Former foster care youth share stories through art

Ten Toronto artists are taking their experiences as youth in care and transforming them into paintings, sculptures, and other works-of-art, as part of the "Moving Home" project at York University.

The artwork is part of the 'Moving Home' project at York University

Three of the 10 artists with the "Moving Home" project share their pieces with the CBC. (CBC)

It's a soul-searching, sometimes painful experience, but transforming emotions into art can help heal traumatic memories. 

That's what 10 Toronto artists have found, using their time as youth in care to inspire paintings, poems and art installations. 

They're part of the 'Moving Home' project, an arts-based research program exploring the lives and experiences of those who've moved through the child welfare system. The project amplifies their voices and increases knowledge of their situation, according to project coordinator and York University Masters student Amelia Merhar, who herself was in care.

CBC News spoke with three of the artists involved.

Nicholas Ridiculous 
Nicholas enjoys creating collages because it allows him to not only solve a puzzle, but find the pieces first. (CBC)

Nicholas joined the 'Moving Home' project to help the youth coming after him.

"Being a kid in the system, all you're told all your life is statistics on how they fail, how when you're out of care it's not good for you," he said.

Growing up, he felt like there was nowhere to turn for advice. He wanted to become a role model for other kids in the system.

"It was really hard cause you didn't really know where you belonged," he said. "You come from this ugly place that no one really ever wants to hear about."

He chose to create a collage, showing a human-like figure with a head made up of flowers. The lower, darker portion of the body is contrasted with the colours above. 

"It's saying, yeah, we're scarred, we're ugly, we're endangered, but that doesn't mean we're condemned to fail like they've been telling us."

"You do have people out there who love you," he said. "These scars will make you a stronger person in the end."

Bethany Papadopoulos ​
Bethany says her artwork gives her a voice, something she feels she didn't have in the past. (CBC)

Bethany began her project after reading about the number of youths who are abused, restrained, or even killed while in care.

During her time in the system, Bethany said she was physically and emotionally abused, even restrained in group homes.

"I feel like there are so many people out there that have these things in the back of their heads that they try to repress, but deep down it can really scar somebody," she said. 

Bethany's piece is made up of glass jars filled with matches, each representing a case of violence against someone in care.

She said the matches represent the way young people are burnt while in care, scarred by their experiences.

"I sat outside with all the boxes of matches and each time I lit one I was thinking of each incident, each kid," she said. "I'm sitting here with over 5 thousand matches and I started tearing."

"It's like I'm lighting a candle for them."

Elijah MacTire ​
Elijah used his artwork to unpack his birth story, something he says a lot of children in care struggle with. (CBC)

As a teenager, Elijah spent a lot of time painting. 

But the experience turned cold for him after his mother began to take his work.

"She would push me to crank them out like it was about selling them to make money," he said. "When I left home, it was just something I was too traumatized to touch again."

He's now created his work of art using a story his mother told him about how he was born.

She said he fell from a moon beam and landed in a potato patch.

Elijah made a poem and a painting, writing about a space child who didn't fit in and needed to trace the lines between the planets and his home. 

Returning to painting was devastating, Elijah said, but he realized he had to work through his emotions, eventually realizing how comforting it was to work in a medium he'd enjoyed.

The resulting piece: a painting of a shooting star.

"I'm hoping to keep unpacking a past that I tried to forget, or tried to pretend didn't affect me," he said.

The pieces from all three artists will be on display from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Thursday on the lower level of 180 Shaw Street, at Artscape Youngplace.