I grew up in a small town and when I was in high school I hated the city, so I kind of thought I would be a country girl my whole life, but I went to the Downtown Eastside and realized, “Oh, this is like a small town.” It felt very comfortable and familiar to me, even though there were a lot of things that I was not familiar with, like open air drug use and addiction and prostitution. That was new to me, but I still found a strong connection there. So in the years following, I just continued to go back down those streets and I kind of stopped going to church for awhile because I felt like Jesus was more in the streets than in a church building.
TS: What were the aspects of that neighborhood that felt familiar to you?
JH: One big one was that after I’d been going there for awhile, it was really easy to pop into the community and feel known, because people have the time of day to look you in the eyes and say hello, and reach out. So there was a lot of camaraderie with strangers on the street who became friends—that really drew me.
TS: How has your connection to the Downtown Eastside shaped your art over the past few years?
JH: When I first started going there, while I was still in university, all my artwork was about the Downtown Eastside, but it wasn’t so much about me as it was about other people’s stories. I thought other people were more interesting than me because I grew up in a stable home; had a good childhood. And then I was meeting people who had gone through such hard lives but could still come out so resilient and are, for better or worse, still contributing members in that community.
I remember at one point my professor looked at my work and she said, “Jenny, you have to be very careful not to exploit people.” And I was so offended by that, because I was not trying to exploit people. But she said I have to be careful about telling other people’s stories because that’s not where I’ve come from, so I thought about that a lot—I still think about it all the time. She suggested that I look for where my story intersects with the people that I run into and am so inspired by. So instead of being the angry activist artist (which was me for many years), I’m trying to personalize it and see where I come into the whole picture. Not in a narcissistic way, but just trying to be authentic with myself and with the situations that I’m dealing with.
TS: A lot of outsiders have come and gone in this neighborhood. They come in matching t-shirts, they hand out food or candy or coffee, and then they leave. But you’ve found a sense of family there. What do you think has made the difference for you?
JH: The fact that I haven’t left yet probably helps. When I first moved to the area, I was conscious that there was a hierarchy. Even though I was a single, young woman, I was still in a level of power because I worked in a nonprofit organization—so people saw me as the “missionary” or the “social worker.” That really bothered me because I wanted people to know me for me, just Jenny. I moved to the neighborhood and really tried to immerse myself and spend a lot of time on the streets getting to know people, and I think that helped a lot.
Also, my commitment to putting down roots. It’s funny I’m saying this now, because five years ago if someone had told me, “You need to put down roots, you need to really stay somewhere to make a difference,” I would have said, “Whatever. I’m not going to stay for that long. I’m not going commit to anything.” But I’ve realized over the years that that’s how I’ve been able to gain so much trust and learn to trust other people.
It’s been amazing and really hard, too, because friendships anywhere are intense, but when you’re in a situation where people don’t have as many buffers between themselves and other people, and themselves and their problems, it just gets intensified. I have a bleeding heart, so I have to know which battles to take on.
TS: So as an artist, living in this intense context where people are suffering and facing concrete issues of poverty and injustice, what do you think is the relevance of art?
JH: Well first, I would say that half the people I know in my neighborhood are artists, and so that’s a language that we can communicate in together. And there’s a lot that can be said through art that can’t be said through words or over a cup of coffee. Another thing is that an artist has the ability to create images and experiences that will take people beyond their normal thought process and allow them to see things in a new way. That’s why I do what I do: because I want to invent new possibilities for people.
TS: In the past, you’ve also mentioned using your art to create community. How does that happen?
JH: Yeah, that’s huge. I believe my friend called it vulnerable, generative activity—when you’re creating with someone in the same space or you’re collaborating with someone, there’s a sense of connection and vulnerability that doesn’t happen often in normal conversation. It gives people a chance to open up and build bridges where they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
TS: Tell me about the kind of art you've been making recently. Where do you draw your inspiration?
JH: I recently did a show in Alert Bay. A year ago I went up to Alert Bay to stay with a friend for two weeks and make art work. This community is on the north side of Vancouver Island and it’s a very small town. My intention was to get to know the community, and also finally connect my community in the Downtown Eastside with this small town that my friend was living in. I spent a lot of time just wandering around: there’s not much to do; you just go down to the beach and walk, and maybe bump into people and chat. And then I would collect information and go back to the studio.
TS: You’ve often used found objects in your work. What is the significance of that?
JH: These objects that I find are cast away, and they have a history. I’m a collage artist, so I love working with material that has been used for something else; transforming it and using it in a new way, but also using it in a way that the history of that object informs what I’m making.
So for instance, one of the things I made for my show was a miniature house boat. I found a lot of the objects in the dump in Alert Bay. So when I built this object, I was carrying it around town so I could take pictures. One woman saw it and she said, “Oh my gosh! That’s so north island! That’s from so-and-so’s house—I totally know those housing shingles.” She connected with it right away because she knew the history. So just to see that I was carrying these objects into a new life, that was really good.
TS: That piece in particular, Floathouse, was part of your exploration of the concept of home. What insights have you gained since you started? Has your understanding of home changed as you’ve made this art?
JH: Yeah, I think so. I started exploring concepts of migration, and transience, because a lot of people in my neighborhood are from Alert Bay. There are some very strong connections between the two communities, and I’ve always been curious about why people leave and why people go back. What is that draw that we have to our hometowns? I don’t know, maybe it’s nostalgia or something, but I know that when I go home, I don’t ever want to go home to stay. But there’s always a sense of, “This is where I’m from, and for better or worse, I’m a part of this place.”
TS: So there’s a tension between the positive and negative aspects of home.
JH: Yeah. So as I made a house boat, I put it on the water, and I took video of it floating around on the waves. Like humans: we’re always floating from place to place. The other part of Floathouse was that I took it down to Vancouver and photographed it in Coal Harbor in front of the city. It was in Alert Bay, and it made the long journey all the way down to Vancouver—that’s the story of so many of my friends. And I’ve made that journey several times now, too.
TS: So what do you think are the thorny elements of home that drive people away?
JH: I know lots of people who had terrible experiences in their home life through abuse or neglect. I realized as I was making this art, not everyone has an idyllic, positive idea of their hometown. And so nostalgia—which is a word that I don’t like to use about my art pieces, because it’s so cliché, but I’ll talk about it anyway—nostalgia is often associated with that warm fuzzy feeling we get when we look back on things, right? But there’s a dark side to nostalgia because in a sense, it can cover up what actually happened.
TS: It’s like a reinvention of the past.
JH: Yeah, but also dissociation from the past.
TS: So what are your plans for the future? Where do you see your art heading from here?
JH: I want to continue exploring this idea of home, but maybe broaden the topic a little. And I’m planning a trip to Israel, going back to where my story intersects with other people’s stories. My great grandma went to Israel several times, and she collected sand and water from different sites. I’ve always had this dream to return the sand and the water. And I’m also very interested in what is going on in Israel right now. So I want explore the connections between my own history and families from Israel, but also from Palestine. See connection, and generation, and barrier; explore all these different things, and see where my art takes me with that.
TS: And you’ve already begun exploring that concept with some of your artwork, right?
JH: Maybe a year ago I was doing a lot of reading about the Gaza crisis and trying to familiarize myself with what’s going on there. And then I felt a very strong need to do an embroidery piece about the West Bank barrier. This is in line with what I’ve been doing all along, and it actually creates another bridge: from my personal story with my great grandma and my relationship with her into this whole other world that I want to explore.
Born and raised in the mountains of western Washington, Hawkinson transplanted to Vancouver, BC several years ago upon receiving her BA in Visual Art from Trinity Western University. In addition to her personal studio practice, she is passionate about connecting artists with the rest of the world (and vice versa). She has been involved with integrating visual art into festivals, collaborating with musicians and dancers, and organizing art events and exhibitions through her non-profit work in Vancouver's downtown eastside. Hawkinson's artwork explores themes of home, transience, and embellished narratives. Integral in her process is the use of materials that have personal histories: objects which are the remnants of a collective past. Find more of her work at jennyhawkinson.com.
Trudy Smith originally hails from Texas, but has spent the last few years living in India and China. She and her husband recently moved to Vancouver, BC, where she is writing a memoir about the years they spent living in an Indian slum. Trudy has written for Consp!re, Sojo.net, and the ReKnew Forum, and she blogs about faith, justice, and culture at trudysmith.com.