Be it music, drawing, drama, photography or another creative discipline, art’s power lies in its ability to intuitively reveal the truth.
“When we use this creative part (of the mind), we’re tapping into our subconscious. It creates real opportunities for talking, in a non-cognitive way,” says Jill Taylor-Brown, director of patient and family services at Cancer Care Manitoba.
Taylor-Brown oversees the art therapy program, offered since 2001 for patients diagnosed with any type of cancer.
Tanis Dick, who holds a master’s degree in art therapy, instructs the group of eight to 10 members over the course of eight weeks.
“All creative processes are therapeutic, but not all of them are art therapy,” explains Taylor-Brown. “We’re all creative - it’s part of being human. We’re not always given creative opportunities that aren’t through talk ... but we need to express that (creativity).”
While art therapy comes in many varieties, its basis is in recognizing the psychotherapeutic effects of creating art, be it with or without the help of a certified art therapist.
Dick’s focus in class is on quieting the inner critic.
“It’s more about the process than the product,” says Taylor-Brown. “We’re not an art class, but a peer support group.”
During a two and a half hour session, group members create their artwork and discuss what it means to them.
Many paintings by art therapy students are hung around the Cancer Care building, with plaques underneath them on which the artist describes his or her creative process.
Next to a vividly coloured painting of a cartoon dog, a description reads, “Like a dog with a bone, I can’t let go of my fear of dying. My fear eases as I put my feelings on paper. - S.”
“Many patients feel connected to the artwork hanging around Cancer Care,” says Taylor-Brown. “They can see themselves in the art. The staff and families of cancer patients seeing the artwork get a window into the cancer experience.”
It is a raw glimpse into an emotional journey; this artwork helps an outsider comprehend cancer through the discerning lens of an affected eye.
At Artbeat Studio on Albert Street, studio founder and facilitator Nigel Bart hopes to offer a similar understanding on issues of mental health.
“Art has a way of decreasing the stigma of mental health,” Bart says. “People approach us and are interested in what we’re doing.”
Bart officially founded Artbeat in 2005, though the idea of creating a studio and programming based only for consumers of mental health services occurred years before.
“I was volunteering with those with mental health issues and noticed how creative a lot of them were,” says Bart.
When the timing was right, prime real estate among other galleries in the Exchange District meant the perfect starting point for Artbeat. The spacious fourth floor studio is a safe environment for the eight resident artists who work in a variety of mediums, such as painting, graphic design, pottery and sculpture.
Creating the art itself is only one step of the process. The group goes gallery hopping, critiques their own work, builds portfolios and submits pieces to local art shows.
Sue Wonnek, a participant of the program, emphasizes the camaraderie at Artbeat.
“We are all a family,” says Wonnek. “It’s amazing how close we’ve become.”
Wonnek published a book of poetry, Linear, during her six-month stay at Artbeat and plans to continue writing. After six months, participants are welcome to continue working at the alumni group studio on Kennedy Street, or venture out on their own creative pursuits.
Bart finds that artists are much more open to issues of mental health.
“We just had a symposium at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and I was asked a question: is it more prominent for artists to have mental illness?” says Bart.
“It seems more prominent when there are famous artists like Van Gogh and Beethoven,” Bart continues. “It’s just as prominent in doctors or lawyers, but they’re not allowed to show it. It’s more socially acceptable for artists.”
Whether the final product is a stick-figure drawing or an elaborate masterpiece, there is a unique depth to any piece made by an art therapy student. This means a revealing and rewarding visual experience for the viewer and creator alike.
For more information about the art therapy program at Cancer Care Manitoba, call 204-787-4119. To learn more about Artbeat Studio, visit www.artbeatstudio.ca.
Published in Volume 66, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 1, 2012)