Art gallery presents exhibition of songs written by inmates

Wintercount and Other Freedom Songs presents works written in partnership with serving inmates in an effort to build understanding and break down barriers

Wintercount video, compiled stills of audience listeners, artist Cheryl L'Hirondelle with Paul Dojack Youth Centre participants, 2015

A new exhibition opening at the Mann Art Gallery Thursday night features songs written from behind bars.

Wintercount and Other Freedom Songs consists of a listening station and music video from artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who wrote music alongside inmates from the federal, provincial and youth correctional facilities.

The eight songs included are part of a project called Why the Caged Bird Sings.

“It’s a project I’ve been doing with Common Weal Community Arts since 2008, co-writing songs with inmates,” L’Hirondelle explained.

The project initially came out of a 1999 visit to Pine Grove, the provincial women’s correctional centre located in Prince Albert by Little Red River Park.

“There was something that stuck with me about the importance of songs and having one’s own song,” L’Hirondelle recalled.

“In 2008, (Common Weal Northern Artistic Director Judy McNaughton) invited me to go into Pine Grove that first week the intention was to go sing songs, to teach some drum songs to the women in there. But I wanted to do something more, something that was a bit more concrete — something to play on that seed of an idea I had in 1999 where you get your own song.”

What emerged was a five-day process where L’Hirondelle works with literacy or cultural units to meet with inmates, write songs with them and record vocals within the facility. She then goes away and produces the tracks, adding instrumentation, mixing an mastering.

While all of the songs vary, it’s important to the project that the songs come from a place of hope.

“I always tell that joke – what happens when you play a country song backwards? You get back your house and jour job and your dog,” L’Hirondelle laughed.

“We can all write a hurtin’ song. Why don’t we write a song about how life could be different. A lot of the inmates … because they’re working through a cultural program or through literacy when I’m working with them, it’s pressed upon them that there are teachings that are more life-affirming.”

What results, L’Hirondelle said, are freedom songs.

“There’s this notion that we can talk about the positive we can talk about what life can become or what we’d do when we get out or what I really want. They’re freedom songs because they’re from the notion of that individual expressing themselves … expressing their hopes and desires and dreams.”

L’Hirondelle said that through the five-day process, she notices a change within the inmates.

“The gold, the literary, poetic gold comes,” she said.

“You notice …really quickly that people are happy to be acknowledged for some deep thoughts they have.”

L’Hirondelle told a story about one of the youth units she visited. After she had worked with them on the Wintercount song, from which the title of the exhibition is taken, they won every school award the detention centre awarded, except for math. L’Hirondelle doesn’t think her project, in particular, is what made the difference. Rather, she said, it shows that when you focus on giving people a tool they can use to make their life better, they will use it.

The opening reception for Wintercount is being held alongside the one for Axenet’l Tth’al, an interactive, large-scale work that takes viewers into the boreal forest to experience life in Patuanak.

Both shows are put on in partnership with Common Weal. They share an immersive element, something that’s important to McNaughton.

“When Common Weal curates an exhibition, it’s generally showing to the world something that started within the project with the artist and the community,” she said.

“When the artist and community come together, they begin to work intimately, and wonderful things happen. It’s very hard to show that to the larger world because it happens within a specific place and a specific way. What has started to happen is we tried to share some of the things that developed in a tangible way. The songs that came out of the project, they are a product that can be shared.

“When we share those with the larger community, we create a sort of understanding … about specific groups.”

Sometimes, McNaughton said, groups outside of the view of mainstream society can experience challenges borne out of misunderstanding.

“One of our goals, one of our purposes is to create understanding create some dialogue in some way so when people and the audience, the viewers, come to see the products in their exhibition form, they come to understand a little bit more about these communities beyond stereotypes.”

McNaughton said she hopes that by creating those dialogues, different narratives can be shared that create a wider understanding of the diversity of our province. That understanding, she said, is in the hope of broader, future social change.

“In a formal way, it reflects what happens within these engaged projects, bringing a professional artist to a group of people is very immersive,” she said.

“We’re taking that and making it larger, inviting other people to come in and also be immersed in hat place, that group — that community. Our greatest hope is that you’ll feel that immersion.”

In addition to the listening station and music video — which depicts people listening to the songs and the emotions they feel — the recordings themselves will be available for sale at the gallery gift shop for $5 each, the same amount an inmate can earn in a day’s work. The proceeds from that will be shared with the artists who helped write and perform each song.

Thursday’s reception also served as a kick-off for the Two Story Café, the annual storytelling and experiential art installation hosted by the Indigenous Peoples Artist Collective at the Hicks Gallery inside the Arts Centre on Central Ave.

The Two Story Café kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. and includes both performance art and spoken word.

*This is a corrected story. Why the Caged Bird Sings was mistitled as ‘While the Caged Bird Sings’ in the original version of this story. The Herald regrets the error.