Making art that makes change

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Evan Tapper spends 90 minutes every week hanging out with a group of children and teens in Toronto. It's vital time spent at a place the kids would probably rather not be.

"We do flip books, we do drawings, we've done casting with plaster and mono-printing on glass plates. We did a different type of sculpture with tape and wire," recalls the Winnipeg born-and-raised multimedia artist.

"I don't give much direction and they usually just talk and work."

This is no ordinary after-school program. Tapper volunteers at the Redwood Women's Shelter in downtown Toronto -- something he's done since 2005. In the summer of 2008, he also ran a children's book club there.

The art club began in 2008.

"Often these kids don't have things of their own because they're in a sense, homeless. A drawing or painting, sculpture becomes more important than any stuff other kids would have," notes Tapper, 37.

While there is a youth counsellor at the organization to bring the kids to events, Tapper says he feels his program enhances their stay there.

"They're dealing with so much -- they are transferring to a new school and they don't know anyone and they're living in this secret place ... Schedule becomes an important thing."

Tapper also sees the significance of having a male figure at the shelter -- one that is non-threatening. It has its moments. He acknowledges some of the problems of dealing with children that have had to survive violent environments.

"One girl yelled at me. I just gave her time," recollects Tapper, who's been an artist for 14 years. "Another girl wasn't looking at me or participating so I said to her: 'When you're ready, you can join us at any time.'"

His work at the shelter is a natural branch of his own interests. Tapper -- who holds a BFA from the University of Manitoba and then left Winnipeg in 1998 to pursue an MFA at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh -- is an unabashed feminist.

Feminism is empowering for men

"To me it's the most obvious thing. I think men are responsible for 99 per cent of the violence against women. Women have enough stuff to deal with. Once you realize that, you have to do something," explains Tapper.

"I find that empowering as a man. It means a man doesn't have to be in a role. Men and women are equal [and] can do anything they want ... Women are free not to be mothers and people can be with others who are not the opposite gender." Tapper says his art changed while at Carnegie Mellon after a female professor told him: "I'm tired of assholes pretending to be feminists." While he was upset and disappointed by her statement, it prompted him to examine his own voice and take into account white male privilege.

"Some people look at my work as if it had authority...I question the power of that authority."

That line of questioning sparked the interactive work Fleeting Intimacy -- done in 2000 at the Carnegie Free Library. Tapper, an energetic soul who uses both his face and body to express himself when talking, would ask people at the library if he could sketch them while they talked about themselves. The interaction was also videotaped.

"For the first time, I couldn't speak -- I put the microphone off me and had to listen to other peoples' stories. Everything changed and it was their voices. All I did was draw caricatures for five hours a day in the library. I realized people are there because they are homeless or lonely."

The search for disparate perspectives continued when Tapper won a one-year residency at the Center For Contemporary Art in Kitakyushu, Japan, where he lived from 2003 into 2004.

While staying at a steelworker's dormitory, he uncovered a lot of manga and comic books with plenty of sexual violence.

"They were really strange with white-looking character doing these masochistic sexual violence. I pulled a stack of manga from the trash -- with rubber gloves -- and I scanned this sequence, which had a white man raping this woman with this sword and he ties her up and rapes hers."

In re-imagining the story, Tapper blurred the female figure and made the male character more prominent. In the video piece, called Graphic Material, Tapper overlays a monologue with himself as the artist trying to change the narrative of the rape story along with the male character.

"I say that I found him in the pages of this comic book and, he's saying, 'Please help me get out of this...I want out of this, I want another world in which this is not okay.' The character explains 'I'm drawn this way but I don't want to be here.'"

Tapper says he could never imagine being the one who inflicts violence.

"That's just horrifying, mysterious and complex to me," he admits. "And I know, for a fact, people just like me are capable of doing this."

Completing the story of Vashti

Tapper -- who has taught at the State University of New York College at Fredonia, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. and at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) in Toronto -- says he likes deconstructing stories that have been imprinted onto people.

That's where In Search of Vashti comes in -- a site-specific audio project which played at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto during the summer of 2006.

During the 45-minute piece, listeners hear different women tell their own version of an historical story. It provides an alternative ending to the story of Vashti, the Queen of Persia. Tapper chose the ROM because it is one of the few museums that have a Persian Collection.

In the Book of Esther, Queen Vashti was married to the King of Persia. He had a big party lasting 10 days and called for his Queen to wear her crown and entertain her guests. He sends for her but the messenger returns and says she doesn't want to come. This distresses the King and his ministers as her refusal could set a precedent for the women in the empire. So it was decided from then on that Vashti would no more come before the King. In the search for a new queen, Esther is found and that begins a new chapter in the book.

"The rabbi's always write these weird things like God gave her a skin disease. Well, she didn't want to parade herself in front of a bunch of drunken men," Tapper snickers, as if saying: isn't that obvious?

"Her absence is really the power. You never hear her voice."

Tapper said he felt an impulse to refute what was being taught to him and to women.

"Anyone I went to Jewish school in the 1980s would say: 'Wasn't she evil?'"

Tapper decided he would re-tell the story to different women of diverse backgrounds and ages and then turn the mic on them and ask them to finish the story of Vashti.

"A woman from the Caribbean said Vashti stayed and was an advisor to Esther. Someone said she probably became a man. A woman from Cameroon said the messenger fell in love with her and told Vashti: 'No I will never hide you.'"

Currently, Tapper is creating a 10-minute animation (It's Not Me, It's You) around a couple, Eddie and Moe, exploring "layers of xenophobia and homophobia." While that may sound heavy, Tapper -- always clever and eschewing the obvious -- is manufacturing a cutesy kind of world.

"Eddy's a satyr so he's hyper-masculine but he's got braces, glasses and he's goofy."

Eddy likes to make crafts and is an online sex worker. He lands on a game show for couples with his mermaid girlfriend, Moe.

Eddy actually made an appearance in the fall of 2008 at the Electronic Access Arts Centre in west-end Toronto, where Tapper set up a craft table while a video loop of Eddy played.

The project circles back to Tapper's fierce principles: "I don't understand why men don't embrace feminism as a value for social change and freedom. I think it's fear ... they think it's against them but it's really for them."

Evan Tapper's work can be viewed on his website.

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