The Healing Power of Art


Our creative endeavours connect us to a drive as old as the human spirit, but we also bring to our arts and crafts certain motives which belong to us as individuals. For Chester, Homes First resident and two-time Wanda’s Arts Award winner, a love of drawing began with the influence of his young grandson.

“He was about two at the time,” Chester explains. “I put [his drawings] up and I kept looking at them, and something clicked in my head, and I kept seeing things in his pictures … little pictures inside his pictures.”

In a testament to the transformative power of artistic engagement, this moment quickly gave rise to a new way of seeing the world. The words of a roommate at the time helped to crystallize a lasting revelation. “Don’t look at the tree,” Chester recalls him saying. “The leaves, branches—look at the shades and everything that’s in the tree. You can see things in there ifyou really look at it. And that worked for me.”

Chester adopted a tendency to study the numerous shapes, shades, and hues hidden in plain sight all around him, often in objects we take for granted each day.

The eye for depth he has cultivated informs his approach to art and life alike.

“People—everything [looks a little bit different now]. When I’m nice and calm, just chilling… I can see … the energy from [people], and it’s amazing. Big smiles, a reminder of how I’m feeling. I look at these big smiles all the time and it’s great.”

Later he continues, “I’m seeing everything. … It has opened up my mind to a lot of different things. … It’s changed my life. I love drawing. … I have to draw a little bit every day. If I don’t, I don’t feel right. It’s just become part of my life.”

For all its personal significance, Chester’s process is anything but solitary. Each week, in the spacious atrium of Jarvis House, Chester is one of a small group of men who gather around a table to draw and to learn from one another.

The sessions are facilitated by Homes First staff member Jeff, whose idea for the program was inspired in part by a longstanding interest in the visual arts. “A few of my drawings are up on the wall, too,” he confesses, referring to the wealth of pieces displayed nearby. “Art is pretty central to who I am.”

“Human beings are very creative, and everybody has something that they like to do,” he says. In fact, a regular of the sessions, Michael, recorded a CD, earning him his own nomination for a Wanda’s Arts Award.

Jeff mentions that the group has sometimes listened to Michael’s music during their weekly meetings.

The men often listen to music as they draw. Chester prizes the interactional nature between the two forms of creative expression. “I just cannot draw without music,” he explains. “It has to be there. … It’s like breathing.”

“There’s a couple songs that [Mike] has that when I heard them it was like—wow—this is fantastic, and it just got me going, and, I just, I wasn’t even paying attention [to my drawing]. I was drawing and listening to the music.”

Jeff emphasizes some benefits of the program, beyond the art, which have caught his attention. “I think [the program] has really helped some people to develop the support of friendship, communicate, and to share resources, ideas, you know, and that’s very important, and … it [also] helps to strengthen the communication or the relationship between the staff and the tenants and the tenants and each other.”

“Sometimes people make comments on the work, pass it around. It’s never—it has always been quite positive that way. They’re quite supportive of each other.”

Although the program is informal, and the men who participate do so for their enjoyment, it fits well into the larger scope of Homes First’s philosophy of supportive housing and the goals which extend from this strategy.

Art, especially in group settings, has often been employed for its power to heal and to foster autonomy and community, and there are many studies which commend its usefulness ina range of contexts.

As noted in a 2012 study published in Canadian Social Work Review, “Within helping professions, there is burgeoning interest in arts-based methods, and increasingly thesemethods are proving effective for a wide variety of issues and problems.”

The study, which examines the benefits of an arts-based program for groups of Aboriginal women in northeastern Ontario, finds that the format is conducive to an atmosphere of mutual support and growth. “An arts-based group offers an enjoyable, creative, and supportive context within which people can explore their self-understanding and their strengths;the focus is not on specific problems and participants can raise the issues they deem to be important.”

Similarly, a 2010 study published in Group, which examines hard-to-reach adolescents, elucidates the supportive potential of group sessions organized around art and other creative exercises. “Empathy rests on a platform of extending oneself, connecting to another’s perspective or resonating with another’s feelings. … In our experience, adolescent group members display remarkable respect when bearing witness to a peer’s role-play or artwork. As audience, they often resonate more readily to what they see.” Here, the mechanics of community building can be plainly seen.

The role arts groups can play in strengthening a person’s feelings of agency also emerges as a prominent theme in the literature. For the adolescents cited above, “A sense of agency is developed through the formation of identity and self-control, and the subsequent achievement of effective action. … Art activities such as collage, sculpture, graffiti ‘tagging,’ and murals allow for the expression of individuality while ‘making a mark’.”

A similar sentiment is expressed in a paper by Kristin G. Congdon, published in Art Education. Congdon notes, “People who are struggling with problems often make reference to not knowing where they belong.” She suggests that “Art often functions in a very strong way to respond to these struggles. A sense of identity and a sense of where (geographically, spiritually, morally) a person belongs can result from participation in the creation or appreciation of art in several ways,” and this sense of oneself and one’s place can be a tremendous source of empowerment.

Congdon believes that rather than compartmentalizing the therapeutic value of art as distinct from art-as-pastime, it is important to recognize that art has an intrinsically therapeutic character. “My experience working with diverse groups of individuals has led me toward further development of a theoretical foundation for an approach which builds on the artistic experiences inherent in the creative process, utilized by so-called healthy people.”

Thus, the effects of the healing potential of exercising our creativity can be conceptualized as a natural byproduct of making art.

In the context of the informal program at Jarvis House, in which the men participate on their own terms and reap individualized rewards, Chester’s report of his own experiencebolsters the contention that our creative projects can provide benefits, sometimes of core importance, which may have otherwise eluded us.

Of the way art has changed his point of view, he explains, “I see different, I see everything different now. Even myself. That’s the number one thing I see different. Because … I was always worried about what people saw in me or what I thought of me, but I don’t care. I don’t care. Because I like me. And if they don’t like me, go on with yourself. I feel a lot more confident. A lot more. [Art] has really healed a lot in me, and the people around me too, because the way I feel affects the people around me.”

Chester’s talent has earned him his share of admirers, but Chester believes everybody has the potential to enrich their lives by exploring their potential. “Everybody’s got their gift, a gift in one way or another. Maybe the gift of gab, or drawing, or whatever, listening, concentratingon whatever people are saying.”

Asked how one might encourage another person to explore their creativity, he says, “Find them, talk to them, see what they’re good at. See what their gift is.”

“It’s… you just have to feel comfortable. If you’re comfortable with the person or whoever’s teaching you, if you’re comfortable with them they can teach you anything. But if you’re not comfortable, it’s not going to happen. I don’t care what you do … the person has tobe comfortable, and that’s the number one thing, I think. Comfortable with themselves, and with the person that is teaching them.”

Later he adds, “[Jeff] makes me feel comfortable. Just his nature, I guess. His wellbeing, everything. He’s a nice guy. He’s straight up … he’s an amazing guy. And he can draw really good too. Have you seen his pictures over there [amongst the others]?”

Before I go, I take another look at the wall around the corner, plastered floor-to-ceiling with artwork.


By Marcus Bankuti, Homes First Volunteer


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