By John Guido with Tricia Hayes and Gray Gillies
Patrick McGrath, a talented musician and master-of-puns, has come along way in the past three years. Recently, he said, “I’ve grown as an artist… Before Creative Connections started, I wouldn’t touch a paintbrush.” Today, he’s painting, drawing, and exploring other media. He hasn’t lost his love of wordplay, but he’s just as likely to express his wit through art. The other day someone asked, “What are you drawing Patrick?” He said, “I drew my phone. I’m drawing it in the style of Van Gogh.”
At Creative Connections, we get to see people’s gifts shine and be stretched and grow in different ways that we’ve never seen before. Each of the 20 artists with intellectual disabilities is growing not only creatively, but personally too – building friendships, becoming more positive and outgoing. There’s a great sense of belonging here. We’re just a bunch of people following our passions and creating together. We love being in a space that’s so creative, so joyful.
It’s not a charitable interaction but a new identity based on belonging, inclusion, and diversity.
It’s also a space that is highly visible: one wall is made of windows and we’re on one of the busiest, most vibrant streets in Saint John. People are compelled to come in because they see art in the window. Whether local artists, our friends and neighbours, or just someone passing by, they get to see persons with disabilities in a new way. The members with disabilities welcome visitors into a space that’s uniquely theirs – the walls are covered with things they’re proud of. Krista Simmons will say proudly, “I’m an artist.” It’s not a charitable interaction but a new identity based on belonging, inclusion, and diversity.
Creating a safe space
We are the public face of L’Arche, but we’ve learned that there have to be limits. If someone stops by, we invite them to join us at the table to make art, but we no longer advertise that we’re a drop-in centre and don’t offer classes to the public. That led to chaos. High levels of noise and activity aren’t helpful for the people we support.
For true inclusion, it’s sometimes better not to go wide, welcoming everyone to belong, but to go deep in order to be respectful and honest about the people you’re here for. Because we work with vulnerable persons, guidelines need to be in place. We’ve welcomed people who in other situations have had the police called because of their interactions. It’s different here. It’s an environment where they feel safe and welcome. It brings out their best selves.
Creative Connections is a place where people can feel a deeper sense of “I’m enough.”
What we offer at Creative Connections is a place where people can feel a deeper sense of “I’m enough.” That’s a tender, delicate movement of the most important piece of you, and it needs to be protected. For us, that protection is real, meaningful relationships where there’s honest feedback and accountability. There are people here who would not be creating art if they didn’t have these relationships. Art is always risky. It’s taking something important and putting it out there. You can’t do that in a shallow way.
Sharing life in community
L’Arche is all about sharing life, learning and growing together. Some of the members of Creative Connections need to be here because they haven’t found many spaces where they belong. It’s an important part of their time with us even if it is just for a few hours a week.
There’s a lot of being together around the table. That’s when connections happen between people. We share lunch and tea breaks there. There’s a constant back and forth with the same jokes, the same puns. After we eat, some people will break out a word search or their music, but most of us play UNO. We can be very competitive!
Sometimes our feast is not food. Sometimes, it’s paint. Sometimes, it’s joking, UNO, and cookies. And there’s openness and gratitude for each other.
On birthdays, we follow the L’Arche custom of “passing the candle” to share what we like about the person we’re celebrating. People look forward to it and will rearrange their schedules to be there. Sometimes people have tears in their eyes – there aren’t many places where we hear how much we’re appreciated.
Sometimes our feast is not food. Sometimes, it’s paint. Sometimes, it’s joking, UNO, and cookies. And there’s openness and gratitude for each other. We’re not together all the time, but when we are we’re constantly feasting together. It’s a distillation of L’Arche community life.
Opening up each person’s creativity
The art springs from the experience of belonging. Here is what the artists say:
Danielle: “Art keeps me calm, occupied, and it’s really fun. I’ve grown as an artist by trying new things, like digital art. I get to be with friends. I’m always laughing… Sometimes I have a hard time with my drawings, but you guys help.”
Warren: “I think God put me on the planet to make people happy through my art. My drawings have improved since really getting into it at Creative… It’s a place where I can express myself freely and creatively. It gives me a lot of opportunities- like going to Newfoundland (to help lead a L’Arche retreat).”
Jacques: “Art is a hobby I like to do and I love making art for others to enjoy. The word “creative” allows me to be creative! I love drawing pictures, hanging with my friends and playing UNO.”
Krista: “Art makes me feel proud and happy. I’ve grown as an artist by trying new techniques. I love cleaning.”
The art springs from the experience of belonging
Yunnery: “I really like creating art by painting and colouring. I’ve grown as an artist a lot because this is the first time I’ve really painted. I enjoy coming to Creative Connections because it opened me up more.”
Anne (a volunteer): “I’ve grown as an artist by trying new things. It can be overwhelming at first since it is such a small place.” She appreciates the “fellowship and opportunities to meet new people.”
A springboard for inclusion
The artists love the connections they’re making in Uptown Saint John and beyond through their art. Danielle said, “It connects me to the wider community of Saint John by selling and showing my art in Creative Connections and in shows.” Warren has done an interview with the Telegraph Journal. Jacques appreciates that many people see his art at the studio and on social media. Krista said, “People love my art and it connects me to the wider community by gifting my art to other organizations and through our shows. Tourists from all over (including from cruise ships) come by our studio and buy my art.”
Here are some of the activities that promote meaningful inclusion:
- We do “city walks” with a photographer, Gillian Barfoot, where we explore Saint John and learn about light and shadow, close-up, black and white, etc.
- We work occasionally with other professional artists and passionate amateurs when they are able to volunteer their time.
- Different school groups come in for an art session. It’s great to see our folk welcoming the kids, modeling art making, and affirming them. Once a boy proudly declared, “I have autism.” It’s a space where it’s cool to have a disability.
- Every week we have a program co-lead with the public library when the artists choose a topic they’d like to know more about. The librarian helps put together a presentation. And then we do a piece of art in response. One librarian said, “When you guys come it’s my favorite time of the week.”
- We create postcards called ‘love letters’ to raise money for local charities.
- We produce prints for NB Box “a carefully curated line of gift boxes filled with the best locally made New Brunswick products.”
- We’ve begun a mural at a local coffee shop that benefits a local homeless shelter.
- With the New Brunswick Association for Community, we host the Everything Party, a social time to explore each other’s interests and passions; and create custom art pieces for individuals moving into independent living.
- We do individual commissions like Krista’s piece for the Lieutenant Governor, custom phone cases, and works for individuals and local non-profits.
Creative Connections is a space where art is the fruit of friendship, belonging, and personal growth nurturing connections and vibrant, inclusive community in Saint John.
Tricia Hayes (left) and Gray Gillies Mott (right) are the team who help create a welcoming space and support the artists of Creative Connections.
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