Sowing the Seeds of Community Art Making

Sowing the Seeds of Community Art Making

Sowing the Seeds of Community Art Making

The Banff Art Project In Action

The lobby at Banff’s Ti'nu community housing complex is busier than usual on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. Several residents are mingling with each other, but the majority are clustered around a large canvas in the corner.

Its surface has been covered by local artist Steph von Neugg with multiple outlines of empty circles, which the local community is invited to transform with their own creations. Several children busy themselves, paint brushes in hand, filling the part of the canvas they can reach with colorful marks.

It's easy to tell the kids have an easier time letting their creativity run wild on the canvas, while the grown ups are more reserved in their art making. Yet everyone who is putting their mark on the painting does so with deep focus and attention to detail, their faces concentrated on the task at hand. They want to do a good job.

A young man stops by the commotion on his way out of the building. As he’s invited to join in, he responds with hesitation that he has never painted before and wouldn’t know what to do.

“Even more reason to try it!”, he hears in response and is offered a brush along with words of encouragement. He lingers a little longer and eventually decides to participate.

“This is why we are here and why we invited artsPlace here. To bring art to where people are at, physically and mentally, and to offer them a chance to be creative in a space where they feel comfortable”, says Jill Harrison, a community social planner at the Town of Banff who is collaborating with artsPlace on the project. “We are sowing the seeds of community art making here”, she says with a warm smile. 

Jill’s mission is to foster vibrant, supportive and connected communities within diverse neighborhoods such as Ti’nu. She believes in removing the barriers to accessing community activities such as the arts, music, or yoga by bringing them right to where people live. “We need to meet people where they are at.”

“When we did our community social assessment study a few years back, do you know what the biggest ask from the community was?”, she asks. “To have a facility like artsPlace in Banff!”

For many people it’s just not feasible to travel to Canmore to enjoy the arts. There is deep appreciation in the room for the opportunity to participate in creativity right at home.


The Ti’nu housing project is one of three Banff locations where artsPlace invited local artists to work with the community. Two other collaborations were conceived at the YWCA Banff by artist Claudia Aceituno, and in Valleyview neighborhood by artist and community activist Jyn San Miguel.

The YWCA event was held in the newly opened multifamily housing complex named Dr. Priscilla Wilson’s Place to bring together the new residents and staff for the very first time. Claudia, the artist behind this project, chose the puma as the main subject. "The puma represents the strength and beauty of my Chilean homeland, as well as my chosen home of Banff" she says. The YWCA staff and community members were invited by Claudia to paint the word “home” in their native languages on the canvas, or to add words that represent what home means to them.

“It was such an honour to create an art piece in the national park and I love that it’s functional art,” says Jyn, who led the transformation of one of the outdoor picnic tables in Valleyview into a large, colorful chess board.

Why a chess table? “Aside from perhaps food, how can you connect a 5-year-old with a 79-year-old? Put them at the same table,” he responds. “It’s a community connector because anyone can play chess.”

Jyn is proud that the piece will help to bring the community together through the arts and the game of chess. “It’s a public art piece that’s functional, that people can use to learn a new skill and to spend time together.”

“During the day when we painted the table, we also played some music, had food, and it was just a great community event. People came out, they contributed to the painting, and had a good time. I saw older kids teaching younger kids how to play. Everyone was so curious and engaged and wanted to learn.”

Jyn’s project planted a seed that will continue to flourish in the community for years to come.

As an outspoken mental health advocate, for Jyn projects like this create safe spaces of non-judgment and foster a community of kindness and support. “I’m on my personal mental health journey and it helps me to feel connected to other people, and this is why I’m excited about initiatives like this one.”


Back at Ti’nu, the canvas is coming to life with individual pictures that tell a collective story of its residents, and the Banff community at large. A thin layer of Cascade Mountain on top of the circles brings it all together, giving the painting cohesion and a unified voice.

Steph chose the circles to give everybody the space to express themselves within the mountain scape, and Cascade was chosen as homage to Ti’nu from which the iconic view of the mountain is seen. “I felt it was fitting,” she says. “It’s part of their home.”

The bubbles that fill the canvas carry common threads of family, love, connection to land, and the notion of home. There are paintings of Banff and the surrounding nature, but also of the residents’ various heritage. A Nigerian flag hangs next to a Canadian one high above mountaintops. A famous gate from a resident’s hometown in India has a commanding presence. A big heart encompasses someone’s family.

All at once, this collective work of art depicts the incredible wealth of cultures that coexist within the Bow Valley and at the same the universal values we all keep close and dear. 

“I’ve never done a collaborative art piece before, and it was exciting to dream about how I was going to invite the community to collaborate while still honouring my style as an artist. It was a great exercise in making art but also in community engagement,” says Steph.

Her day job as an arts educator and youth program facilitator for the Town of Banff has prepared her well for the endeavour. “Honouring a child’s voice is a big part of my teaching practice so that was an interesting muscle to flex during this project.”

Steph was encouraged to see that many of the kids and families who participated were engaging in this type of programming for the very first time.

“I know lots of kids in town, and I haven’t met many of the kids and families who came out for this! It was awesome to see them connecting with each other because maybe they’re not attending other programs that are happening in town so having a space for them to connect with other kids, and have parents meet other adults; it was amazing how much ‘people meeting people’ was happening around this project.”

“We brought it to peoples’ home to create a more comfortable environment for them,” she continues. “As the pandemic eased off, I noticed that people were struggling to engage with the community while slowly emerging from this time of isolation. The natural flow of meeting people, making friends, being part of your town may not have been something that they were doing for the last two, three years.”

“I was really proud of the people who were willing to get out of their comfort zone, who at first had said, ‘oh, I don’t paint, or ‘I’m really not an artist’ – it didn’t take much of a push for them to not only get into it but to spend a lot of time there and really try to create something beautiful. I was so proud of how brave everyone was being.” 

The residents were asked whether their participation in the project made them feel more connected to their community and the overwhelming response was ‘yes’.

“It’s fun to immortalize culture, however silly, forever,” wrote one resident. Another shared her appreciation for having an opportunity to participate in something the whole community contributes to, and to exercise rarely used artistic skills.

The finished canvas will hang in the same lobby where it was created, so the residents can walk by it every day and be reminded of the strength of their community and the connection to their neighbour. Similarly, YWCA’s painting hangs in one of the residential buildings onsite, and the picnic table in Valleyview will be part of the neighborhood’s daily life for years to come.

When you bring individuals together to create something they are all proud of, you unearth deep connections that run within each community. And after all, isn’t this what the role of the arts is all about? Bringing people together to build vibrant, rich communities where everyone appreciates creativity as a vital part of their daily lives.

See more photographs from this project!

YWCA Banff art project
Valleyview picnic table project
Ti'nu art project

This project was generously supported by

If you are interested in hosting a community art project in Banff, please contact Jill Harrison at [email protected]