The Doc Project

This artist wrote 30 thank-you letters for his 30th birthday, some to complete strangers

Artist Aquil Virani wrote 30 thank-you letters to people as a way to celebrate his 30th birthday and break pandemic isolation.

Ottawa visual artist Aquil Virani mailed the letters to people who’ve impacted his life

To combat pandemic isolation on his 30th birthday, artist Aquil Virani took the opportunity to express his feelings to those he's never properly thanked. (Submitted by Aquil Virani)

To celebrate his 30th birthday this year, artist Aquil Virani composed 30 letters of gratitude to people who have inspired, moved and helped shape him.

"I think of the project almost as a gratitude timeline, of thinking back, 'Who are the people who had an impact on me, who I've forgotten to thank, or who I never got around to thanking or who I never had the chance to thank?'" 

The British Columbia-born artist, who now lives in Ottawa, combed through his life, selecting people from his past and complete strangers, to create his list.

It included his childhood martial arts instructor, a friend's mother, a famous hockey player, a broadcaster, contemporary artists and political activists. 

He mailed the letters on January 15th—his birthday. Since then, he's heard back from about a dozen people.

Some of the letters Aquil Virani wrote for his 30th birthday project. (Submitted by Aquil Virani)

A kindness project

Virani dreamt up the letter-writing idea as a way to help combat pandemic isolation. He couldn't throw a party from his home in Ottawa or help battle the pandemic on the front lines, he said, but he could do his part by staying home and writing some letters.

"Letter writing made sense. It was a solitary activity, that I could do on my own, that I don't need others to do," he said. "That's what made me think, 'Could I send something physical? Could I send something that gets us, just for a moment, offline?'"

Virani's letters could just as easily be called a kindness project, something he has spent much of his life thinking about and searching for. 

The search for kindness, Virani explained, was an antidote to what was an often complicated and tension-filled early family life. He was born and raised in Surrey, B.C., into a mixed Muslim-Indian and French home. His parents divorced when he was eight years old. He witnessed violence close-up and experienced bullying.

An excerpt of one of the letters Aquil Virani wrote for his project, "30 Letters". (Submitted by Aquil Virani)

"I think maybe because I wasn't always happy during my childhood, I searched for kindness, and I searched for ways to connect with people," he said.  "Seeing how kindness helped me and finding it in different places was a way to survive and to feel happy."

At a young age, he learned invaluable life lessons from his Taekwondo instructor, Master Paolo — lessons in setting goals and working hard and, most of all, lessons in self-restraint. 

"Here was this guy who was so strong [...] a man who could beat up anyone, but who was teaching us to be kind and who was teaching us not to get into fights," he said.  "In my life I had men and I had boys around me who were more violent and who were using their bodies and their strength to try and solve their problems that way."

Former Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo was one of the people Aquil Virani wrote a letter to (Rich Lam/Getty Images/File)

One letter was sent to Canadian former NHL goaltender Roberto Luongo, who spent eight seasons playing with the Vancouver Canucks. Virani credits him with modelling humility and self-control, both on and off the ice. 

"It's easy to be nice to people here and there," Virani said. "But to be kind, and to be even-keeled, and to be respectful... even when things aren't going well, even when you're sweaty and exhausted… is what I think I learned from him as a kid."

Virani also sent a thank-you letter to prominent Cree artist Kent Monkman. His painting, The Scream, features a scene of chaos and conflict, with mounties, nuns and priests grabbing Indigenous women and children. A woman screams and reaches for her child who is being taken away by a priest.   

"I find Kent Monkman's work, it punches me in the gut and then it asks, 'How does that feel?'" Virani said. "I think that for Kent Monkman in particular, it's a slightly different nuance of gratitude to be impressed by someone, or to be thankful that their work is in the world and that I got to see it."

Kent Monkman’s The Scream, which features a scene of chaos and conflict, left such an impression on Virani that he decided to write the Cree artist a thank-you letter (© Kent Monkman. Denver Art Museum)

This is not Virani's first birthday-related art project. For his 24th birthday, he created 24 works of art in the span of 24 hours.

But this current project quickly became an exercise in stock-taking.

A hard lesson

The original inspiration for the project stretches back more than a decade. As an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Virani wrote a letter to his grandmother in France.

"I wanted to just tell her that I was thinking of her, and I hadn't forgotten about her, and I wanted to visit soon, and that I was practising my French in Montreal so that I could have a real conversation with her." 

A copy of the letter Aquil Virani wrote to his grandmother, but never posted. (Submitted by Aquil Virani)

During childhood visits to France, Virani wrestled with his inability to say meaningful things to his grandmother in French. As a student in Montreal, he worked hard to change that, to improve his French so that he could better know and be known by his relatives in France.

"It was almost as if there was like a backlog of stuff we needed to catch up on it. So I sat down and I wrote the letter." 

A week later his grandmother died. 

"I looked over [at my desk] and I saw the envelope with the letter still there. And I felt sick. It's almost as if I was mourning the relationship I could have had," Virani said.

"I definitely have always thought since then, 'Well I better take the time to say how I feel, or to write how I feel.'... It was a hard lesson in saying the things you need to say."

Aquil Virani creates the artwork to accompany his letter to Kent Monkman (Submitted by Aquil Virani)

Virani printed each of the 30 thank-you letters on an accompanying work of art. 

"It looks like wrapping paper. But when you look closer, you actually see hundreds of the same image repeated. And it's the image of the person I'm giving the letter to," he said.

For Virani, the exercise of writing the letters has had an unintended but welcome reward during this time of isolation. 

"I felt less lonely because as I write these letters, I'm imagining talking to the person in my mind. So it's this kind of dream that I'm creating. It's both social and solitary. And that's kind of cool, to feel like we're actually with people."

About the producer

Alisa Siegel is a CBC Radio documentary maker.  She has produced stories on subjects as varied as the underground railroad for refugees in Fort Erie, daring women artists in 1920s Montreal, the return of the trumpeter swan, Canadian nurses in World War I, and violence in elementary school classrooms. She lives in Toronto with her family.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.