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Vancouver Art Gallery artist-in-residence Jillian Christmas meditates about how to transform grief into joy

Christmas K. Ho Photography
Jillian Christmas is the Vancouver Art Gallery's new poet-in-residence. K. Ho Photography.

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s new poet-in-residence, Jillian Christmas, has experienced her tears transmuting into giggles. In fact, she says that some of her greatest laughter in life has come in moments of profound grief.

This is one reason why the Afro-Caribbean Canadian poet’s new residency is titled Toward Delight. Moreover, she’s hoping to cultivate this sentiment at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“It felt to me like we need a place to build joy, but joy doesn’t come from an absence of grief,” Christmas tells Pancouver over Zoom. “It doesn’t come from a vacuum where only joy exists. It’s like we hold them both in our hands. That contrast is important.”

Back in 2015, Christmas became the first Canadian to make the World Poetry Slam finals. Six years later, she captured the League of Canadian Poets’ Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award in the spoken-word category. In addition, Christmas won the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQQ Canadian writers following the 2020 release of her debut collection, The Gospel of Breaking.

“As part of my practice, joy-building is fundamental because I am a person who lives at the intersections of queerness and disability and Blackness and fatness,” Christmas says. “I think that if I am only in the posture of fighting or defending, that can be such a dangerous thing for our communities, for our lives, for our families.

“I think if we are willing to fight, if we’re willing to create art, if we’re willing to put our energies toward these things, then we also should relish the joy of life,” she adds. “We have to be filled back up by it. And we have to remember why we battle to begin with.”

Christmas views grief as “medicine”

As part of her VAG residency, Christmas has worked on a community grief altar called GOOD Grief. This project reinforces her belief that grief need not be static.

“We had a beautiful event for the Winter Solstice where folks were able to come in and interact with this piece,” Christmas says. “We had conversations and we ate food.”

In the centre of the VAG’S Annex Workshop was a brass plate with a package of seeds on top. Some attendees wrote messages on paper to departed loved ones.

Christmas reveals that as part of the project, these notes will be converted into pulp. Then, this pulp will become part of Pacific Northwest pollinator seed paper.

“All of those love letters are going to be planted on the roof of the art gallery,” she reveals. “They will continue to grow and blossom and act as living representations of our love.”

Christmas Vancouver Art Gallery
Notes of remembrance will blossom into flowers on the VAG’S roof.

Christmas is thrilled by loved ones’ names being embedded within the DNA of flowers feeding the city’ bees.

“That, to me, is medicine,” the poet declares. “That to me is movement, and it brings me so much joy.”

The ever-curious Christmas sometimes asks people what “medicine” their grief offers them.

“It’s such a wonderful thing to hear people sort of adjust that question and really consider: ‘Is there a gift in here for me? Is there a lesson in here for me?’ ”

Ritual and remedy

Furthermore, Christian feels that community members, families, and society as a whole need to normalize grief by talking more about it. She worries about the consequences of failing to do this.

“I think we often get stuck in it,” she states. “I think we often don’t know what to do with it, so it sits at the bottom of our stomach. We move it into other relationships or we weaponize it. Or it becomes self-harm and shame.

“I don’t think that is what grief is in the human experience for,” she continues. “I think it is meant to draw our attention to the love that we’d invested.”

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s director of public engagement and learning, Sirish Rao, has known Christmas for over a decade. On the same Zoom call, he says that the ideas of ritual and remedy have been on his mind since he launched The Artist as Healer project when he headed the Indian Sumer Festival.

Rao notes that Indian writer Arundhati Roy explored the idea of the artist as a healer in her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. One of her characters, Mulaquat Ali, is a hakim (doctor of herbal medicine) who dispenses poems.

“We were looking for potions for joy and remedies against despair,” Rao says.

Sirish Rao on Christmas
The VAG’s director of public engagement and learning, Sirish Rao, supported the appointment of Jillian Christmas as poet-in-residence. Photo by Jessica Sung.

Christmas engages youths through poetry

One day, Rao’s colleague, Stephanie Bokenfohr, spotted Christmas inside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Coincidentally, Bokenfohr and Rao had previously discussed reaching out to the poet about possible collaborations.

“At the top of both of our lists was a potential poet-in-residence,” Christmas recalls. “Sirish let me know that that had not happened at the gallery before. We collectively started daydreaming about what a poet-in-residence role could look like and what the title of a poet even means in the world today.”

Much to the delight of Rao and Bokenfohr, Vancouver Art Gallery CEO and executive director Anthony Kiendl embraced the idea. In a statement issued earlier this month, Kiendl said that Christmas’s “interpretation of art through the lens of poetry will inspire vibrant conversations and engagement”.

“The Vancouver Art Gallery is not just a space for viewing art,” Kiendl stated. “It’s a place where art is lived, breathed and experienced.”

According to Rao, Christmas has already had impressed members of a teenage art group who visit the Vancouver Art Gallery. He points out that it often takes time to engage youths.

However, they quickly picked up on the new artist-in-residence’s deep understanding of language, as well as the “immediacy and honesty” of her spoken-word poetry.

“They’re requesting: ‘Can we have Jillian Christmas back?’ ” Rao says with a chuckle.

More information on the Vancouver Art Gallery is available on its website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.