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The Art of Conversation - Dr. Chandip Kaur on breaking stereotypes

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When I heard about “The Art of Conversation,” this June - Arts Council Wood Buffalo’s (ACWB) project, pairing local artists with seniors during COVID-19 isolation, I knew I had to do something different. I wanted to highlight a South Asian elder who had broken the “docile, can’t-speak-English, smiles and nods,” North American stereotype. And, as someone from Pakistan, let me tell you that stereotype irks me. Thanks to Dr. Chandip Kaur, I found just the person, and now a new friend.

Dr. Kaur, or Aunty Reena, as many of us call her, is from Punjab, India. She’s been visiting her son in Fort McMurray since 2009 but moved here permanently in 2016 to help him and his wife care for their daughter Aareeth, now five years old.

The move meant leaving her job as a professor of English at SCD (Satish Chander Dhawan) Government College, Ludhiana in Punjab. And, a career in education spanning three decades, a sacrifice not many professionals can make easily.

She has a Ph.D. in English from Guru Nanak Dev University (G.N.D.U.), Amritsar, Punjab and published a book called “Rediscovering Mulk Raj Anand’s Fiction in the Context of Cultural Artifacts – Nation, Nationalism and Community,” in addition to being SCD College’s magazine, Satluj’s editor-in-chief.

While ACWB had a requirement of only one conversation for the project, you can tell why I couldn’t do justice to getting to know Aunty Reena in just one chat. Our talks kept getting longer as we discovered our mutual love for words, poetry, and literature, and an outlook on life anchored in positivity. We chatted five times, and then even informally after the project wrapped up.

Aunty Reena shared how supportive her parents, then her husband, and in-laws had been in helping her educational journey. Not many married women in South Asia pursued graduate studies in the ‘80s. But that has now thankfully changed throughout much of the region.

She did it all with this help while raising two children – a boy and a girl. Both her children are successful professionals who work for the oil sands and a multinational company, respectively. They both took after their mom and valued higher education.

Today, Aunty Reena is enjoying taking care of her granddaughter with an ever-present smile on her lips and not an ounce of regret in leaving her life and career behind.

“Why look back when there’s so much positive happening in the now? I cherish helping my family out,” she shared.

As for the Art of Conversation, Aunty Reena thoroughly enjoyed the project.

“I see Arts Council Wood Buffalo as a conduit to connect the community. The organization is indeed making a commendable contribution by organizing various events and activities to connect Wood Buffalo. My experience with the Art of Conversation was immensely awesome. The phone conversations helped my loneliness during the self-isolation in this pandemic,” Aunty Reena added.

“My message to the community would be: try to cultivate positivity and tranquillity in the face of dire adversity. The very logo of the Arts Council is symbolic of the various shades of life. I hope the events and activities of the Arts Council can go a long way in curing the banes such as selfishness, wrath, hypocrisy and intolerance prevalent in society. Kudos to this Council for showing a ray of hope and inspiration to its community through this project.”

Making Artistic Connections through Meaningful  Conversations

Speaking of the ACWB, Luay Eljamal, Programs Manager for the Art of Conversation, shared details about it. The initial development in collaboration with the St. Aidan’s Society took two years of planning. St. Aidan’s is a local social profit overseeing seniors outreach and programming.

“The project started prior to the pandemic. Artists were leading seniors face-to-face through a series of art-making workshops. We had to respond to the changing times in order to maintain its relevance during the quarantine,” explained Eljamal, who joined ACWB this March just as COVID-19 took over our world.

“After conversations with the St. Aidan’s team, it was clear that the senior and Elder communities were in high need of psychosocial support. We wanted our project to help bring people together in a meaningful way that didn’t necessarily over-rely on the use of video technology because we knew that seniors who didn’t have access to those technologies were the ones who needed the support the most. That’s where the Art of Conversation came in.

The concept was to connect artists with the Wood Buffalo region’s seniors and Elders by phone to engage in conversation. Following the phone call, the artist created a new piece of work inspired by their conversation. Then, the Arts Council purchased the artists’ completed pieces to have it gifted to the partnered senior or Elder.

So far, 30 artists have collaborated with 34 seniors, not only from Fort McMurray but Janvier and Fort Chipewyan as well. Many artists who were hesitant at the beginning of the project were pleasantly surprised by how quickly the conversation helped break the ice and resulted in inspired work.

“Some artists enjoyed the program so much, they’ve decided to partner with a second senior or Elder,” Eljamal shared.

The group hasn’t turned away any art form proposal. But, a majority of pieces have been visual and literary: paintings, poems, and short stories.

“We’ve also had a couple of videos, music compositions and crafts. Our most unusual, but equally exciting piece, has been a balloon sculpture based on the life of one of our male seniors by artist Nelly Wati from Balloon Moose Studio,” he said.

The feedback, he noted, has been “glowing all around. People are loving the opportunity to connect with others through the pandemic in a genuine and sincere way, as this. It’s also cathartic for people on the outside looking in, seeing the kinds of artwork that have been developed with the seniors and Elders in mind.”

Arts Council Wood Buffalo is working on a digital exhibit to highlight all the Art of Conversation projects on their website – slated to be launched by December, just in time for Christmas.

“This page will display video, audio, and images of all the art that was completed out of this project, as well as descriptions of each piece and how they were inspired by the senior they were made for. We are also looking at licensing the project out for any other organizations who may be interested in developing a similar initiative for their own communities. Proceeds from this go towards supporting more artists and seniors in our own region,” Eljamal said.


Visit to learn more about the Art of Conversation.


Choice of Happiness

By Kiran Malik-Khan

I’ve chosen joy
I’ve chosen peace
With the passage of years
These choices of ease
have made me who I am
I am – wisdom
I am – power
I am – sacrifice
I am – an ever-present smile
I am – a lover of words
I am – these choices
And so much more
I am – that which you don’t know
I am – that which you will know
I’ve chosen joy
I’ve chosen peace
With the passage of years
These choices of ease


Kiran Malik-Khan’s poem “Choice of Happiness”  was inspired by Dr. Chandip Kaur through the Arts Council Wood Buffalo’s The Art of Conversation program, which is a series of art-making workshops connecting the region’s senior population with local artists.


Photo: Dr. Chandip Kaur with Kiran Malik-Khan’s poem “Choice of Happiness.” The local poet wrote it inspired by the conversation she shared with Dr. Kaur. Photo by Kiran Malik-Khan

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Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.