Background, from left to right: Craig Milliken, Clayton Pollock, Marlene Drozda
Foreground: Marsha Street (left) and Katie McLean
Armstrong Artspace is a relatively new venture in Brandon, where Mental Health Services and the arts community have combined to foster healthier living through art creation. Volunteer facilitators Marsha Street and Katie McLean are enthused about what the group is doing artistically, and how its members continue to connect and support each other. (COLIN CORNEAU)
So how did you two get involved with this?
McLean: We both work for Prairie Mountain Health Mental Health Services. That’s both of our day jobs. And then this group is separate — it’s its own entity. It partly comes from support from Mental Health Services and then there’s also support from Community Welcome next door. They’ve provided us with this space, Armstrong Artspace, for free, which has been huge for this group, and they’ve also been helpful with a little bit of funding and that kind of stuff. So it’s kind of like we have those two areas of support, but this group is run by us as volunteers.
And we have artists, member artists, who also volunteer their time to run studios here, which provides an open studio time so people can come down and work on things. The idea was to provide a space for people to be making art and have it be sort of part of a mental health recovery plan, so that people have support and they wouldn’t be isolating themselves. We just focus on recovery, but through making art.
How many people would be involved as volunteers? And how many partake in these arts sessions?
Street: Well, we have a core group of five or six people as volunteers, but as for the group as a whole, whether it’s the mental health community or people in the community who are artists, such as Anne Boychuk, for instance, who has come to help when we first started, it can change with what classes are being offered.
McLean: We’ve had classes that have brought in larger numbers of people. But our core group — and we don’t really differentiate very much between artists and volunteers — everyone who’s spending time here is doing it as a volunteer, contributing to the group. And we have a real sort of peer support thing that we’re doing. And then we’ve hosting classes here at the Armstrong Artspace, with volunteers teaching the class, that I think we maybe had eight or 10 people attend.
Street: I think the largest group we’ve had is maybe 15 overall.
So are these sessions open to those in the community who’ve had or have mental health issues?
Street: It’s basically open to anyone, whether there’s mental health issues or there’s an artist who just wants a space to come and be with other artists and work on things.
Katie mentioned doing it as part of ‘recovery.’ Can you expand on that a little bit?
Street: Well, everyone has a different view of recovery. But even through my own personal recovery, it’s basically learning to live with your mental illness and being able to deal with life and society as a normal person.
And how does art — and you’re encompassing a lot of arts here — painting, jewellery-making, writing — help accomplish that?
Street: It’s a good expression for people — a really good outlet. Having a place for some of these people to get out of their houses and go to is a really big deal. Because sometimes people can get really caught up at home. And if they want our opinion on what they do artistically, we’re all here to hear or listen. A lot of people don’t get that feedback from peers. So it’s providing that safe environment to express yourself.
Is it, in a sense, legitimizing things outside of any of the parameters people might be dealing with in their own lives — like this is just a place that’s removed from a person’s mental illness, where that’s not the focus, and it’s almost a safe haven, if you will?
McLean: I definitely think so. I think it’s being a member of a group, and having that sense of belonging in a group — not having it be about what your diagnosis is or what your symptoms are, but more focusing on your skills and sort of the positive aspects. We wanted to get people who were interested in art together for the support and for the value of being able to express themselves, but also it’s about belonging to something outside of those specific things.
It’s getting away from the labels — here, somebody is not identified with their illness — they’re a painter or a writer or a jewellery-maker.
Street: It’s taking away the stigma.
So it’s just identifying with the talent and the positives.
And how do people find out about it or contact you if they want to participate?
McLean: We’ll give the number for Community Welcome — we’re going to be using their phone number. If anyone wants to leave us voicemails, then we would have them come to one of our members’ meetings and kind of get them to know everyone, and then if they wanted to be attending studio or attending some of our classes that we have scheduled, if they left their information there we would get back to them.
Street: The office number for Brandon Community Welcome is 204-728-1514. And they can leave a message specifying that it was for the Artspace group, that would be great.
When did the group come about?
McLean: It was almost two years ago. There was a conference in Winnipeg called Mental Health and the Arts, and a group of both people with mental illness and some staff members went to the conference — it was at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. And it had to do with this place in Winnipeg called Artbeat Studios — that’s an art studio program that they have there. When we came home from that conference, we started talking about, ‘How can we adapt that idea for Brandon?’
And we thought it would be better to have a space that was long-term, rather than like a short, intensive period. We had a few people who were involved, and they’re still involved, and we’ve just developed it. We first started out with the studio hours. Then we started to bring in volunteers to do classes. And our membership keeps growing!
We’re actually having an Open House event here on November 29th from noon to 8 p.m. And that’ll be for anyone from the community who’s interested in coming to check it out and see what we do here — if anyone’s interested in maybe attending stuff here but they kind of want to check it out first, we’ll be here for that day and we can chat with them.
We talked about writing, painting, sketching, jewellery-making — what other areas have you delved into?
Street: We’ve done photography, we’ve had a seminar on rug-hooking. Some of the seminars coming up — my husband, Graham Street, will be doing one on documentary filmmaking. And as well, we’re having Curt Shoultz come — he’ll be talking about watercolours. Adan Ballou is going to be coming in February and showing us his pieces and different ways to do leatherwork.
So some high-profile folks from the community, then!
Street: Yeah. Which is great. So we’re looking at getting more of the community involved as well. Because I guess one of the fears we do have is that we’re minimizing to just one small group, whereas really art is a revolving door and it’s for everybody.
What’s the motivation for those of you who want to be involved? Is it a way to give back, in a sense — is it a way to ease the path for someone else who’s coming along? I’m always intrigued by folks who volunteer their time.
Street: I think for myself, it’s … When you’re in a dark place or whatever you’re dealing with, you don’t know all the avenues that there are out there. When I was younger, I was into music, and with my background in video and graphic design, I sort of want to give back to the community. And I also get more inspired by the people who are involved — the artists themselves. Like I don’t consider myself an artist at all. I allow the group — they’re the artists and I’m just the facilitator.
And what is it about specifically about art that made you feel this was a good way to go? Is it because art can cover so many spheres? And it can be done in a contained space, too, I suppose.
McLean: I think just the idea that people are using it as self-expression and also just having some kind of hobby or activity somebody’s doing where they’re getting a good feeling. Any kind of activity, really, is beneficial. But if a person has an interest in art or music or anything like that, it’s great for them to explore their passions in those areas.
And self-expression can be sometimes then be a catalyst toward healing or self-understanding or acceptance or that kind of thing?
McLean: I think so. There’s sort of like that part of it, and there’s the practical part, which is just doing anything is really healthy for a person.
We’re also going to be kind of partnering with Mental Health Services — they have a group called Community Support Services — they’re going to be working with us. There’s a photography group that meets here that’s kind of run through them, and also we’re hoping to do one craft every month. There used to be a craft group that met more often, but now it’s kind of reduced, and they thought by partnering to use our space, those meetings could be increased again. So it’s good that we’ve been able to make those partnerships.
The previous classes we had were all run by people who were within the group. Now we’re bringing in more community members to help us with classes, and we’re also doing the craft part of it, too.
So what’s next for the group?
Street: We finally have the goal to start fundraising, and we actually have a group hosting a fundraiser for us that is called Get Active Through Empowerment — GATE. It’s through Community Support Services but they volunteer their time to support other groups within the community. So they’re going to be hosting a pancake and sausage fundraiser — a Stampede breakfast — on Halloween at Central United Church from 10 ’til 11:30. So come have breakfast with us because, you know, every artist needs breakfast to start their day! And it’s only $3.50.
McLean: Everybody should feel welcome contacting us and coming to check the Artspace out. We don’t need to know about people’s background — if there is mental illness and stuff, we don’t need to know that. We’re just focusing on people who want to work on their wellness.
For more information, check out the Armstrong Artspace site at armstrongartspace.wordpress.com
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 28, 2013