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Making Space for Art

Network, Spring 2004

It’s 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and already the atmosphere in the studio at 401 Logan Avenue has an air of purpose about it. Most of the artists have arrived and are adjusting easels and beginning to get down to the serious business of art. And what a great space to be creative in. Although the room is small, the high ceilings, large windows and white painted walls contribute to an environment that invites creativity, evident in the artwork displayed around the room. Isabel Fryszberg, originator and facilitator of the Creative Works Studio, is working with ten people today, most of whom turn up on a regular basis every Tuesday and Friday afternoon.

Their journey to 401 Logan has taken some twists and turns. In fact, Fryszberg describes the group as something of a “wan-dering tribe,” moving from one facility to another. And 401 Logan is not going to be their final destination. With the Toronto real estate market heating up once again, there’s talk of the building they are in being demolished and a condo being put up in its place. Fryszberg and her artists may soon be on the road again, but she believes it’s a worthwhile journey.

A mental health occupational therapist with the Inner City Health Program at St. Michael’s Hospital, Fryszberg began the Creative Works Studio in 1995. Back in the 90s, mental health reform meant the system was experiencing a lot of cutbacks and changes. Hospitals reduced their programming, and in many cases communities were not able to pick up the slack, due to lack of funding. Fryszberg saw that gap and felt the need to act. Her career as an occupational therapist, combined with her love for all forms of art, seemed to be an ideal combination of the skills needed to put in place a program that would provide creative opportunities for people dealing with long-term mental health problems. “Whenever I ran art groups with clients, I saw change,” says Fryszberg. She believed it was possible to create an environment where people could relate to others who shared the same passion they had, rather than just focus on the negative things in their lives. The Creative Works Studio was conceived out of the desire to create a culture where people could experience a sense of inspiration, normalcy, community. Later, the Sisters of St. Joseph provided Creative Works Studio a storefront in South Riverdale where they worked out of for two years, just before they moved into their new location on Logan.

The program goes beyond therapy. It develops artistic expression in people. Fryszberg’s philosophy is that everyone is creative, we just express it in different ways. But the key to that expression is space, safety, resources and information. Not all of us are given the luxury of being able to afford those things, she says. The Creative Works Studio aims to provide those resources to its members.

“It’s very important that this program continues to exist because it’s really saved my life,” says Jean, one of the studio’s regular members. “I am so grateful for this place. I was so depressed before I started coming here, it was all I could do to get out of bed, but this has given me the freedom to do something that is so joyous.”

Jonathan, who has been coming to the studio for a number of years, calls it an “oasis.” “It just seems so natural to be here,” he says. “I’m trying to combine my thoughts about my illness and express it through my art. I’m trying to be part of both worlds. I can always work at my art, but real life is much more difficult. I am trying to be responsible and just accept things the way they are. Being here at the studio is like a fantasy, an oasis. I can escape from everything for a while.”

For Elisaveta, who has a master of arts degree from Bulgaria, the studio provides the artistic environment she needs to be free to explore her art and gain inspiration for new ideas.

But how much actual artistic training takes place as opposed to pure self-expression? To what degree are members using their medium to express their emotions and thoughts about their illness and how much are they actually developing their painting and drawing techniques? Rita says that she has definitely become better at expressing herself creatively since she has been coming to the studio. “And my technique has also improved. Every time we come we are developing our skills a bit more. It makes me happy to be here. My spirit is free and I don’t think about anything beyond the painting. It’s very healing.”

And that’s what Fryszberg is aiming for: “art for healing,” not “art therapy.” All of the members know there is a therapeutic element to what they do, they won’t deny that, but the Creative Works Studio supplies something that an art course offered by a college can’t, and that’s a safe place where healing and art come together. This is a place that does not demand an explanation when you are having a tough day. A place where you can still come and do your art and be accepted for who you are.

There is a real sense of celebration and strength within the group. The path they have taken through their art has helped them develop a sound self-esteem. A confidence. A recognition of new abilities and possibilities within themselves. The studio has also become a community where friendships are nurtured and new insights gained as they discover what they can achieve together.

One of the highlights for members of the Creative Works Studio is the annual art show, which provides an opportunity to work as a team as well as pursue individual skills. Over a period of time, through an ongoing dialogue which includes them all, a theme is developed. This might reflect a social issue or a common interest, but once established all of the work is then geared towards exploring that theme. In 2003 the theme was “Connections,” and paintings pulled the viewer into a world of exploring the need to connect with others. The most recent theme, expressed at the art show at 401 Logan in November 2003, was “Figure It Out,” and the walls of the studio are still adorned with an explo-sion of images that challenge our notions of body image and ideas of perfection, and bring forward simple alternatives that speak of self-acceptance, love and unity.

Each year, the images produced at Creative Works Studio become the focal point of a calendar, which is sold to raise funds. Many of the pictures in the calendar include a short narrative by the artist. In the 2004 Connections calendar, Rita’s image of a tree, backed by a hillside village in Greece, is accompanied by these words: “My raged past, my culture, my spirit, my beliefs, my happiness are all behind an old closed forgotten door! The only connection with the present is the ‘tree.’ It is almost dead but it still has a few healthy leaves and strong roots. You can’t see the treetop, it connects to another picture. It is still hope! You can see the little flow-ers at the bottom of the canvas. These are my children that keep me alive. They give me hope and encourage me to grow taller and ‘hang in there.’ I’m trying to find my right connection for tomorrows’ mornings….”

Both Fryszberg’s commitment to this program, and the commitment of members, is long term. “I don’t believe in a short-term philosophy,” she states. The payoff for members appears to be on many levels. As learning artists they are given the opportunity to develop their creative skills. As people suffering from a mental illness they are offered a safe place to be. As skilled artists they enjoy the feeling of success and achievement that comes with seeing their work hung on display for an art show that they can invite their friends and relatives to, or reproduced in the annual calendar.

“One of the things about our culture is that we are all suf-fering from being slaves to technology,” explains Fryszberg. “It’s making us very isolated. I think the arts provide connections for people and opportunities to build a community. It can draw you out as you share a passion for something other than the habitual and robotic things of the day-to-day. I think, especially in mental health, it is too much of a factory. And it’s really not a benefit for anybody because the true heal-ing and long-term things that make people get better is not about efficiency. It’s not about short stay, or medication alone, although medication is important for stabilizing people, but it’s about all those other things that can so easily be forgotten in a nuts-and-bolts type of approach.”

A Trillium grant and a relatively new partnership with JVS, Toronto (Jobs, Vision, Success) have made it possible for Fryszberg to start working on the next phase — expanding programs and emphasizing the development of artistic skills, so that members can begin to use their talents to cre-ate meaningful, paid, art projects. Isabel also looks ahead to the day when they will have their own, permanent space, large enough to accept more members into the program (they currently have a waiting list, as there is no time limit on how long a member can be a part of the group), and a gallery organized and run by members.

The constant challenge is finding the right space. “It’s not enough just to have people work at their art in isolation,” she explains. “People who have serious mental health problems, who are on disability, have limited means and they are living in limited residences. They don’t have a space to work on their art, and they don’t have a space where they can get together with other people. They are isolated.” One of the outcomes of the group is social interaction that has evolved outside of the studio. “People visit the Art Gallery of Ontario together. They’ll plan social trips, maybe skating or a meal out. It’s something I didn’t plan. It’s just one of the results of providing a safe place where people can build friendships.”

At the Creative Works Studio, that safe space not only ensures that artistic skills can be explored and developed, but it also creates an opportunity for healing to take place.

Creative Works Studio is an initiative of the Inner City Health Program at St. Michael’s Hospital in partnership with JVS Toronto (Jobs, Vision, Success). It began as an expressive art group in a hospital setting, expanded into the community and grew in its mandate to include opportunities for economic development, skill training in the visual arts, and public education aimed at reducing stigmatization of people with mental health issues. The program was conceived, and continues to be facilitated, by Isabel Fryszberg, a mental health occupational therapist at St. Michael’s Hospital. The studio, located at Atria Lofts, 401 Logan Avenue, Studio 101B, is open to artist members four afternoons a week. There is no charge to become a member and all art supplies are provided free of charge.

For more information, contact Isabel Fryszberg at 416-864-7460 ext. 8306, or

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