Leonard Cohen in the Street and on the Screen

Image: Montreal Times

In Fall 2022, Champlain College Montréal faculty Melissa Proietti and Adam VanSertima co-taught a unit focused on the noted Canadian poet and singer, Leonard Cohen. They combined content from their respective Core sections (Canadian Culture through Film and Unsanctioned Art and Graffiti in Montreal). Melissa and Adam chose Leonard Cohen because he’s an undeniably important figure in the history (and present) of Montreal. They share their experience here.

Combining these classes was a natural fit. There is a plethora of moving image culture about Cohen and his work, while the mural dedicated to his memory is a landmark for the city. It appears in advertisements, on a stamp, and in the archives of National Heritage. Learning about this artist through film and song gave students a chance to understand the diverse culture of the city. Meeting Gene Pendon, one of the artists who painted the famous mural, gave them an in-person connection to how the culture and past of the city continue to reshape its present.

By going out of the classroom and into downtown Montreal, students were able to connect the environment described by Cohen to the visual importance of the mural they toured. Through reflective journaling, they could also explore it in the context of their own time in the city.

A group of students and faculty in jackets and scarves stand on a street corner in a city, with a mural of Leonard Cohen visible behind them
Champlain College Montreal class with the Leonard Cohen mural in the background

The mural, done by two artists from a graffiti/street art background, also provided a case study for how to do field research. We helped our students investigate Cohen’s cultural role in Montreal as part of the Jewish diaspora and facilitated discussions with the artist who led the mural project. Using first-person interviews, students examined the relationships between place and identity, as well as the role of graffiti, street art, and the culture surrounding it in the dissemination of these ideas.

One thing we emphasized is that Leonard Cohen, the person, is not the same as the socially constructed narrative of Leonard Cohen. This is a reality almost all people are subject to, famous or not, due to presence on social media. We asked students to consider how others might perceive their impact, in the spaces they exist in both short and long term.

We were excited to enhance our students’ understanding of place and culture in Montreal together! This unit was our way of supporting the goals of Champlain’s international campuses through an experiential framework.

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