Brenda Luong on Home & Community

Three white ceramic bricks loosely stacked on a blue background.

I was twenty years old when I moved out on my own for the first time. Alone in a new city, just a touch over three hours away. Far enough for a change of pace, but close enough, just in case. I packed up every inch of my car with belongings from my now old life and that was that. I spent most of my days driving around the city and walking in my new neighbourhood, trying to construct a new definition of home. Where I used to be certainly didn’t feel like “home.” You know, at least not in the way everyone describes: warmth, comfort, peace, security… So what was home? What is home? I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t until I took my first trip alone that I felt homesick. A short flight and five days away, I missed home.

For me, home wasn’t just the four walls where I slept or cooked my meals. It was the routine I built. It was walking to my local coffee shop every morning. It was seeing friendly faces at the grocery store. It was going to the yoga studio down the street, drinks after work with my friends, my favourite river spot, and ceramic classes on Monday nights. For me, home meant community.

An unfinished brick wall made of white ceramic bricks with a text poster on one side and text on the blue wall in the background that says, "Do you accept the terms and conditions?"

Over the last few years, I completed my bachelor’s degree in community rehabilitation and disability studies at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (with a short, year-long stint in art school smack in the middle of my seven years of further education). I started to question the meaning of community. What is community? How do we foster it? Why is community important? Developing creative programming for each organization I worked with allowed me to find ways to merge my artistic background and practice into my professional field. I worked with kids, adults, and seniors with all kinds of varying accessibility needs and experiences to consider. One common sentiment was always articulated: having somewhere to go regularly, to look forward to, and a shared activity like art to serve as a basis of commonality between strangers and an outlet of expression cultivated a sense of community and, more importantly, belonging.

Last year I received several grants to further my research in this field. I even developed my thesis around identifying and addressing common barriers of marginalization through the arts. My findings grouped different barriers into three major categories:

  • Accessibility: physical accessibility (public infrastructure, transportation, location), financial accessibility (barriers of cost), or knowledge (accessible language/information).
  • Community: constructed biases and stereotypes within society on ableism, gender, class, race, etc. that fragment community and heighten isolation for marginalized groups, and a lack of public institutions and services for social care.
  • Adaptability: lack of adaptability within communities and public infrastructures to address different accessibility needs (note: ability is contextual).

An image of a number of pink post-it notes plus one yellow one. All of the notes are covered in written text.

The value of the arts is often overlooked and under-considered as an essential means to respond to barriers within society. Arts-based communities are intentional; they create a social network of people coming together based on a shared interest of art participation. Arts-based communities serve as a space to embrace diversity and an opportunity for contribution through skill sharing, sharing resources, or collaboration, etc. These spaces nurture relationships, especially for those marginalized or without belonging and community.

When I started working on my exhibition i can’t get through at Stride Gallery’s Prairie Crocus Gallery space, I knew I wanted to make something that spoke on this research. I wanted a piece that amplified the importance of understanding and embracing the intersection of identities for marginalized folks and the role this has in everyday life. I wanted to create work that encouraged further thought in policy development and a reevaluation of institutional practices through a lens of critical disability studies and an intersectionality framework. I wanted my work to invoke thought on how we view and value one another by challenging societal stigma.

A white radiator seen from above plus a box cutter, some bricks and a pen on a blue backgroud.

Last year, I went through one injury after another. I felt like I couldn’t catch a break. The worst was a six-month-long concussion while working on my thesis, which destroyed the routine I spent so long creating for myself. Daily tasks became difficult, my relationships were fractured, and my means of support were inaccessible. I no longer had a sense of community. I questioned if this life still felt like home. It was so isolating. I thought about leaving again. Everything felt out of reach. How strange it was to create work that spoke on fostering community and belonging when I was at a point in my life where I felt furthest from it. I still suffer permanent and reoccurring symptoms.

i can’t get through evolved into an outlet of reflection for me and a lesson on letting go, how to adapt, develop patience, and move forward. The further along I got into this project, the more of myself I poured into it. I was embedded in every single hand-sculpted object littered on the floor and every hand-made brick stacked one by one, forming a wall. Every word echoed a thought or feeling from my mind at one point or another.

Two sheets of line white paper with some handwritten text at the top of each one.

An agreement of terms and conditions is posted on the brick wall detailing a list of contradictory expectations dictating how to feel, act, think, and behave. Made entirely by hand out of clay, the ceramics are reflective of the seemingly permanent and impermeable, yet fragile materials these terms and conditions can be built upon. Scattered on the floor on one side of the brick wall is a hammer, a single key, a box cutter, a roll of tape, and a pair of scissors – objects sculpted after my own possessions, objects that I would use to pack up and leave when things no longer felt like home, when it felt like I couldn’t get past the wall of terms and conditions. Along the floor, closest to the viewer, is a ceramic sculpted permanent marker to the right of a blank checkbox with the words “I agree to the terms and conditions.” This exhibition is a snapshot of a moment in choosing whether to accept the cost of terms and conditions that are constantly changing and demand an idealized version of yourself, or to pack up and leave, to refuse to mold yourself to terms and conditions that don’t accept you as you are, unconditionally. Do you accept the terms and conditions?

A printed out text of terms and conditions (like a contract) on a blue background.

Brenda Luong (she/her) is a multidisciplinary artist with a primary focus on ceramics currently based in Moh’kins’tsis, Treaty 7 Territory (Calgary). She holds a degree in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies from the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. Her work is reflective of both personal and professional experiences; she continually strives to find ways to merge her art practice and her professional background with community in mind.