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From putting a paintbrush to canvas, to exploring the possibilities of fabric, art can be a powerful way to transform pain, and sometimes, even open doorways to a career.
Toronto textile artist Apanaki Temitayo Minerve discovered this six years ago when she turned to the Workman Arts Project of Ontario Workman Arts to help her channel depression and PTSD.
The experienced writer found fresh and liberating ways to express her mental struggles beyond words experimenting with fabric collage.
“Workman Arts is a haven where people with mental illness can be themselves and not be ostracized for having bad days because of their psychosis,” Minerve said. “It’s like family members that truly understand you.”
Now, known in the art community for her vivid African fabric colleges, Minerve is helping others facing mental health issues by bringing her personal journey and passion for creativity to a new program called Art Cart.
Art Cart, an art therapy pilot project launched in October at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health, brings career artists who have experienced mental health and addiction in to the hospital to do art with patients who are recovering.
The collaboration between Workman Arts and CAMH’s volunteer-driven Gifts of Light, connects patients to the broader community by building supportive and encouraging relationships with people who share a common experience. It has proved so beneficial that Gift of Light has extended its funding for the project.
“You learn a lot about patients in an art class like this … I’ve been able to see such a difference in (the patients who are) participants,” said Quinn Kirby, Gifts of Light program director. “By the time they’re leaving a class, it’s a completely different group.”
Participants in this 10-week pilot program, which wrapped up in February, were teamed up based on age and mental health history. The artists drop by once a week with the cart stocked with supplies for visual art activities and spend an hour leading a group through various artistic endeavours from collage to photography workshops. Some of the artwork is on display in the units.
“The Art Cart is almost like our mascot that goes around with us to the units. Patients identify with it and know that it comes with a professional artist, but it could be improv classes, poetry, writing — a number of things,” said Kirby.
Minerve asked a group of 8 to 14 patients what they wished to explore and tailored her weekly classes around that.
In one of the drawing workshops the patients decided, “it was lovely to have people think of themselves as superheroes. It helped them see the best part of themselves,” she said.
“I’m a lot better at art than I gave myself credit for. I just needed a push to start creating,” one patient said of the Art Cart experience. “It was very relaxing, increased my confidence and made me want to do more art for myself. I’ve added it to my comfort skills.”
Sean Kidd, a clinical psychologist at CAMH, said it was essential that the Art Cart be a mobile service for convenience and access.
“Some people are in such a state of crisis. They’re in a really negative space with no energy, and are anxious to leave the ward,” said Kidd. Art therapy counters boredom and inactivity, which slow the recovery process.
“It’s never good in a mental illness to be not doing anything. You allow for space and time to worry and ruminate,” said Kidd. “People can feel like they’re going to lose themselves. That translates into being less engaged and hopeful in care. A big part of the recovery process is seeing aspects of yourself, drawing upon your own individual resources and to be doing things.”
Art therapy provides an outlet to channel emotions and an alternative way to cope, he adds.
“Think about what the creative process is: it’s an exploration of one’s ideas, history and culture. That gets patients running on a different track in their minds compared to just being an unwell person on a unit.”
After seeing high levels of patient engagement, Gifts of Light extended the Art Cart pilot project in one hospital unit until the end of April and has committed to continue funding the venture.
“Our plan is to run three programs at a time from May until next March and reach as many clients and units as possible,” said Kirby.