The controversy couldn’t have come at a better time for Fulton Secondary School English teacher Michele Jones.
The Vernon Public Art Gallery’s much-belittled three-part Behind The Mask project, aimed at getting people to talk about mental health, has been a hot topic in Jones’ English language arts class as the school year draws to a close.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” said Jones of her class’ discussions on the topic, and she took her students to the gallery to see the exhibit in person. “Our curriculum is all about identity. It’s our underlying theme for all grades, helping kids realize their identity.”
Behind The Mask is a public art project where 10 North Okanagan residents living with mental health challenges express who they are and how they want the community to view them through masks that they made, wrote about creating and wore in photographs taken in Vernon settings of their choice.
In May, the gallery approached Vernon council for funding for the project which was inspired by Calgary artist Katie Green, who did similar work on bridges in the Alberta city. The gallery said the finished photos would hang on city and privately owned buildings for five years. Council voted to chip in $33,000 to go along with $55,000 the gallery received in a federal grant.
At its next meeting, however, council sent the project back to the gallery for public consultation after a large public outcry over the masks.
“It’s disappointing people only see the art for what they see, not how they feel,” said Tavin Duclos, a Grade 8 student in Jones’ class.
The Behind The Mask project resonated with him.
“It’s very cool seeing all of the art. I felt like when I first saw it, like everyone’s first though, I was trying to picture what was going on. But I feel after I started to look into it a bit more, it had a very deep meaning.
“It almost connects to me a bit because I always feel like wearing a mask is a big part of how I feel sometimes.”
Fellow Grade 8 student Hannah Boe didn’t know anything about the mask controversy until it was brought up in class. She believes a lot of people are angry about the masks being hung up on Vernon buildings because they’re not historical in nature, like the murals that dot the city building landscape.
“I don’t really see the problem,” said Boe. “There’s more ranges of art now. It’s like an opinion piece. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come see it or look away from it. For those who do like it, it’s nice for us to have.”
Jones has been following Green’s work for a couple of years, and when she heard she was coming to Vernon to do an installation here, “it just made sense.”
“It’s all about identity,” she said. “Art is so subjective. My job as an educator is to help create more critical thinking skills and this just fell right into place with the kids.”
The Behind The Mask exhibit is on display at the Vernon Public Art Gallery until July 19.
Between June 21 and July 5, after viewing the exhibit, guests are invited to step up to a tablet in the gallery and complete a survey. This is part of the gallery’s education and consultation process.
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