Local artist honours friend’s memory through art & community work

Chantal Thompson

By Hollie Pratt-Campbell

Chantal Thompson had just moved from Kingston to Toronto to study at the Ontario College of Art and Design when she got the news that her friend and former bandmate Joe Chithalen had died unexpectedly.

“That was quite a shock to everyone,”Thompson says. “We were really close and we played in a band [JOYY – Joe’s Orchestra of Yelling Yahoos] together. We went to Russia together with the band. He was this amazing person who not only was a wonderful instrumentalist but also just a total community supporter. He did a lot of charity events. He was a real humanist.”

Several years ago, Thompson returned to Kingston to raise her family after spending one decade in Toronto and another in New York City.

“Kingston just reminded me of Joe,”she says. “Everywhere I went - all the places we had played, all the places we had hung out at, I kept thinking about Joe, Joe, Joe.”

It was thus a very natural fit when Thompson got involved with Joe’s Musical Instrument Lending Library (Joe’s MILL). The library was started in 2001, two years after Chithalen’s death, by his parents and good friend Wally High; the idea was to turn Joe’s dream of making music accessible to everyone in the community into a reality. The MILL remains the only organization of its kind in Canada.

“Joe just felt like the world would be a better place if we could all enjoy art and music, and so they created the library in his memory to give underprivileged kids access to instruments,” Thompson explains. She notes that her work with the MILL as community resource manager and fundraiser has helped her to finally work through her grief over losing her friend, which she was never able to properly deal with when living away from Kingston.

“[It started out as something I did to] counteract the sadness, and then it turned into this wonderful way of connecting with people. I feel like his spirit has really guided me through this.”

It’s extremely rewarding, Thompson adds, to witness the many ways in which Joe’s MILL benefits the community.

“Every time I talk to someone about the MILL they’re really excited about it because their kids use it or maybe their husband who didn’t play guitar for a long time has gotten back into it because he realized he could go down to the MILL and get a guitar just for a little while and try it out. It’s just disseminated all through the city.”

And Thompson has played a key role in expanding the work of Joe’s MILL outside of Kingston as well. Fifty instruments were recently donated to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Nation in the Bay of Quinte, allowing the community to form their own library onsite. This fall, another cargo of instruments will be shipped to the Pamoja Tunaweza Boys and Girls Club in Moshi, Tanzania so that the youth there, many of whom are orphans, can form a band to help raise money for the club.

Closer to home, the MILL’s current location at 559 Bagot St. holds over 650 instruments and continues to acquire more each month. This summer, the organization will move into the new Tett Centre, providing, among other things, wheelchair accessibility and a safe, climate-controlled space to store the instruments.

“We’ve had problems with dry heat cracking the guitars, [etc.],” Thompson says, noting that the Tett will also have its own bus stop and ample places to tie bikes up, ensuring that those who don’t have vehicles will easily be able to get to the MILL.

“We’ll also be collaborating with other artistic organizations,” she adds. “We’re planning to do a summer camp, so our base - the children who use our library - will also be able to take pottery classes and get involved in theatre [and vice versa].”

Thompson remarks that it would have made Joe Chithalen very happy to see how far the MILL has come, and to see it evolve as part of the vibrant artistic community at the Tett.

“Music is healing. Art is healing. When you’re limited with what you can control in your life, creativity is a way to break out of that. It’s an empowering, magical experience that brings people together and gives them hope.”