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Art as a Focus for Healing

art as a focus for healing

In 2022, Inspiring Communities received funding from the Canada Healthy Communities Initiative for a project to be delivered by Northside Rising (now North Star Rising) called Open Space: Mobile Arts and Wellness Hub.

This coordinated with an effort in 2023 to explore how arts activities can form a container to host a facilitated opportunity to work on healing and self discovery. The three projects forming this social incubator were Open Space, the Dartmouth mural project honouring Miya Harris and the Write Your Heart Out program. A series of workshops including the development of an African heritage mural through our CBYF project in Digby also informed the theme exploration.

The Mobile Arts concept was developed and championed by Dinao MacCormick and Shelley Allen, participants from the Northside Changemakers Program: a mobile arts centre to deliver trauma-informed arts education.

A trailer was purchased by Inspiring Communities and outfitted for use as a mobile arts centre. Thanks to a quirk of the programming schedule, the program, which had originally been envisioned as a summer program to animate public spaces, ended up debuting in winter, leading to it being held at three public locations: the North Sydney Community Food Bank, the Sydney Mines Heritage Museum and Fossil Centre and the Florence Legion.

The program was delivered in three phases. The first phase proved logistics-heavy as a small team delivered three sessions per week at the three locations. The program was popular. The art, music and theatre activities proved especially popular with families or caregivers with children.

After the first phase, the project paused for evaluation, a core piece of our work. Reviewing what we had learned and experienced, we reduced the number of sessions in the second phase, to lessen the logistical challenges. While winter weather conditions impaired the ability of staff to travel too far afield, the team were encouraged to consider Inspiring Communities’ equity mandate. The attendees in phase 2 showed some increased diversity, including international students.

In both cases, participants reported satisfaction with the sessions, and feeling less isolated and more connected.

For the third phase, to test the concept in a different context, and to align with the project’s equity goals, a Mi’kmaq artist was engaged to lead focus groups with art activities.

Michelle Sylliboy, a Mi’kmaq L’nu artist and educator was engaged to lead this portion of the project, which featured outreach into three Mi’kmaq communities: Eskasoni, Membertou and We’koqma’q. Michelle worked with Inspiring Communities staff to re-envision a version of Open Space that would appeal to Mi’kmaq communities. An initial survey was conducted, and then residents aged 15 and up were invited to take part in three focus groups. 

  • Eskasoni – Thurs, Sept 21 | Eva Keewesoo Nicholas demonstrated painting on drums & skins. 
  • Membertou – Thurs, Sept 28 | Shaya Sark demonstrated digital art painting.   
  • We’koqma’q – Wed, Sept 20 | Eva Keewesoo Nicholas demonstrated painting on drums & skins. 

All three community sessions were fully subscribed. Indigenous artists Eva Keewesoo Nicholas and Shaya Sark were engaged to lead an art session with the participants, and the participants were paid for their time in answering the questions. Each participant created a new work of art while they answered these questions.   

The experience was interactive and revealed a strong hunger for connection with Mi’kmaq culture. For instance, survey results showed strong interest in harvesting basket making materials and basket making itself. The survey also explicitly positioned art making as therapy, asking if respondents considered it a potential source of healing. Most responded yes, in addition to talking to an Elder and therapy. 

Inspiring Communities continues to search for new ways to employ arts in helping to transform systems.

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