Sylvia McFadden and Carla Bergman are bustling around East Vancouver’s Heartwood Community Café, putting the finishing touches on a special photography exhibit. These vibrant photographs were created by inner city youth who take part in programs at the Purple Thistle, and wouldn’t have been possible without a recent grant from donors at the Central City Foundation.
Purple Thistle is a youth-run drop-in arts and community centre in the Strathcona industrial area of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. The arts resource centre provides free access to shared equipment and supplies including a dark room and silk-screening equipment under the leadership a youth collective.
Last year, CCF donors gave Purple Thistle a grant to purchase four high-quality DSLR cameras. The cameras made possible a pilot project for young women focused on life skills, leadership and photography skills dubbed the “Loveable Photography Project.” After the pilot, the equipment will remain as part of the collective resources to be used for additional programming at Purple Thistle.
The Purple Thistle was founded in 2001 by Matt Hern – an educator, community organizer, writer and activist– and seven teenagers. They wanted to create a positive gathering place for youth in the inner city that was an alternative to the schools and institutions where they didn’t feel comfortable. Painting, writing, making films, building websites, sculpting, publishing zines, performing poetry and “spoken word,” making comics – these were the creative outlets they wanted and they started a centre to make them happen.
“What’s unique about the space is it’s run by a collective of young people who staff the place and volunteer their hours,” says Co-director Carla Bergman. “They keep it open for drop in. Everything is free to use, anyone is welcome to come and take a class, use our equipment, hang out, have tea, meet friends, meet community. The role of the adults is to anchor the project, keep it permeable, keep it open for young people.”
For the “Loveable” project, Sylvia McFadden says they wanted to do a program for young women that talked about radical body acceptance. “I’ve always had an interest in smashing patriarchy and reimagining beauty ideals,” she says. “Naturally when you get people in front of the camera these issues start coming up and it’s a good place to talk about them.”
The workshops allowed young women who didn’t have access to professional grade cameras to learn the practical skills needed for using a digital single-lens reflex. For two months last summer, eight young women met at the Purple Thistle for three hours a week and covered topics like composition, lighting, digital editing and post production under the mentorship of several professional photographers McFadden was able to recruit. A highlight for many participants was one pro who focused on self-portraiture and seeing yourself with kindness.
At the end, McFadden enlisted the talents of a professional curator to help mount the photographs and prepare the exhibit. When it’s over, participants will be able to take home or sell the finished images and they will all receive completion certificates from Purple Thistle.
A wide range of kids take advantage of the Thistle’s welcome. McFadden herself started coming here six years ago at age 16. “I needed a place to go, away from my house and my school,” she says. She stayed to learn and eventually became a mentor herself.
More than 100 youth ages 15 to 25 walk through the doors every week. Some have been referred by counsellors, but most hear about it through word-of-mouth. “There’s all kinds of cool stuff going on at the Thistle and it’s all for free,” adds Bergman.
But that’s only possible with help, like that of their neighbours at Central City Foundation.