Risking It All For Happiness
Eyoälha Baker radiates joy. She recognizes me standing at the café counter and approaches with a broad smile and an at-ease embrace. I’m a fan of hers immediately – an old-friend-like familiarity and a hug from the get-go is a rarity I’m always happy to find.
Eyoälha is an artist with the aim of spreading joy. Her latest work ‘Jump for Joy’ is epic in both scale and scope. Her mission is clearly defined: “capturing the beauty of the human spirit – in mid air – around the world.” In a bid to harness this ‘spirit’, her mural encompasses images of nearly 300 people, jumping sky-high with joy, on a previously bleak brick wall on the west side of the Arco Hotel (81 West Pender Street). The mural, approximately 65 by 114 feet in size, has transformed a huge dirty wall into a work of art. (Read about Eyoälha’s first mural in Gazette here.)
“I know that jumping’s not original – everybody does jumping photos,” Eyoälha said. “But the reason everyone does them is that it’s fun. Jumping makes you feel good. It’s part of your physical makeup in your body. When you’re excited about something, if you win a race, for example, and you feel good about yourself, you jump.”
“There’s just this incredible energy,” she added. “It’s this creative energy. It’s this passionate excitement about what’s possible. So to be able to harness that and share that is really amazing.”
Eyoälha has a story to share about her personal ‘jump’ into such an immense project. Behind her happy-go-lucky positivity, Eyoälha has had her own experiences of highs and lows from which her project – along with her new sense of direction – was created.
“At one point I came to an intersection, where I was not very happy with what my choices were,” she explained. “I ended up in a relationship that wasn’t good for me. I wasn’t enjoying the work that I was doing…”
She was in Berlin when the seed for her project was planted. She was flat broke. She stopped and took note and asked herself: How did I end up here? How do I want to be? How do I want to share myself with the world? How do I want to feel? How do I want other people to feel? If I could do anything in the world, what would I do?”
And after writing a list (which she wishes now she’d kept) she came to a realization, “I want to do that.”
“I risked it all, in a sense, because I didn’t really have anything to risk,” she said. She worked on changing her mindset. “As I stopped trying to be something else or do something else, other than what really made me happy, the closer I got to feeling really content and happy and walking the talk, basically. I don’t want to be a person talking about joy and not feel joyful. And I now feel the happiest I’ve felt in my life.”
She recognizes the challenges of introspection and of asking people for help and accepting it. “All of a sudden I’m seeing how beautiful that can be,” she explained. She calls it an “emotional growth spurt” and fell in love with the process. She fell in love with the neighbourhood and the generosity and kindness of the people. She recognizes that taking risks and learning from others was a big part of the shift. “All these people who were down and out in the alleyway were my biggest supporters and fans,” she said.
Eyoälha empathises with people experiencing homelessness and transient living. She recounts the past four years of living out of a couple of suitcases, of moving from couch to couch, of staying in rented rooms between tenants. These experiences have driven her in search of positive space and a sense of home. With her background in interior design and her travels, she recognizes the momentous impact that a space and its energy can have.
As we traverse the streets around the mural, we knock on the doors of SRO (Single Room Occupancy) buildings. Eyoälha is instantly recognized and welcomed. It’s in and around these spaces that she has met people keen to assist in her project. People who feel strongly about what she is out to achieve.
The Arco Hotel where ‘the wall’ can be found is an SRO building. Eyoälha knew it was the place for her project to unfold as soon as she laid eyes on it. Inside we meet Jose, the program manager of the hotel, which is managed by Atira Women’s Resource Society. I ask him about his experiences with the project and am not surprised to find he is entirely on board. “It was about supporting her and trying to get the tenants involved,” he said. “Eyoälha would come to the building and I would help her to meet and connect with residents. She would then often embark on spontaneous photo shoots.”
Jose speaks fondly of his own photo shoot and the space where he and his wife jumped. “It was really cool because first we had to plan where we could do it. I always liked big, green spaces and there’s a soccer field just two blocks from here and I think that is one of my favourite places to hang out in the DTES. It’s cool because it’s bright and it’s new and it’s brought a lot of good things to the area… We went down there and she asked us to start doing jumps. She gave us techniques of how to do it so that we had more airspace… We took our shoes off and we tried it in different ways. At the end, I was tired, but I was like, ‘I want to do it again.’ It was just a happy time.”
Before the mural was added, the wall, which was exposed after the building next to it was torn down, was an uneven, ugly bricked space, partial to graffiti and little else.
“The tenants and the people in general, are happy that their pictures are out there,” Jose said. “Some of them get a little shy, but then you look at their faces and they’re smiling. It gave the building life. Instead of being like, ‘oh you know that ugly building in the corner there?’ Now it’s like ‘do you know that building with the cool mural on it? That’s my building’…. People here are dying to be involved in something like this. That sense of belonging is something that is lacking here.”
Alexandre is the next person I meet. He is an artist and early recruit to the project. He stands proudly beneath the images and can barely contain his excitement. “I was the first volunteer,” he beams. He recounts meeting Eyoälha in the back alley when she did an earlier mural project. He saddens as he remembers the heavy sense of loss and darkness he felt at the time after losing a close friend to drug addiction. It was during this time when he was “singing to God and his friend in the alley” that he came across Eyoälha. “My heart was already jumping. We connected straight away… I found it was so important to me to be there to support her art. She’s putting a seed in the city where there is a lot of dark. We see the flower now, blooming in the wall.”
Alexandre has seen the project evolve from its beginning and has documented its progress through his own photography. He feels strongly about projects such as ‘Jump for Joy’ because they encourage a sense of respect in the area – respect that is deeply needed. “She put colour in the city, “ he said. “In a place with so much darkness, she brings light.”
Eyoälha speaks of Alexandre fondly. “He ended up being my greatest supporter. He came almost every day to check on me, to help out, He brought me lunches. He was so helpful and kind because he was so touched by the work and we became friends through it.”
Christina, a resident of a nearby SRO building and another supporter of the mural, calls out to me. Christina tells me that in the four years she has lived in the building, she’s seen lots of changes. She lives alone, with her cat and tends to keep to herself in the her building.
Eyoälha was talking to some of the girls in the building when Christina first met her. She asked, Christina if she could take her picture. Christina’s reaction was “what for? I don’t know you.” But Christina decided to give it a go. Her picture is on the wall now – she’s wearing a skirt and jumping high. She feels happy about the experience. “It felt good once I did it,” she said. “It was fun… I can look out my window and it makes me happy.”
Next, I’m introduced to a community of people in another building, this time on Cordova Street, where they set about printing and gluing the individual pieces of the posters to make the mural. Rob was one of the people who helped. He’d never seen a mural on that scale before. He told Eyoälha it was going to be impossible to do it. “But she did it, “ Rob said “ It turned out really good. She’s a one-man crew… She’s amazing… I’d like to see more of those (murals).”
Another resident, Melanie, helped piece images together. “It’s a good thing we had a lot of glue sticks,” she says with a grin. She got involved because she saw that Eyoälha needed help. Melanie describes the mural in one word: “Awesome.”
Eyoälha is keen for me to meet Sean, another person who, along with his girlfriend Dawn, donated time and support. “It worked out really, really good,” said Sean. “She got pictures of us. We walked by it and I called my mom. We’re all excited.” Sean is in the top row, in the middle. He wanted his poster to be perfect and he feels like it is. “It’s uplifting, right? We need more stuff like that in the community,” he said.
Eyoälha describes the support for the project as “overwhelmingly positive” and “heart warming,” with organizations like Atira Women’s Resource Society, BC Housing and countless local and international supporters pledging their time and money to the project. She is extremely thankful to the community who made her vision a reality.
Janice Abbot, Atira’s CEO, was particularly important in seeing that the project had the financial and administrative backing that it needed. Eyoälha described Janice as “magic” and added “I have so much respect for her. I think she probably saw how involving everyone in the area could actually show a different side of the people. It’s fun and it’s something light. It’s not something about everyday survival… It’s something with a completely different focus.”
Eyoälha said she’s been told her project had one of the largest involvements from the neighbourhood. And not only has it touched the DTES community, but it’s rippled worldwide, garnering support and being shared on an incredible scale via social media. “I know I probably sounded crazy when I suggested in the beginning that people should come and help me create something that’s going to spread joy around the world, but it’s actually doing that,” Eyoälha said.
But she’s not finished yet. I got the impression that this is just the beginning for Eyoälha. She plans to attempt speaking events like ‘Interesting in Vancouver,’ which she’s nervous about, but she says, “I want to because it scares the crap out of me.”
She’d love to do this (community art centred around joy and positivity) in other cities. She will do more photography and maybe transform more of her images into large-scale murals. She has plenty of ideas. “Maybe an art show? I could do that. I’m open to opportunities,” she said. And she continues the work she started first – a book of 1000 pictures of people jumping around the world.
In the meantime, we can all share the joy and join Eyoälha at the “Jump for Joy” mural for a celebratory community BBQ at 4pm on Wednesday, September 9.
By Jill Plant
Photographs by D. Alexandre Légère and Dave Hamilton