Ottawa Art Gallery: Creative Space offering safe place to help those dealing with mental health issues

This is a piece of art produced by Braden T., one of the participants in the Creative Space at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

There is a spectrum of treatment for mental health concerns, says Joanne Bezzubetz, president and CEO of The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

It ranges from hospitalization to emergency departments to one on one appointments. All of which offer a route to better health. Included in that spectrum now is an unique initiative offered by The Royal and the Ottawa Art Gallery.

It’s called Creative Space and it has been running since late 2016. Inside the space, now located in the first floor studio of the Ottawa Art Gallery, people coping with mental health concerns or substance abuse issues can paint, make prints or make a collage. They make art and build a sense of belonging along the way.

The Creative Space was prompted by a former client of The Royal, Bezzubetz said, with the help of a concerned donor. 

The Ottawa Art Gallery was approached and a pilot program was started before the new building opened in April 2018. The pilot, which was put into some rooms inside the Ottawa School of Art to start, was led by the OAG’s Community Access Curator, Alexis Boyle, ably assisted by Adam Davidson, an artist with lived experience who taught the first two pilot courses.

Joanne Bezzubetz, president and CEO of The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre

Today, every Monday afternoon up to 20 participants attend the sessions in the OAG Studio led by the OAG’s community access team with the help of recreational therapists from The Royal. Some participants come every week, others as they find out about the sessions. But there is little doubt it has grown well past the 136 who took part in the first year. The gallery says about 440 individuals have now taken part.

To mark the success of the program and to make the public more aware the OAG and The Royal are holding a coming-out party for the Creative Space with an exhibition of the work of the participants and a media event.

“There is quite a range of ages in the participants from teenagers to seniors,” Boyle said in an interview. She also leads an outreach program from the OAG which takes art-making to places such as the Ottawa Mission, St. Joe’s Women’s Shelter and Options Bytown housing. And some people she meets in these classes have started coming to the Creative Space sessions too.

It’s getting around.

“I am aware that there is a need and this could grow quickly and easily,” Boyle said. That may pose a capacity problem some day soon but she’ll cross that bridge when it does.

The work inside the Creative Space is much like any other art class. Boyle has studied art education along with a Masters in Fine Art. But along with the creation comes a social hub.

“People are seeing same faces each week and they are getting to know each other.”

There is always a discussion of the work at the end of the session and sometimes some personal stories emerge, she said.

These folks are dealing with depression, with schizophrenia or substance abuse problems but the safe space is allowing them to come out of their shell.

“One woman last week was saying she had had a difficult Christmas because she was alone and her father was on death’s doorstep. She said she had this one thing to look forward to to get her out of her house.

“Art-making is social. We are doing it in a community setting with others. Time can be suspended in a fantastic way. When mind and hands are working together on something, worries can be put on pause,” she said.

In the exhibition, which opened in December, about 40 small works cover two walls inside the OAG Studio. For many of the participants, this was the first time in any kind of exhibition.

The gallery has been open now for almost a year and the early growing pains are mostly over. That means that the OAG can be more public about a program such as Creative Space, Boyle said.

The program very much aligns with the desire of people at The Royal to help their clients become comfortable in a public space.

Boyle also talked about one participant who might be on the path to being an artist.

He went through the program at The Royal after a suicide attempt, Boyle said. These days he is living in the community.

“I have watched his art practice really grow and I’ve encouraged him to think about art as a career in some capacity. He told me he had just inherited a bunch of art supplies from his mom and he’s excited to start on his own.”

In the year he has been at Creative Space, he has been able to build up quite a portfolio.

Bezzubetz says she believes the program accomplishes camaraderie and community.

“When you paint or do art or something collaboratively with others in the room, there is a sharing of ideas. It achieves sense of belonging. It is also a bit of an equalizer. Anyone can do this.

“It is pretty powerful.”

With the example of Creative Space, Bezzubetz said she now hopes that other institutions will see the value of participating in this spectrum of care.

“The art gallery has been a trailblazer for us. Maybe others will do the same,” she said.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.