The Art of Healing
In the untamed texture of paper mache the words ‘Now What?’ rise out of the pages of Janiel Van Strien’s art journal.
She is undergoing trauma therapy and is learning coping techniques to begin the next chapter of her life. Filled with magazine cutouts, water colour images and dried paint blotches, many of the pages form the shape of a brain – bold, colourful and positioned at the heart of each page.
“I like to emphasize the brain,” Van Strien says. “I have so much going on in there. Everything sits in there when you struggle with a mental illness.”
Cheyenne Williams (pictured left) carefully looks through her art journal. She stops on some pages and shares the story behind them, while keeping other pages private. She pauses on a page that shows a bird flying underneath a cage. Both figures are deliberately placed upside down.
“There are other ways to be trapped,” says Williams. “Sometimes people don’t make you feel comfortable in the place they put you, but sometimes, like the bird, you can get out.”
Tapping into a viral trend
Williams and Van Strien are part of a pilot art journaling project led by St. Joseph’s Hospital Youth Wellness Centre (YWC) in partnership with RE-create Outreach Art Studio in Hamilton. The project began when Meghan Schuurman, Studio Coordinator at RE-create, noticed that art journaling was beginning to “go viral” with youth at RE-create.
“One of our volunteers at RE-create began art journaling as a way to process a loss in her life,” says Schuurman. “It was powerful. I really believe that the best projects come out of what the youth are already interested in.”
Schuurman wrote a successful grant proposal and secured funding from the Hamilton Community Foundation to begin a formalized program. She connected with Joana Fejzaj, Youth Mentor at St. Joe’s YWC, and Karen Campbell, Art Therapist, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, to partner together to build the program. Working with youth advisors, they created a curriculum, purchased quality art supplies from Curry’s and Fejzaj identified at risk youth who would benefit the most from the program.
“We immediately saw that young people were responding to it really well,” says Fejzaj. “It’s an outlet and a tool to help them with their mental health by learning new coping techniques. It’s also a tool that they can use to share their story with those around them, including clinicians.”
Create, share, heal
Megan Miller joined the program as a way to “figure out” her story. Her journal is filled with pencil, water colour, and pencil crayon designs. Through her art she’s learned new things about herself. She likes abiding by certain rules in her journal, like making sure the date is neatly written in the corner of every page. She is careful to plan things out before she starts them, an approach she wasn’t aware she took until she began to journal.
“With art journaling I’ve shaped a different story,” says Miller. “I like that I can put my feelings and thoughts down on a page and they just stay there. I can choose to show it to someone, or not. I have full control.”
Each week, the youth come together to work in their journals. At the beginning, like many artists, the journalists found it difficult to show their work to the group, worrying about how others would react and what they would think. But each week it became easier, bringing them closer together.
“It’s helped me express things that I wouldn’t have otherwise expressed,” says Miller. “The art is easier than saying it in words.”
A rare look into the mind of an artist
The pilot program will culminate in a public exhibition where pages of the artists’ journals will be scanned, blown up and framed on display.
The exhibit will open on February 17, 2017, 7:00 p.m. at 541
Eatery and Exchange and is an opportunity for the public to take a look into the journals and learn more about the stories that drove the art onto the page.
“My vision is to have this program offered a couple times a year,” Schuurman said. “We have learned lessons from the pilot program and would take that into account to expand the curriculum for a future program. But to continue to program we need funding. We need funds to hire leaders and funds to cover the purchase of quality art supplies.”
One of the major goals of the program is to develop future community leaders. Van Strien,is now a volunteer Youth Art Advisor who helps other youth learn how to art journal. The program has inspired her to become an Art Therapist so that she can help others heal through artistic creation. She hopes the program will continue so that other youth have the opportunity to share their story.
“Personally, I found that the program really helped with my mental health. I’ve been through a lot in my life and it would be awesome for this to continue.”