Learning, growing and healing through art

Photo: Hope McIntyre, 2017. McIntyre is Outgoing Artistic Director of Sarasvàti Productions.

Our humble city has enjoyed access to famous impressionist paintings at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, listened to world-class maestros at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and watched Hollywood movie stars perform at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Our local arts scene is known to be creative, passionate, resourceful and vast. The murals that pepper our neighbourhoods reflect Winnipeg’s mosaic citizenry. African drumming and Argentinian tangos are often enjoyed while eating ice cream at The Forks, and a walk through the Exchange District reveals the gems of Winnipeg’s independent and local art galleries, studios and craft exhibits.

Art in Winnipeg is much more than background music or momentary awe; art inspires us to participate, to volunteer and to give. Art can also help heal.

Fifteen years ago, Artbeat Studio opened its doors in the Exchange District as a community-based studio accommodating artists experiencing mental health challenges. The emerging organization approached The Winnipeg Foundation with an innovative idea: hire a studio facilitator to enable up to 10 artists to develop their technical skills and explore new mediums under the supervision of volunteers and their peers. Participants would be individuals diagnosed with a mental illness such as schizophrenia, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or eating disorder.

Artbeat acknowledged that often, individuals with mental illness are unable to hold a typical 9-to-5 job. It would also serve as a great opportunity to help reduce the stigma around mental health issues. The Winnipeg Foundation supported the establishment of Artbeat Studio in 2005 with a $30,000 grant. This programming was the first of its kind in Manitoba and today, the studio is a thriving organization with a social enterprise, an urban arts centre and an artist-in residency program.

Artists in Healthcare Manitoba (AIHM) also knows the therapeutic value of the arts in recovery. Imagine the effect of having a guitarist play for you while you are having chemotherapy treatment or viewing a work of art while waiting for a procedure. AIHM was established in 2001 with a vision to improve patient, family and staff experiences in healthcare by addressing the needs of the whole person through engagement with the arts.

Shirley Grierson, AIHM Executive Director, commented about its impact in 2013.

“One of our musicians was playing in a clinic waiting area. As he was leaving, a woman tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I just received a cancer diagnosis, but for the 10 minutes I was sitting listening to you play, I forgot.’ This moment is one vignette of how arts make a difference in healthcare.”

In 2018, The Winnipeg Foundation supported the expansion of AIHM’s music program with a grant of $25,000. This collaboration with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra contributed to the quality of life for patients and residents in 17 Winnipeg hospitals, hospices and long-term care facilities, and at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. An ensemble of musicians performed for groups of patients, helping to settle emotions, foster compassion, and normalize a healthcare environment.

Sharing human experiences creates empathy and can be part of a healing process on a broader level. Sarasvàti Productions is a theatre company with a vision of inclusion, where artists and audiences of all backgrounds come together to experience what it means to be human.

“Art lets us explore what it means to be human and to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”

Hope McIntyre, Artistic Director of Sarasvàti Productions, quoted in 2017.

The Foundation has committed to working to heal the long-lasting effects of the Residential School System. In 2019, The Foundation granted $50,000 over two years to Sarasvàti Productions for its Seven Sacred Teachings project. Addressing reconciliation through storytelling, this project allowed for seven local organizations to partner with Sarasvàti and guest artists, to offer a creative and supportive space for Indigenous youth. The culmination was a production called Songide’ewin, that had been scheduled to be performed in May 2020. After pandemic-related postponement, Sarasvàti offered the production in a safe space with a limited audience, and virtually, over three days in August 2020.

The arts are fundamental to a thriving Winnipeg. Its powers go far beyond inspiring joy and awe. It can be powerful and transformative, provide comfort and create social change. Its proven healing benefits contributes to the well-being of individuals and is part of a community life that flourishes for all.

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