Ladysmith-raised artist creates socially engaged art

Andrea Creamer was chosen as one of the speakers at Simon Fraser University's convocation ceremonies.

Ladysmith native Andrea Creamer is an artist and social activist who is using her talents to bring people together and spark conversations.

A practitioner of “relational aesthetics,” an artistic movement in which the act of creating social interactions is the art piece, Creamer recently graduated from Simon Fraser University with an honours degree in fine arts from the faculty of communication, art and technology.

She credits much of her success to her childhood and teenage years in Ladysmith.

“I think is all really does come down to growing up in Ladysmith. I was fostered with a great sense of community, but also being in a small town, I was hyper-aware of my need to expand from that community, realizing that there were other communities out there and I was interested in them,” she said.

Eleven years ago, Creamer, 30, acted on that interest and moved to Vancouver. She studied community recreation programming at Langara College before beginning her formal artistic training. Following a stint working with new immigrants and First Nations people on literacy programs through 2010 Legacies Now, Creamer became interested in the relationship between art and public spaces.

Building on that interest, she began to explore how the imposition of rules governing the use of public spaces influences people’s enjoyment of them. She created a series of art installations questioning people’s access — or lack thereof — to places that were intended to bring them together.

One such installation, named Home is Elsewhere, saw Creamer affix vinyl letters spelling out “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” in public places.

“I placed them in areas where the City has made aesthetic choices that actually are barriers to prevent what I see as free access and leisure to those spaces, which are actually targeted at homeless people.”

An example, she said, are the armrests placed in the middle of park benches which prevent people from lying down.

“Often the very act, the chalk on the sidewalk, the poster in the window, these things are not even legal for me to do, which is the conversation I think I’m participating in. I’m breaking the rules as I’m pointing out that we’re breaking the rules,” said Creamer. “To me, I find it kind of ridiculous the enjoyment of public space, the assembly of people, the gathering of people, the forming of these relationships and communities is actually governed by invisible rules that people break.”

Creamer’s studies led her to work with Am Johal of the Vancity Office of Community Engagement, which in turn got her involved in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community. In partnership with Johal and the Portland Hotel Society, she began hosting a series of artists’ talks in the Downtown Eastside. The talks, which she still organizes, bring together Downtown Eastside residents with students and established artists in an informal setting.

“The social interaction or exchange is the art piece,” said Creamer. “The conversations that we have are fantastic.”

The Downtown Eastside participants then use their experiences to create published work of their own.

“Andrea has been instrumental in building relationships between Downtown Eastside residents and the SFU community,” said Johal. “Her support of community projects has been exemplary, and her artistic practice brings a social aesthetic that comes from a rooted understanding of what it means to produce art in such a complex neighbourhood context.”

Creamer’s work is so notable that she was selected as one of SFU’s convocation speakers at this year’s graduation ceremony. Creamer said she was honoured to be chosen, particularly because much of her work over the last few years has involved criticism of the university.