SPEAK Season 2 Episode 9: Sidekick

This episode marks the first half of a two-part mini-series on the evolution of BEING Studio over the past 20 years. This part focuses on late artist Irene Beck and the storytelling power of art. Artists and family members come together to react to and remember Irene’s paper bag collection, “Sidekick”.

Rachel Gray 0:00

Hi, I’m Rachel Gray.

Debbie Ratcliffe 0:02

And I’m Debbie Ratcliffe. Welcome to SPEAK!

Rachel Gray 0:07

SPEAK is artists with developmental disabilities telling their own stories. In the last two episodes of this season, we’re diving into our history. The Bronson Centre, where BEING is located, used to be a high school. When I first started working at BEING, in many ways, it still looked like an old science classroom. There was a raised platform for experiments, cabinets for storing textbooks and equipment.

But in 2017, these cabinets were full of something very different. They were filled with stacks and stacks of drawings, notebooks, artwork.

The BEING Studio archive lived for years in these cabinets: there are 1000s of pieces. Looking through this archive is like falling into infinite space. There are so many lives and stories behind these images. It’s emotional and exciting and disorienting. One artist who left an enormous mark on the archive and the studio was Irene Beck. I never met Irene. She died the year I started working at BEING. But her work and memory remains an important part of the community. This episode is about Irene, her work and her legacy at the studio. Irene was born in 1954 and started at the Studio in 2002, back when it was called H’art of Ottawa. Irene created paintings, drawings, writing and sculptures during the decades she spent working at the Studio. In this episode, we’re going to focus on Irene’s project “Sidekick”. “Sidekick” is a series of hundreds of brown paper lunch bags. Each day before going to the studio Irene would draw and write on her lunch bag. Irene made these bags for years. Each one has a drawing of a face and a unique piece of writing. In 2012, these bags are displayed in a series of exhibitions in Ottawa. An independent documentary was made about these exhibitions for the 10 year anniversary of the Studio. This documentary has given us the only recording we have of Irene’s voice.

Andrew Hall 2:40

Irene Beck started coming to H’art when the studio opened in 2002.

Irene Beck 2:45

Inside my dreams. Dreams.

Andrew Hall 2:51

Irene has produced an enormous body of art over the past 12 years.

Irene Beck 2:56

For Kenny Rogers, I am singing “On the Road Again”.

Andrew Hall 3:04

Here Irene is showing Jason St-Laurent, the curator of SAW Gallery in Ottawa, some of the hundreds of paper bags she has created.

Irene Beck 3:04

I am going out of town and Iive…

Andrew Hall 3:18

These are being featured on in an exhibit at SAW Gallery.

Irene Beck 3:21

… The Bold and the Beautiful.

Rachel Gray 3:23

Our assistant producer Fin and I have been trying to piece together a portrait of who Irene was at BEING Studio through her artwork, and memories of friends, colleagues and family. I’ll turn it over to Fin.

Fin Sun 3:42

While I’ve never met Irene, and I really wish I had, I feel gifted to have had the opportunity to be invited in to some of her stories, creativity and observations through her artwork. The perspectives and moments that Irene has left behind are treasured. And a reminder of how important storytelling, history, and sharing can be. Let me share some of Irene’s bags with you.

Bag number 226 : “Seeing is believing. Brilliant, protected. Secret, organise. Excellent, exhale. Exotic, express battery.”

Bag number 135: “I am a real cop to looking around a police station. My name is policewoman Beck.”

Bag number 208: “Luxurious, dedication, sensitive undercover president. Daydream, Irene.”

I asked artists at BEING about their memories of Irene. And about the bags. Here is Bing.

Bing 5:27

I remember she’d bring her lunch bag every single day and like collect and collect and collect.

Fin Sun 5:36

What did she do with the lunch bags?

Bing 5:39

She, she liked to… I’ll word it this way: Irene was the type of positive person and she knows in life there are things that are going to be poopy, as in bad, or good, but she would always find time to put jokes on lunch bags. And she would often tell me in life, sometimes you’re going to have high, sometimes you’re going to have lows. And sometimes you just want to run and scream the other way. But Irene said if you can learn to channel humour and things that help you remember the little things in life.

Fin Sun 6:32

Humour is a big part of Irene’s bags.

Bag number 268: “I am a very funny person. And I am such a laughing gas to break, a log in the backyard. Beck Family.”

Bag number 287: “I am laughing gas in the bubble bath.”

Bag number 192: “I made my own decision. Stay away from the vending machine at the H’Art Studio. Beck Family.”

Some are harder to understand.

Bag number 97: “Freedom, daydream, control, castle. Sidekick Beck.” What is the Sidekick Beck?

Bing 7:34

I think what that was, is… Irene felt like she was a hero. In many ways she was and she is, but it’s hard because she was one of the, one of the female friends that I loved in a more deeper way. But she’s not there anymore. It’s like in the Studio, it’s like we’re, the way I would word it is like, we’re like,we’re best true friends for life. And then if one of us goes down, all of us go down. If something happens to one person, all of us go through it. We don’t, we don’t leave people out in the cold.

Fin Sun 8:36

Bag number 76: “I smell the river bed in the ocean sea. To sleep in the bathroom floor. This is so very funny. Beck Family.”

Bag number 231: “I am reading my poem. I like to think about myself to remember how I felt. To expression for myself. Lovely Beck.”

Why do you think that Irene wrote these messages on the bags?

Irene Beck 9:19

Maybe she’s talking to herself? Maybe she’s trying to say something about herself? I think she’s trying to remember who she is, who she really is.

Fin Sun 9:42

Would you say that the expression on this face looks different than the one we just looked at?

Irene Beck 9:48

She’s, she’s in deep in thought. Like who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here?

Fin Sun 9:58

Bag number 78: “Going to the riverbed in another side of the country to see together in the stars to the sand dunes. The Beck Family.”

Irene Beck 10:21

Oh wow!

Fin Sun 10:27

What do you think of the emotion of face gives?

Irene Beck 10:32

He’s either scared or very, very surprised to see the sea, how far it goes, like how far it is.

Rachel Gray 10:52

This episode was really hard to make. Like Debbie, I love to reflect on the past. But what we’re doing here in this episode, reaching into someone else’s past, in my case, a person I’ve never met, it felt different. It was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. And it seemed impossible to tell the story of Irene’s bags without talking to her. The episode started to feel enormous, like a void, and the gap between us and Irene felt impossible to close. I asked Fin about it.

Do you think art lets us reach across time? Do you think it makes it possible?

Fin Sun 11:44

What do you mean?

Rachel Gray 11:49

I don’t know exactly. Like I, in this episode, just get the sensation of something being so close and far simultaneously. And it’s a bit hard to put into words, but it makes me think about all the bodies that have been inside this place that is BEING Studio that was, at one point, a place where nuns lived. And at one point, a high school classroom, and is now an art studio. And the sort of like echoes of all those bodies or all those transformations. And it makes me think about all the the artists whose work is represented in the archive, it makes me think of Irene sort of leaving these traces. And then us now kind of sitting across from each other talking about these works. And it makes the past seem very close and far at the same time.

Fin Sun 12:53

Yeah, I would say that. Working on this episode has made time kind of like a really strange thing that doesn’t really exist. But it does. It’s like I feel like time is like, has been condensed into an episode. But there’s so much that has happened within the times that we’re talking about. And sometimes without that time to reflect, you lose time, if you lose, like parts of history that are there. And maybe you are connected to it, but you don’t know it. I feel like being able to reflect on everything that has kind of shaped or influenced who people are is important. This is kind of like a random, but when I read Irene’s bags, I really felt like really moved in a personal way that was kind of like I felt like Irene could do something like write down her thoughts every day and then have that out there. And then what I was thinking about is how I used to write a lot. But I never like wanted anyone to see anything. I didn’t even want to look back at them myself. I feel like Irene was really brave.

And so Irene’s, some of Irene’s bags reminded me of things that I have been thinking about or I’ve been dealing with in the past. But I feel like the difference between me working through those things and Irene working through those things is that once it was down for Irene, it was down and then it was out there. But for me, I feel like when I was thinking about things like, like undercoverness, or like secrecy, or paranoia, it was always like just for me. And so there is never really a sharing aspect for, about it for me. But then when I see how Irene’s talking about writing for the sake of remembering and for expressing, it makes me think differently about how I have maybe tried to work through these things, or maybe how I have isolated myself in a way that was not so much connected to art or to community. And so I think it’s really powerful to see how Irene found that approach of sharing and documenting things that she was thinking about.

Bag number 12: “I am a robot walking down the street to catch the other side of the mountain.”

Bag number 209: “Elephant going to wear a security suit. Mysteries in the graduates in the high school. Social work. The Beck.”

Bag number 166. “Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world. This is a song for you.”

Rachel Gray 17:06

Right at the end of production for this episode, I was able to interview Irene sisters, Doris and Evelyn. This felt like such a gift because Irene’s family comes up again and again in the bags and connecting with them felt key to understanding her. It was also amazing because we are in the aftermath of this huge storm and Evelyn was joining us from a hotspot on our fifth day with no power. You can sometimes hear that in her audio quality. I asked them about “Sidekick”.

Doris Beck 17:43

Whatever was happening with the family or something important, it was kind of the thought of the day that became expressed on her paper bag and with this, the eyes and and the little figure and her lunch bag wasn’t complete without the sidekick drawing on it.

Evelyn Beck 18:04

And we had no idea about the word sidekick. It was when she was being interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen when her lunch bags were on exhibit at the art gallery. They just said they asked her, you know, “Who is the character in these drawings?”, and she said, “That’s my sidekick”. She, she had that labelled and nailed. And it was just part of this artistic ability that she had that we weren’t fully aware of all the time.

Fin Sun 18:35

Number 90: “Private office, Zipit, lock, put the key in the pocket. I am so very different. And I have changed my life. The Beck Family.”

Doris Beck 18:58

Oh my goodness, some of that…

Evelyn Beck 19:00

Welcome to our life! I think some of that expression came from maybe our intro interactions with Irene where if she was maybe saying something maybe she wasn’t supposed to, or we didn’t want her to share a secret, you know, that we had been talking about. So we said you know… little did we know we’d end up with a lunch bag. She would have that expression, “I’m so very different. I have changed my life”, and it also that could relate to her as an artist. I think she started saying that too, as she grew as as an artist, that she even came out with that label. “I’m an artist and I’m an independent woman.” And I think that really gave her a lot of self-confidence.

Rachel Gray 20:03

One thing I’ve always wondered is if part of Irene coming to art later in life was just connected to the discrimination Irene might have faced as a person with a disability, like less opportunity to create art early on.

Evelyn Beck 20:23

Irene grew up in a very different era. I think the opportunities that are offered to other individuals these days are far, far greater than then the era that Irene grew up in. There were some programmes, but also people with disabilities were very segregated, and they just weren’t there, there just wasn’t that support, they were basically on their own.

Fin Sun 20:50

Bag number 87: “I am a best person in the whole world. And I am looking for the other person in town. And then I am going to see the other side in the moonlight.”

Bag number 236: “Evidence, our crime in the investigation on command, protected to freedom to change your life. The Beck Family.”

Bag number 262: “I am a karaoke with the bowling alley to break them down the pin. And I will be a big winner.”

Rachel Gray 21:43

One thing with this episode that we’re kind of exploring is what it means to leave a legacy as an artist. And I’m curious what you think it means legacy is?

Doris Beck 22:03

Oh, good question. One of them is, you know, joy, and this, this willingness to share to be vulnerable, to be with other people. And to put it out there. She was never shy about those things. And just to spread joy, you know, she would say, and we were embarrassed by it, you would say “I’m Irene. And I’m a famous artist.” And we were just not, I’m not, just you know, be a little more humble, maybe. But she recognised her achievements. And she went after what she wanted, that she has a permanent collection of works through a period of her life that demonstrate what that was like for someone like her. In that period of time, we have to remember to when she was growing up, her life expectancy for anyone with Down syndrome was 30 years. And she was well over 60 when she passed, so just that alone, you know that she made it and she thrived.

Evelyn Beck 23:09

You know, she started off with some drawings and journaling and sketching and it just became such a, a passion and that changed her as the person she had exhibits going from you know, several days at the Studio to starting out to becoming an artist with with the show. I mean, how how wonderful and how how much credit we can give to the to the Studio for being there and for supporting her. And yeah, and being part of the artists community.

Rachel Gray 23:57

And it sounds to me like it’s a legacy Irene really like fought for, that she claimed that space for herself, you know, that she insisted on her identity as an artist. And I think that that makes space behind her, like that is part of the legacy too, her claiming that space for herself.

Doris Beck 24:20

For sure.

Evelyn Beck 24:23

Yeah, yes, yes.

Doris Beck 24:26

And helping us see that in her as well.

Fin Sun 24:31

Bag number 75: “Take a real bull to riding into the store to buy a Dairy Queen bar. Ice cream to go to buy a chocolate bar to eat. He is very hungry.”

Bag number 179: “I am Robocop looking out to catch other people to running away. Beck.”

Rachel Gray 25:10

Is there anything that you’d like to share about Irene or you think people should really know about Irene?

Evelyn Beck 25:19

I’ll just share a little story we love to tell about when she was younger to give you an idea of her creative thinking and determination. So, kids were outdoors or working, parents and I were out, she was home alone, and my mom told her to do the dishes. So we left, came home, the dishes were done, you know, great. Irene just seemed a little bit sneaky a little bit. But anyway, we had dinner. After dinner, the doorbell rings and it’s the police. And Irene is a little nervous at this point and they come in and they wanted to make sure everything was okay and we were at a loss as to what they were doing there. Apparently Irene remembered that if you need help you call the police. So she called the police and asked them to do the dishes, which they did.

Fin Sun 26:24

Bag number 98: “Explore out of this world. Outlets without travelling worlds away. Destiny awaits. The Beck Family.”

Rachel Gray 26:47

SPEAK is hosted by:

Debbie Ratcliffe 26:49

Debbie “The Dragon” Ratcliffe;

Rachel Gray 26:52

;produced and co hosted by Rachel Gray. Our assistant producer is Fin Sun, the audio of Irene’s voice you heard at the top of the show came from Andrew Hall’s documentary “Turning the Page”.

Episode music by Jack Hui Litster.

Debbie Ratcliffe 27:09

Ourconsulting at are your is Allie Graham.

Rachel Gray 27:13

Our mix editor is Jamie McDonald. If you like SPEAK, please rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. It helps other people find the show. Thanks for listening!