“I work out of my apartment; my living room is essentially an art studio with a couch,” Dani Crosby says laughing. She works and lives in her home and living room art studio, in Central Park, Oshawa, with her young son.
Crosby is a mother, an artist, an illustrator, arts educator, community collaborator, and much more. She uses a story collecting technique she calls Stranger Listening when she paints. This involves her learning about her subjects’ experiences rather than painting their portraits based on what they look like.
As a child, Crosby knew she loved making art.
“I intended to keep making it regardless of whether or not I would ever use it to earn money,” Crosby says. “All I was aware of at first was that making art made me feel good every day I chose to make it.”
Crosby is creating five neighbourhood portraits based on anonymous stories collected from people who live in five of Oshawa’s priority neighborhoods. The project is aimed at decreasing the stigma associated with these areas.
The purpose of the project is to give people a chance to tell others about their own neighbourhood and not let the Health Neighbourhood Report numbers, which illustrate how health varies depending on where people live, define them.
The purpose of the art project appealed to Crosby since she lives and raises her son in one of these priority neighbourhoods and is aware of the negative stigma associated with these areas.
Crosby was invited to participate in this community-based art project by Mary Kronhert, Founder and Executive Director of The LivingRoom Art Studio in Oshawa.
“It was a real honour to be invited to participate in this project, especially as someone living in one of these neighbourhoods,” Crosby says.
Her website, danicrosby.com highlights, “Art has become many things for me – a service I offer, and an experience to share in academic settings.”
She creates projects that allow for different kinds of social connections, both direct and indirect.
Starting back in 2016-2017, there was a show called Durham Reach. She was invited to participate at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery and for that story, she painted a portrait of herself based on her life experiences.
Before trying the concept out on others, she felt it was only fair to try the process of visual storytelling and surreal portraiture out with her as the subject first.
This is a process that creates self-exploration and self-expression being sometimes uncomfortable yet freeing. Crosby claims it was an important experience in her development as an artist and a person.
“From there a lot of people connected with it and the way I created the portrait,” she says.
She returned for a two-person show in 2019. She sent out a survey across the Durham Region and collected anonymous stories from people from all different backgrounds and age groups.
These participants answered different questions about their life so Crosby could explore their identities and lived experiences to create their portraits based on these traits rather than their physical aspects.
Greg Murphy, Executive Dean of the School of Media, Art, and Design at Durham College, says Crosby generated a portrait of his 93-year-old mother about three years ago. “Without having met her, Crosby doesn’t know what my mother looks like,” says Murphy. “She did a portrait of her, along with a whole lot of other people.” Crosby’s work is really engaging and well crafted. She is a remarkable artist, Murphy says.
Murphy’s mother has been painting portraits for the last 70 years but has always sat in front of her subject. Murphy says his mother was really fascinated to meet Crosby who would instead learn about the person and make a portrait that was generated by what they thought of themselves without looking at them or knowing what they look like.
He says, “My mother quite liked that and the outcome.”
Crosby received permission to create surreal portraits based on intangible things – not their actual visual appearance – but things they have been through that represent who they are.
She says, “I created fourteen of these portraits, which hung in the Robert Mclaughlin Gallery for a few months.”
Murphy has been Crosby’s boss since the beginning of her career at the college as an arts educator. His first impression was that she had tons of energy. She was very young as she was not that long out of school when she started there. Murphy says he is impressed by her enthusiasm and community engagement.
“I would say she’s one of the leaders in the whole college for community connections and collaborating with community partners,” he says, citing City Hall and the LivingRoom Art Studio as examples. “Without Dani, we wouldn’t have those connections.”
Crosby drafted up a template to gather anonymous stories from patients, caregivers, and staff with the Child Youth and Family program at Lakeridge, a program that focuses on youth mental health. As an Arts Educator at Durham College, she then guided her students to create art responding to those experiences through a community-based art project.
“The art is now located inside of Lakeridge and on the outside at Alexandra Park,” she says proudly.
Stranger Listening, Crosby’s story collecting technique, provides the opportunity for anonymous sharing because Crosby says protecting the anonymity of participants is important to her.
She has been recognized for contributions in the city of Oshawa and has been recently awarded the 2020, Oshawa Culture Counts Professional Artist Award.
Crosby continues to create meaningful connections as a local artist who is inspired by challenging subjects and messages that would benefit from visual representation. She aims to make these subjects more accessible – helping to draw attention to inspire calls to action.
“I am very lucky to be able to connect the dots between everything I enjoy. Each experience builds into the next, each activity I love” she says.