The Beautiful Table

What if beauty mattered? This is the question stakeholders in The Maundy Café, Christ Church Cathedral’s charitable food program, wanted to ask.  

The Café, funded in part by the Vancouver Foundation, has been embarking on a social innovation initiative to transition from an arms-length charitable food model, to an inclusive model centred on dignity and embrace.  

What if how you served people food was as important as the fact that you were? Stakeholders at the café sensed an encounter with beauty—beautiful food, beautiful surroundings—were as important to one’s well being as food is to the body.  

They realized a new model requires a new mindset on the part of those serving and being served. Status quo us/them social dynamics within the café would need to be disrupted and challenged. At the same time an egalitarian sense of community would need to be nurtured among guests, volunteers and staff. Not an easy task when providing food to the city’s most vulnerable citizens.  

I, along with key stakeholders, co-created and then facilitated an art-based community building project called The Beautiful Table. Guests, volunteers and staff would encounter beauty together by creating art together. Our hope was to disrupt what we thought we knew about each other, in order to catch a glimpse of the common humanity in each other.

Over the course of 4 sessions, a reflective practice engaged participants in questions of meaning and beauty. Cafe participants, most of whom don’t call themselves artists, met weekly to create art that explored the themes of hope, love, belonging and enough. 

I then curated and mounted an exhibition of work created over the 4 sessions. The show was on display to the public in the main chancel of the Cathedral for 2 weeks coinciding with the Vancouver Food Network’s Sustenance Festival.

Art, like life in community, is a vulnerable act. Over the course of four weeks, what we experienced was not simply the chance to explore four themes with chalk and paper, but in how we related to one another as we created and kept this vulnerable space together.

At the beginning of each session, we gathered to observe, and then respond to a piece of art by putting our own reactions and reflections on sticky notes, placing them near the artwork. Our facilitator asked those in the room to speak to their responses, sharing what they saw.

Over time, I noticed that what individuals saw in a particular painting often mirrored an experience they were processing in their own lives in that very moment.

We then set down at tables of four, for forty solid minutes of silent, contemplative art practice. Each week when we were given the theme, it was always accompanied by a series of questions that would help us to explore it before putting chalk to paper.

Sometimes the process was clear. Other times it was not. At the end of the drawing time, each person had the chance to sign their art before it was framed. Each piece was treated with dignity and care. Each person was then invited to title their piece, and an artist’s statement to describe what the piece was about.

At last, we gathered in small groups, this time to comment on each others’ art in the way we had begun with someone else’s painting. Now it was personal. We were looking to see what feelings others’ pieces evoked in us, or how we would describe the world into which we now had a portal to view. And then, each artist had the chance to share something about their process, and what their piece meant to them. 

What happened over the course of four weeks was more than a weekly reflection on one of four themes. Over time, those themes were woven together and embodied in so many ways. Week on week as we created an intentional space for drawing in community, I began to see the ways in which love, and hope, belonging, and a sense of enough were there, right in the very fabric of our being together. 

Andrew Stephens-Rennie | Project Participant