Making art together — even in a pandemic

How two community arts practitioners are easing back into their work

This spring, as the coronavirus lockdowns in Peterborough entered their second month, John Marris assembled some art supplies, put them in a box and delivered them to the YES Shelter for Youth and Families. 

Back at home, he gathered the same set of supplies together, set up a computer and connected with youth at the shelter through Zoom. “I would do an unboxing” of the supplies, he says, “and then we would go through and I would show them how to use the materials to make certain types of art.” 

COVID-19 has compelled many people in Peterborough to help provide essentials like food and shelter to the most vulnerable in our community. Marris, for one, wanted to make sure the youth at YES didn’t lose access to art. 

“We have these hierarchies of human needs, like shelter, food, clothing,” he says. “And then often self-expression becomes this little pinnacle at the top, implying it’s less important than the others.” 

“Actually, I think it’s just as important,” he argues. “If we don’t have an opportunity to express ourselves, something’s completely, fundamentally missing.”

Marris, an artist and non-profit consultant, has been embracing the role of community arts animator in recent years. He says he is inspired by the work of Brian Nichols, the artist and psychotherapist who launched and coordinated the You Can Make It Art workshops at The Mount Community Centre.  

The workshops at the Mount started as a small experiment in 2018, but soon became an integral part of the weekly routine for dozens of community members, fostering a sense of creativity and wellbeing, Nichols says. People arrived “out of a sense of loneliness and a need for connection.”

Nichols and Marris encourage everyone to reclaim creativity in their lives, and they eschew common assumptions about what art is supposed to look like and who can be an artist. “We need to move away from that exclusivity of art as something done by professional artists, and move toward the idea that art is something everyone has access to,” Marris says.

The two create art that channels this philosophy. Collages pasted onto small matchboxes, old maps fed through vintage typewriters, mosaics made from broken china — it’s all art, and none of it requires any special materials or special skills to make. 

“I don’t have an MFA. I don’t have a track record of gallery sales and shows,” Nichols points out.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Brian Nichols has been making mobiles. This one, made from a chunk of broken brick, some rusty wire and painted sheet metal, exemplifies his DIY aesthetic and use of found materials. (Photo: Will Pearson)

The pandemic brought community art-making to a halt in Peterborough. And not just the work of Marris and Nichols. Other community arts initiatives, like the Creating Space Community Art Studio, also had to close their doors indefinitely. 

But whether it’s moving art-making online, doing it outside, or doing it while physically distancing, Marris and Nichols are trying to find ways to ease back into the practice of creating art in community again. 

“Let’s not do nothing,” Nichols says. “Let’s not let [COVID] paralyze us.”

Social inclusion through art

Offering online workshops during the pandemic was a way for Marris to adapt the in-person art drop-ins for youth he’d been running before the pandemic hit, which had resulted in an art show at the Atelier Ludmila Gallery in February. 

Meagan Hennekam, the executive director of YES, says those in-person art drop-ins created a sense of community and inclusion among the youth who participated. “There’s also been a huge sense of pride and healing that has come with the art,” she says. 

“In order to achieve stability in their lives [youth] need more than just food and a bed,” Hennekam adds. They “need to have opportunities for social inclusion and things that protect their mental wellbeing as well.”

For now, Marris’s art workshops are on hold at YES, due partly to the challenges posed by COVID-19, but also due to a lack of funding, he says.

Hennekam agrees it’s hard to fund arts initiatives like the one Marris started. “I don’t think that arts are appreciated in our society generally,” she says. “I don’t think it’s often a priority.” But Hennekam wants to see the art workshops return to YES: “We’re committed to having it happen [again] as long as we can continue to find the funds,” she says.

“Increasingly, in the last couple of years, I’ve realized what I want to do is support the process of community art making,” says John Marris.

In addition to his workshops with youth, Marris had also been coordinating weekly art workshops for inpatients and outpatients in the mental health department of the Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC). Each week, Marris would bring in a local artist to lead the group as they created art alongside one another. But those workshops were also suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The cancellation of the workshops at the PRHC was significant for Harriet. Harriet has received mental health care at the PRHC for over five years, to address her anxiety, depression, PTSD and developmental trauma, she says. (Harriet is not her real name; she requested anonymity to speak openly about her mental health.)

“I tend to isolate, stay home,” Harriet says. Her therapist recommended the workshops, because he “really wanted me to get out there and open myself up to new experiences.”

It worked. “Creating art reduces my anxiety,” Harriet says. “It’s just such an emotional release.” The workshops have also made her feel more comfortable around people, she says. “Art therapy has helped me to increase my self-esteem and self-confidence.”

As an outpatient at the PRHC, Harriet lives at home but visits the hospital regularly for therapy. On multiple occasions, however, Harriet has also been admitted as an inpatient, meaning she would stay at the hospital. “The days can get pretty long and boring,” she says of life as an inpatient in the mental health department. “So it was so wonderful that the local artists came to the hospital and provided art therapy for inpatients as well as outpatients.”

According to Lisa Young, inpatient mental health and addictions manager at the PRHC, the project “allowed another channel for communication and understanding, as well as the opportunity to focus on something new and exciting.” 

In the summer, Harriet resumed meeting with Marris and other artists for casual, outdoor art-making sessions. But she is worried about inpatients, for whom COVID-19 restrictions continue to mean the loss of this programming. “I really hope that it starts again so it can benefit patients in D1 [the PRHC’s mental health inpatient ward],” she says. 

To Marris, having to cancel the workshops meant a “loss of shared experience, loss of community, loss of place for self-expression.” It also meant one less thing to do for inpatients at the hospital. “I think we underestimate how significant boredom is in our community for people who are struggling with mental health,” he says. 

“We are hopeful to have other opportunities available in future when some of our enhanced pandemic measures have been lifted,” says Young.

While it’s not clear if and when the workshops at the hospital will resume, there are signs of life at the Mount Community Centre again. Last month, Nichols and Marris restarted art-making sessions at the Mount, though only for people who live at the Mount, and with precautions in place like mask use, an 8-person capacity and physical distancing. 

For Nichols, it’s a relief. He’d been worrying about people at the Mount who had the art group as a regular part of their lives for two years, only to have it suddenly disappear. Now, at least for eight individuals, community art making is back. “It feels like coming home to be with family,” Nichols says.

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