Community-Based Art: Are we ready to be “Open to Change”?

By Kim Zippel –

In her recent blog post on this site, local artist Deb Reynolds lamented the lack of public art in the southend of Peterborough.  And there is no doubt that in comparison to other wards, we are lacking in iconic symbolism, like the airplane at the zoo, or expressions of local culture such as the downtown clock tower and Millennium Park fountain.  Due to this new found awareness, I have been personally searching for a means of openly sharing and celebrating artistic expression in my neighbourhood.  So it felt like serendipity when the Open to Change project came to my attention.

A community-based art project by Gillian Turnham, Open to Change is happening right now in Peterborough.  The project marries outreach with art to creatively engage the larger Peterborough community with some very private accounts of personal struggle, the end goal being a better understanding of addiction and mental health.  This initiative began with 9 stories contained in 9 story boxes, artfully designed and constructed to invite pedestrians to explore the contents.  All story boxes came with a supply of companion leaflets describing the project, and inviting people to capture their perceptions and experiences with mental health and addiction; a slot in the bottom of the box is designed to collect personal reflections.

A photo of the story box located on a stone wall.
Leaflets describing the project are neatly tucked into a holder. By lifting the lid as indicated, both artwork and story are revealed. The slot below the artwork allows for the contribution of personal stories and reflections.

The initial launch of the project involved breaking the city of Peterborough into 9 different suburban zones.  For two weeks the boxes were mounted in these locations, and just prior to Halloween, all were relocated in the downtown core where they will remain until mid-November.

Then, on November 16th, between 5pm and 8pm, the community will be invited for a free meal and interactive discussion event at The Venue downtown.  This final project activity will provide a forum, “for service providers and the public to experience the narratives, and to reflect on their own attitudes and processes around the subject of addiction and mental health.  Everyone is invited!”

Excited by the prospect of hosting a story box, I enthusiastically sold our garden wall as an ideal location.  I rambled on about how the story box would connect with lots of walkers, students from Fleming College, and that persons already comfortable using the little library mounted on the same wall would be more likely to engage with public art.  But a social experiment is just that, an experiment.  


A photo of the red story box mounted on a stone garden wall. The words Open to Change can be seen from the sidewalk.
Mounted at the corner of public sidewalk and private driveway: Were people hesitant to engage because of location?

In the days following the arrival of the story box, I tried to be inconspicuous as I peered out my window to see if my neighbours were inquisitive enough to interact with the art.  When my husband and I were out working in the garden, we nudged neighbours to go have a look, “it’s O.K. to touch”.  Without exception, all were impressed by the engineering of the box itself, and of the metal artwork that framed the story, but the dialogue around addiction and mental health seemed a byproduct rather than a focus for those engaging.  Without the encouragement of my husband or myself, few people stopped to touch the box and flip the lid to read the story.  Regular counts of the leaflets revealed even less participation as only 4 (not counting the two my husband and I took out) of the 20 leaflets were removed.

Inscribed on metal is a scene depicting the outline of a person sitting in a bathroom on the side of a tube with a cup of coffee. Above the sink medicine cabinet is a sign reading easy does it.
Gillian Turnham’s artwork on metal invites you to lift the cover to reveal the story beneath the image.

Undaunted, and certainly not discouraged by the response,  I choose to think of this community-research-through-art project as a first step, an introduction to street-side dialogue.  Because it did start a conversation, and added a new dimension of sidewalk interaction, between people and art, that has been lacking in the southend.  Maybe it was our ‘oh so Canadian’ reservation and politeness that prevented exploration of the piece, or perhaps it is our social comfort level when it comes to dialogues surrounding alcoholism, drugs, and mental illness.  Maybe the story box wasn’t placed in the right spot on our wall, or was too cryptic in operation; I’m not sure.

But what I do know for certain is that projects like Open to Change will create change and invite us to embrace the unconventional without reservation.  

The story isn’t over yet, you still have time to help write the ending.  So please take a moment to explore the now relocated story boxes in our downtown core, take a leaflet and jot down your thoughts, or start a discussion at the dinner table.  Maybe your household will be inspired to create a community-based art project around a topic that you wish to share with your neighbourhood, such that going for a walk will take on a new dimension in the southend as we become more Open to Change.

The side of the open to change story box reads: open to change and depicts a box opening
The caption on the side of the story box invites passers by to both Open and explore the content, and to be Open to engaging in a dialogue.

For additional information on the Open to Change project check out: & follow the project on Twitter @OTCptbo

And save the date:  Monday, November 16th to engage with your community as the Open to Change project shares the results of this innovative project.  The event will be held at The Venue from 5-8 p.m.  

Ptbo Examiner:  November 4, 2015 by Jessica Nyznik.  Open to Change Story Story Boxes moving to downtown…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.