Lego-built, Tonka-fueled Dreams

Lego-built, Tonka-fueled Dreams

October 2006. Shell Chemicals Canada asked the EAC to assist them in their development of an artist-in-residence project. They wanted to contract an artist to capture the events and atmosphere of a major shut-down and maintenance of their plant near Fort Saskatchewan. They did not want a traditional type of documentary but rather an artists perspective on the event. Ted Kerr writes about his experience.

Being something of an aging boy (27 and counting), the prospect of being able to live out some childhood, Lego-built, Tonka-fueled dreams of working on an industrial site full of cranes high in the sky and tires bigger than my head was reason enough to apply to be the Artist-in-Residence at Shell Chemicals Scotford during Turnaround 2006. A Turnaround is a period in which an industrial site shuts down parts of the plant to do maintenance. Turnaround 2006 was Shell Chemicals Scotford's biggest in it's history. All three of the major systems were shutdown and the workforce increased from around 150 to 1500.Then there was me: An artist with no prior experience on an industrial site, with a camera in hand and permission to embed myself in the Turnaround process. The potential risks were high, but so was the payoff.

Monday was my first trip to the site, I was attending a Safety Orientation. As I walked through the security kiosk on route to the training trailer I was met with a scene that I can only describe by sharing:

Before me was what I now know is the Styrene unit. It is responsible for manufacturing styrene, an ingredient in everything from jewel cases of CDs to car parts. Imagine gleaming towers being illuminated by the rising sun as men and women in blue coveralls and yellow hard hats walk around or ride around on retro bikes enroute to meetings and other duties.

After my safety orientation and receiving my own blue coveralls and hardhat (to decorate. part of the culture), Beverlee had arranged a lunch for the managers, myself and personality Mark Scholtz (who was hosting a radio show on site during Turnaround) so we could all meet. This was an invaluable experience. In the period of an hour I had an idea who I could go to with specific questions and the knowledge that the management was excited and supportive of the work I was going to be doing.

Part of the residency was to create and have art shown on site within the month that I was there. I knew that I didn't have much time and that meant that I had to integrate myself quickly. Luckily for me the only way I can photograph a community is to become a part of it. By being hands on and involved I was able to see the impact of having an Artist-in-Residence and art around was having on the members of the Turnaround team.

I became apart of the community by seeing the plant as a village that I was visiting. I saw myself as a visitor who showed my gratitude for the hospitality by sharing my creative self and encouraging or empowering others to do the same. I also showed an interest in the workings of the plant, asked questions and most often accepted opportunities to tag along with various specialists.

At least once a day I was invited to be a part of a job or asked to come along as a new job was beginning or a section was being inspected. I felt welcome and could see that for the people for whom industrial work is a daily routine the opportunity to share their sense of excitement and wonderment was a welcome addition. Many times people had family or friends who didn?t understand what they did. I became a surrogate son or partner. Through these moments I understood that my job was not only to improve my photography skills and grow as an artist but also to provide an understanding of what industrial workers did to the greater community.

My embedded involvement enabled me to understand that the success of the residency was not really about me. The true beauty about having a Resident Artist is not the work that the Artist creates, but how an Artist-in-Residence program invigorates and inspires the soul of a team. I saw 3 positive impacts on the team: It enabled and empowered people to claim their own sense of creativity, it helped employees feel understood and it showcased the talent and skills of the worker to themselves and to their peers. Understanding this helped shape my experience but also my work.

The main series of work that I created while at Shell Chemicals Scotford is called, 'You are the Catalyst', and it celebrates the timeless contribution of industrial workers. I took the focus off of the novelty of myself at a chemical plant and instead directed that energy to investigating the shared and unique contribution of the people I was meeting. It was part of the work that I displayed onsite during Turnaround.

The reason I was to have work on display during was my residency was because Beverlee understood that having employees see their contribution from an artistic perspective would have a positive effect on them. Beverlee understood a fundamental point of ART: To communicate. A month passed quickly. I installed 3 shows, taken over 500 photos, given a lunchtime seminar on taking better photos, spent nights at the site to get an idea of the nightshift, shared meals with people from all over the site and contributed to the newsletter. In the end it was the people that I met and photographed that I will remember, among them a tradesman that wrestled alligators and an engineer that is using her passion for pottery to help make a village in Africa more sustainable!

The story of my time as an Artist-in-Residence has less to do with the Art I created while I was there but more how the experience impacted the Turnaround team. It also serves, I think, as a "How To" on creating a successful artist in residence experience. Thank-you to Shell Chemicals Scotford and Beverlee Loat for creating a great experience that I hope will serve as inspiration for other organizations to create artist in residence experiences.

Ted Kerr, Edmonton 2006