Common Weal has been working with Pine Grove Women’s Correctional Centre for many years, originating in a project with Métis writer Maria Campbell in 2004. Since that time the program has included artists of various disciplines. From 2004 to 2006 visual artist Joseph Gaudry provided weekly visual art workshops. In March 2006 educator and visual artist Carla Johnson assisted Joseph in collaboratively painting murals on the walls of the dining room with Pine Grove inmates. Carla was hired as a full time Educator/Therapist in the Pine Grove Literacy Program, opening the potential for deeper, more intensive Creative Circles programs through Carla’s assistance.
The women of Pine Grove’s Literacy class have been immersed in weeklong workshops with artists of various disciplines. Including writer Lynda Monahan and artist Nicole Charlebois who collaborated with the literacy group on a writing/textile project resulting in a collaborative textile work. Simon Moccasin hosted an acting workshop. During the same time actor/film-maker Marcel Petit produced a video celebrating the Pine Grove Literacy Program and its affects on the inmates of the facility, entitled Expanding Knowledge; We’re not just chicks in grey. Visual and performance artist Robin Brass led the literacy group through a visual art project creating “memory boxes” with various materials. Inside the boxes they put objects and notes of significance to their lives. Though the boxes are taken home with the women when they transfer out of the facility, photographs of the boxes by Eugene Capay were presented in an exhibition at the John V. Hicks Gallery in the Prince Albert Centre for the Arts.
Singer/songwriter and interdisciplinary artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle was invited back to Pine Grove in 2008 having previously performed for inmates there in 1999 with her then singing partner Joseph Naytowhow as part of Nikamok. Though originally a week-long singing workshop was envisioned, Cheryl was inspired by the resources the literacy program offered and turned it into a singing/songwriting workshop resulting in the collaboratively written round dance song The Beauty Within. She also taught the legendary P4W prison standard Strong Woman Song by Maggie Paul. Both songs were recorded using a local audio company on the final day and CBC Radio SK came and interviewed the women and Cheryl about the process.
All of these creative pieces including the first showing of the documentary, Expanding Knowledge: We’re Not Just Chicks in Grey by Marcel Petit were exhibited and performed at the John V. Hicks Gallery in the Prince Albert Centre for the Arts in 2009. In March 2010 we invited Cheryl back and this time, after her having noticed the positive experience the women had working with Marcel and Simon, she brought along Toronto-based singer/songwriter Gregory Hoskins to arrange, produce and record the session. From this second workshop, The Journey Home was composed and recorded.
The women from the Pine Grove Literacy Program continued to write to Cheryl long after both workshops were completed, this relationship having had a lasting effect on both the artist and the participants involved. In 2011, we decided to take the success of Cheryl’s past projects and create a longer-term program in which she will be coming back to conduct week-long songwriting intensives. Cheryl’s own goal is to make an album of songs and has been working with other community-engaged organizations, literacy groups, prison rights societies and correctional institutions across the country with the Creative Circles Pine Grove sessions being the major contributor and corner-stone of her recording project. For the album project, entitled Prison Songs (“why the caged bird sings”), she has enlisted the expertise of Toronto-based Juno award-winning music producer David Travers-Smith to ensure its sonic excellence.
The goal is to also leave the legacy of a collection of songs to honour these women’s lives and to contribute to the field of community activism and songwriting/composing – using an inclusive creative workshop approach, indigenous and female to the core. Common Weal is proud to have created a forum for such an important far-reaching project and will assist in any way we can.