Roshan James creates art encouraging re-examination of societal norms

Artist and poet Roshan James has found her voice in work she creates in the serenity of small town Perth County.  

Her father was a Burmese refugee who fled civil unrest and war in his homeland when he was 19, first moving to India and then finally making his way to Canada.

Her mother emigrated around the same time, also from India, and they met in Canada.

James was born and raised in Scarborough, moved to Whitby when she was ten, then spent nine years in Wellesley before ending up in Newton, Ontario.

“I split my childhood between Scarborough and Whitby, two different places culturally,” she said.

In Scarborough, her parents took the family on many road trips out of the city because they appreciated being close to nature.

“We did a lot of fishing when I was little down in Virginia in the ocean, clam digging – it was a very eclectic childhood,” said James.

“I went to Queen’s University in Kingston and hated it,” said James. “I struggled. I thought I was going to go into Law, and that is what my parents wanted me to do.”

Growing up, she was creative and enjoyed art, but that was never seen as a serious career path.

“I found Kingston is a big city, but it has a very small-town culture and mindset, and I felt it keenly,” said James. “Whitby felt more diverse and inclusive. Never once did it make me uncomfortable, but Kingston is a different story.”

She left Queen’s after her second year and moved back home.

“I transferred to York University, and something clicked at that point,” said James. “I went into the English program there, excelled and loved everything, and it wasn’t even easier.”

Part of what made it more difficult was commuting from Whitby to York every day, a two-and-a-half-hour commute each way by Go Train, Subway and the Downsview bus.

James possessed an acute business acumen and started working in finance as a teenager for Canada Trust before the merger with Toronto Dominion, and later spent many years working for Sun Life.

“I always had two things going on,” she said. “I had my academics stream, and then I was also working in the business field for some reason. It was just this interesting dichotomy, and it’s followed me through my career progression. Even at Queen’s, I started doing a double major in English and Economics, which was very atypical at the time. Now people have these hybrid stem or steam careers where arts and tech are coming together.”

The first time James heard the STEAM acronym, she was volunteering with the Women Empowering Technology chapter in Waterloo Region.

“It was all about elevating the profile of women in all sorts of STEAM careers,” she said. “They very much saw the alignment between arts and technology, so there was always a STEAM reference as opposed to STEM. That was around 2013, and there were a lot of crossovers between arts and culture and other sectors, which was fascinating to me.”

‘Sell your house. Do it now. You are going on a journey.’

Growing up, James would write little verses in her journals.

“I would always make little books and create things from when I was tiny,” she said. “I remember taking little books into my kindergarten class, basically tiny chapbooks, and my dad helped me bind them. It was a lot of fun. I always loved doing stuff like that, but I never saw it as something to do, even when I was in university.”

She thought research was the direction her writing was headed.

“I loved studying literature and history at the same time and ended up being a research assistant on a volunteer basis in my undergrad for one of my professors, then was her formal RA when I started my Master’s,” said James. “I did a year of a Master’s degree split between York and the University of Toronto. I spent a lot of time at the Centre for Medieval Studies at U of T, which is such a trip because it gets serious at that point studying medieval philosophy and looking at original texts at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.”

She raved about the library, saying her jaw hit the floor when she walked in to see stories of rare historical books.

“You can see them all, but you are in this little area because you aren’t allowed to touch anything,” said James. “You request to have certain pieces pulled out of the archive and opened up.”

However, throughout her studies, she didn’t feel like she fit.

“That was always dogging me,” said James. “I would not feel like it fit, so I would pivot, and I was doing that enough that I felt like I was disappointing people like I was a little bit scattered.”

She kept casting around for things that would help her feel connected and successful. The most gratifying thing ended up being business because the rewards were immediate, so James took a break from her Master’s in 2004 and concentrated on her career at Sun Life Financial.

“I was always able to figure out how to show up as being successful or having it all together, but the internals were very much, this doesn’t feel right, or I should be doing something else,” said James.

Recently, she left Sun Life for the second time, perhaps the final time.

“Quitting, you go, ‘oh my god, it’s just me know.’ It’s time to hustle,” she said. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”

The journey from the Greater Toronto Area to Newton made a nine-year stopover in Wellesley.

“Its nickname is the Friendliest Little Village, and it truly is,” said James. “Everybody was so nice, and I never felt uncomfortable or weird – bumped into a little bit of backwards thinking here or there or somebody who may not understand the right term to use for something, but it was so minimal. Nothing (in Wellesley) compared to the vibe I got in Kingston. Kingston was so much more segregated, even at Queen’s, and that’s what I didn’t like. The Brown people were with the Brown people; the Black people were with the Black people. It was cliquey, and I didn’t have an awesome friend group at the time.”

James said some of the people she met at Queen’s were nice, but she found some to be judgemental and very religious. She, too, was religious at that point but still did not feel like she fit in.

She started blogging, going out to events, and volunteering, which helped her understand the community of Wellesley.

“I realized how much of a bubble you are in when you are heads-down working in a corporate career in the city,” said James. “Suddenly, I was seeing what else is happening, and there was this huge momentum building around arts and culture and tech, and I started to write about that.”

On her blog and social media, she started posting poetry. It was an outlet to help deal with situations life was throwing her way, such as the dissolution of her previous marriage.

“It helped me find myself and my voice because I had suppressed so much for so long and didn’t even know it,” she said. “There was a tonne happening at that time, psychologically, spiritually, with family, and it was all converging and starting to come out in artistic expression.”

Friends and family started suggesting she publish a book of poetry.

“So, in 2017, I had this strong feeling, almost that I could hear it in my ears,” said James. “It sounds very woo-woo, but it was for real. One morning this voice just said, ‘sell your house. Do it now. You are going on a journey.’”

She sold her house, moved into the tiniest house on the street, and committed herself to her artistic work. However, simultaneously, she met her current husband, Patrick. Their marriage was a Brady Bunch situation. They had two kids each from previous relationships, which was the catalyst for moving from Wellesley.

“I had a tiny house,” she said. “We were basically living on top of each other for a year.”

The small house was sold, and they were on the hunt for a new home with space for everyone, but the housing market was starting to go crazy. They could not buy back into a larger house in Wellesley.

“The community was changing too, and I could feel it, and I was craving space and quiet,” said James. “I realized at that point how much time alone I need to process and mediate. That is my process now for creating.”

She loves solitude on quiet mornings to meditate, stare at the countryside, do her mantras and be empty.

“I am very sensitive to energy,” said James. “The deeper I go with my art and mindfulness practice, I find I pick up on things and just feel auras, and my intuition is getting stronger, but it means I also must be aware of over absorbing energy in crowds. I can get quite muddled.”

During a house-hunting trip to Milverton with Patrick, they saw an alert come up for a new listing in Newton.

Like many people before them, they asked, where is Newton?

The real estate agent told them it was only five minutes from Milverton.

“It was like, boom, boom, boom,” she said. “We walked in and were like, ‘yep, this place’ because it was open, different, and it had enough space for the kids.”

Not only was there enough room for everyone to get a bedroom, but they also have music and art studios.

“I published my first poetry collection in 2017,” said James. “It was very faith-based at the time because that’s where I was. My family had grown up in the church, and I had come and gone from being involved.”

After that book, she went on another spiritual journey and deconstructed many things.

“I went through a lot of deconditioning of toxic everything,” she said. “I looked at everything going on in the church and the world at the same time. There’s no harmony here.”

Her dad’s family was Roman Catholic, but they were raised Baptist, which James described as evangelical Christian that was “so very strict, you don’t dance, you don’t listen to music.”

“It takes a lot to pull away because once you are in an organization like that, a community like that, there are lots of beautiful things, and then there is a lot of dogma and very insular archaic ideas,” she said.

 She said there were very black and white thoughts around scripture in the church.

“If you talk to a lot of progressive theologians, they dissect scripture in such a different way, and they understand the historical context and the fact that there are so many different sources,” said James. “There are things that are problematic and things that were just historically specific and right for that place and time, or not even right for that place and time, but it’s captured in scripture.”

She has spent a lot of time trying to detangle herself from those evangelical ideas and understand her connection and relationship to source.

“Turning everything I was taught on its head and re-examining it to find out what little things might have been true or make sense and could be helpful to carry forward and what things are just the chaff that needs to go into the wind,” said James. “That factors into a lot of my art and poetry because I’m taking things I was taught and imagining them differently. There are glimmers of truth, but you need to go inside and do internal work to understand what that connection is truly, and there is so much more freedom outside of the church construct.”

Her second book, Art of the Unknown, is about the chaos of the universe and the purpose and love within that.

“There is connection, and it is naturally more inclusive than what we define it to be,” she said. “I tried to incorporate different pronouns and break apart or challenge the notion of the creator being he and just took that head-on.”

She found more people were interested in that than the straight-up traditional view because the conventional religious approach has hurt so many people.

“People have been burned by it, stung by it, felt excluded by it or physically harmed through it, and I can’t even stomach the idea of going back into the church,” said James. “It feels very, very triggering now to me ever since everything we have learned about residential schools and the harm that the Indigenous people have suffered.”

Her dad, who she said had a very traditional view, has shifted in his mindset.

“It just breaks his heart that this has happened, and it is at the hands of a church that is not even really apologetic,” said James. “The Pope interaction, there was no apology, I don’t think. It was more like, ‘oh, that’s unfortunate.’ It’s so gross, and then the amount of control and power and the politics influenced by the church. We could talk for days about that and the patriarchy and colonialism.”

She notes there is rising awareness and more talk of decolonizing and what that means and what that work looks like on an individual and personal level.

“It’s important, and yet there is so much more work to do to help people understand what that is and bring that into the mainstream because it’s still, I think, very fringe,” said James.

The conversation moved on to another movement that has embraced being on the fringe of Canadian culture, supporters of the freedom convoy.

“They have that very Pollyanna view of what Canada is and what Canada stands for, what the flag stands for – ‘we’re so proud, we’ve always been multicultural, inclusive, and friendly,’ and I’m like, ‘really? On the surface,’” she said.

“If you are going to do art, why are you trying to be safe?”

She learned to paint from her maternal grandfather when she was little.

“He taught me some basic painting stuff,” said James. “I have such a clear memory of it, and I love my grandfather. He died when I was small, though. I was about four at the time. I feel he has always been with me in spirit, and we were very closely connected that way.”

Her grandfather was Tibetan but adopted by an Irish missionary family hence the family name, Jones. Her mom’s last name was Jones, and her dad’s last name was James – not what you would expect for people coming from that part of the world.

“That’s the influence of the church on our family, but I’ve always been so curious about that lineage because it’s mysterious – it’s tough to track beyond when my grandfather was adopted and record keeping back then was not anything going on system-wise,” said James. “I feel very, very connected to it.“

Mongolia comes up a lot in her research, and she has realized that all roads in her family tree lead back to Northern China.

James said she and her husband Patrick are eclectic thinkers, which feeds everything they do and who they are.

“We spend a lot of time in the summer, especially in the wee hours of the morning out here on the gravity chairs, just staring up and looking for shooting stars,” she said. “We’ve been itching to get a telescope for that purpose just to explore different objects out there.”

After talking about the wildlife visiting the marsh on the edge of her property, the discussion switched to aspects of nature which need to be normalized.

“Mushrooms are fascinating in terms of what they offer health-wise, for neurology,” said James. “They are so restorative in many ways. Psilocybin is making a huge breakthrough in mental health and therapeutic uses and just for fun. I love all of that. Anything that challenges the norm right now or needs to be normalized because it is healthy. It’s been stigmatized for so long because of different controlling factors.”

She said that a positive side of the regulation of cannabis in Canada is that more people are getting into growing and understanding it from a scientific perspective.

“Now you can figure out what is going to produce what effect and pick the right thing for you. It’s like a fast-food joint,” said James. “It traces back to ancient traditions. There is so much that has been lost knowledge-wise because of colonialism.”

A big thing she has discovered is the number of women having conversations about the benefits of cannabis and how to integrate it into their rituals and wellness routine.

“It’s amazing to me, and I love it,” she said. “I’m here for all of that. How do I contribute?”

The messages in her art, such as her Defund the System painting, are very stark and in-your-face. Would they have been out of place in her faith-based phase?

“I feel I was trying to deconstruct stuff at that time, but I was still treading the line a bit and not quite sure how pushy to be, how edgy or how challenging places to take things,” she said.

She was learning how to introduce ideas that might push the envelope, so there was an internal conversation around what people would understand and accept and who would get angry about it.

James said she also had concerns about whether people would “call bullshit” on her art.

“Am I the right person to be saying this?” She asked. “What if I put this out and nobody likes it? Nobody responds. So, I was going through all that around 2017, whereas now I’m basically just fuck everything.”

James laughed.

“Burn it all down,” she said. “Let’s try again.”

She said it is interesting because people think her pieces designed to provoke would be accepted more in urban centres, but that is not always the case.

“I had a gallerist visit from Toronto, and she even said, ‘this is thoughtful, out there, and progressive. I don’t know if people will understand.’ I was like, ‘are you kidding me?’”

James was surprised by that reaction. She said a lot of art she is seeing might look abstract in a graphic design pop-culture way, but much of it feels safe.

“I don’t want to be safe,” she said. “If you are going to do art, why are you trying to be safe? You are not going to achieve anything that way. It will be nice to look at, but I started out doing landscapes, very serene, simple scenes. I loved doing it, and it allowed me to break into oil painting, but I find that I can’t do those anymore because they make me angry.”

She pointed out a landscape work endowed with a form raising a fist reminiscent of a Black Power salute. James felt like going back to the landscape painting but said it was making her crazy because it felt too pleasant.

“Then I was like, I’m going to take my knife to it,” she said. “My pallet knife and I just started etching, and this thing emerged, and that feels better, that feels better, 100 percent.”

She said art might be alternative activism.

“It’s unedited, unfiltered, and I’m not worried about am I pleasing somebody with this,” said James. “If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell, and I don’t care. It’s about getting a message across and are people provoked to think about something. Whether they hate it or love it, they will take it away in some way, and that seed will turn into something, hopefully, not hate. Hopefully, it is that we need to think differently.”

Some of her new pieces reflect her discoveries while researching her Mongolian and Tibetan heritage.

“I was watching a documentary on Mongolia, and I just connected with the landscape,” said James. “I feel it in my bones.”

She has started weaving more of the divine feminine into her work.

“That’s been part of my research over the past couple of years,” she said. “Deconstructing what that is and how it has been subverted because of the patriarchy. The concept of Mother Mary and archetypes of the female has been appropriated, and their stories have been written for them.”

The Defund the System piece was an abstract landscape, but James didn’t love it.

“It was on display in Mount Forest in a gallery,” said James. “When I brought it home, I didn’t know what to do with it, and then I got angry one day, and I decided I would just paint over it.”

She laughed.

“This is my therapy,” she said. “There is still room for street art, grittier stuff with raw edges – I love that. I want to show the stuff not framed, with ripped edges, and that would be my preference.”

100% HUMANITY (Colin Burrowes Photos)

She picked up a bottle she had transformed into a non-alcoholic Molotov cocktail.

“It’s dealcoholized Molotov because I like to be a little bit cheeky too as much as possible,” said James.

0% WAR

Another tale from her dad’s side of the family will be reflected in an art installation she is planning.

“I have to gear up for it, and it might be political,” said James. “My Dad’s eldest sister was a nun in Burma, leaving the family when she was young.”

Her father was very close to her aunt, but she went to a convent. When James was five, her aunt came to Canada for a visit.

“She was a beautiful person,” she said. “I’m named after her, my middle name, her name is Sister Anne, my middle name is Anne.”

The return flight Sister Anne was on was Air India flight 182, which got bombed down in 1985.

“I am only just now researching and understanding the historical context and the political implications of that,” said James. “It was always more of a family crisis, a family tragedy. I’m starting to piece it together and realizing there have been public hearings up until this year. There is a beautiful report written about how it affected all the families and what different people’s perspectives were, and they published it.”

James wants to understand the bombing and why students are not taught about it in school.

“None of this was taught as part of Canadian history, and yet it was the singular largest aviation terrorist event that had happened before 9/11,” she said. “What the heck? I mean, way to go, Canada. We focus so much on US politics and coopt a lot of that. We shoulder it. We honour it, and we don’t do any of that for our things.”

Mentioning American politics turned attention to the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade by the United States Supreme Court.

“I almost don’t have words for it,” said James. “I’m still processing how to channel that rage because you vibrate from the emotion around it.”

She acknowledged that the vibrations from that decision would be felt here in Canada.

“That halo effect of whatever is going on in the US,” said James. “How do you unpack all of it, and where does anybody address it because it’s all overlapping, intersectional. It’s racism, the complete bigotry, backwards motion.”

She noted the nationalist connection of the symbolism evolving around the whole hockey stick Canadian flag movement.

“You called it out in one of your articles,” she said. “It’s a thing, and you feel it. It feels like an attack. It feels threatening and aggressive. Just that, and then you think about everything underlying that statement. That they chose to do that, we are coexisting. We are neighbours, and this is happening. It’s wild. The flag in Poole. The confederate flag in Poole. Just Bleh.”

As much as the US is a hotbed of conspiracy theories, James finds it scary those ideas are taking hold north of the border because she believes Canada has “very weak politicians” and “a weak political landscape.”

“When you are doing public art, you bump up against the politics around it,” said James. “Whether something is going to be too edgy, too extreme – not in a bad way extreme, but too progressive or too challenging for the community, or there are people who think it’s too challenging for the community because it makes them feel uncomfortable.”

James has discovered a mentor in a fellow contemporary artist who lives in the area. Ernest Daetwyler lives in Perth County but is entrenched in the arts in Kitchener.

“There is a handful of people you can say shaped arts in Kitchener over the past few decades, and he is one of them,” she said. “He’s been mentoring me ever since we realized the proximity. He had first read about me in the Grand magazine article published last year and then started following me.”

As the pandemic shifts into a more open period, James said it seems as if people are embracing arts and culture with a passion.

“People need arts and culture,” she said. “We know that was a missing component. The artists will crystalize and express everything we’ve been feeling, so it gives words and helps people sift through and understand their situations better. It’s healing in that way. Redemption or reclamation of whatever we have been through and turning it into something beautiful and moving forward.”

From July 10 to the Civic holiday weekend, her art installation Akasha will be at Minds Eye Studio Art Gallery in Kitchener with an artist’s reception on July 29 and the Stratford Pride Community Centre is hosting a series called We Were Masked All Along in July.

“Even before the pandemic, we had all these masks and facades for ourselves, and then slowly, the faces are kind of emerging from that,” said James. “There is so much beauty around, and yet we go for the sanitized version. We close our eyes in a lot of ways.”

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