Weekly workshop promotes wellness through art

Organizers of the Ottawa Art Gallery's Creative Space program say they've seen participants grow not just as artists, but in other ways, too.

Ottawa Art Gallery program a 'magical safe space' for participants

Kirsten Morris, 26, said she discovered her love of art through the Creative Space program at the Ottawa Art Gallery. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Eager art students gather around Alexis Boyle as she demonstrates the day's activity: smudging a piece of paper with chalk pastels, then painting over the colours with a thin brush dipped in water.

Many of these students are outpatients referred by The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre to this unique, free program at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG).

Boyle, the OAG's community access curator, leads the weekly workshops along with the help of recreational therapists. The program, called Creative Space, was developed in collaboration with The Royal with the aim of making art more accessible for everyone.

Alexis Boyle, the Ottawa Art Gallery's community access curator, leads the weekly drop-in workshops. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

The program has exploded in popularity since the OAG reopened following renovations. Boyle said there have been more than 500 participants in the past year, compared to just a couple dozen during previous pilots. 

"There's a wide spectrum of people," she said. "It's a really diverse crowd I would say on many levels, in terms of age, background, current living situation, broad ranges of socio-economic backgrounds as well."

'A magical safe space' 

Participants from the Ottawa Mission and St. Joe's Women's Centre are also welcomed into the studio, where they can develop and explore their love of art for a couple hours each week.   

"I've seen so many of the artists grow and blossom and come into themselves and get comfortable," Boyle said. "We really create a magical safe space here where everyone is accepted."

Sara Richardson-Brown, a recreational therapist at The Royal, said the program helps provide her clients with a sense of identity beyond their illness. 

"As human beings we're more the same than we are different, and to gather around the table and do art together I think really expresses that," she said.  

'Keeps me going'  

Sitting at a brown paper-covered table, Kirsten Morris, 26, sits with a pastel in her hand, concentrating on her project.

It's like one of my highlights of the week, coming here.- Kirsten Morris

Morris learned about Creative Space through her mental health worker, and now she comes to the program each week.

"Whenever I'm here, like I never seem to ever have anxiety. It's just a really calming experience, and I love coming every single week. It's like one of my highlights of the week, coming here."

Paul Morrow, 51, has been coming to Creative Space since last June. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Paul Morrow, 51, is an outpatient from The Royal who has been participating in the program since last June.

"[Art] keeps me going," Morrow said. "It's a soothing form of therapy for most clients in the mental health system," he said.

Morris's favourite type of art is collage. Her proudest piece is a collage of eyes titled The Watching Eye

Kirsten Morris, 26, says making art helps alleviate her anxiety. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

"I'm more of an artist now," she said. "I used to not be so good at art, and now I'm really into it."

Boyle said she's witnessed students grow not just as artists, but in other ways, too.

"This is making a difference in people's lives, and that's really powerful."