Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Whole Lotta Creativity Going On At Creative Works Studio

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I took off yesterday afternoon to do a little holiday shopping. Though I almost never stray more than one square mile from my home at Clinton and College, I hopped on the streetcar and headed eastbound over the river. I wanted to buy some unique cards created by the artists who work out of Toronto's Creative Works Studio. If I would've had a little more dough to spare, I probably would have purchased a painting or two, as well.

Creative Works Studio offers a community-based, outreach program, fostering healing and recovery through the arts for people living with severe and persistent mental health problems. Here, members find a safe, compassionate space, where they are supported on a self-guided journey, promoting self-expression, enhanced self-esteem, and participation in the broader world. The studio is facilitated by the Inner City Health Program of St. Michael's Hospital, in partnership with the Good Shepherd Non-Profit Housing as well as the Ontario Trillium Foundation. It was spearheaded twelve years ago by its Artistic Conductor, Isabel Fryszberg. "I wanted to create the kind of art school that I would have wanted to go to," she says.

In fact, Isabel and I first met each other, I won't say exactly how many years ago, when we were studying art in high school. (We laugh remembering, because, though she was, by far, the better art student, I had the hip, handsome guy as my instructor, while she was taught by a rather dour schoolmarmish soul.) I didn't see Isabel for quite a few years, but, more recently, we kept running into each other at various events and reconnected. (We belong to the coterie of "nice Jewish girls" who were raised in the suburbs, but decided to pursue art and move downtown.) She is multi-talented: She is not only a visual artist, but a filmmaker, and a singer/songwriter (who plays guitar and fiddle). She has also co-founded an all-girl band, called The Sisters of Sheynville, performing 1940s Yiddish swing music. Isabel originally studied visual art at York University, then transferred to U of T to take a degree in Occupational Therapy.

I arrive around 2 p.m. at Creative Works' newest location: a large, airy, brightly renovated basement, below a new non-profit housing residence on Gerrard near Logan. About 10 studio members are busy, decorating ceramic sculptures, or painting with acrylics or watercolours, at large tables arranged together to form a giant rectangle. Hanging from the ceiling in the centre of the tables is a large frame from which are suspended origami birds, ceramic butterflies, feathers, bright paper lanterns. It looks to me a little like the roof of a sukkah minus the greenery.

"This is our joy tent," Isabel explains. "We created it for an art show that we held at the end of November. The theme of the show was joy. With it, we raised five thousand dollars."

Isabel introduces me to everyone, saying that I've come to pick up some holiday cards, and that I might also want "to blog" the studio. No one objects, so I stroll around and chat with a few of the artists while they are working, including Rick, Courtney, Inna, and Kashfi. The studio's 80 active members include men and women, ages 19 to 70, who come from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Over the years, they have produced some mighty fine art.

John Seppa is finishing up a watercolour painting of a crow. He puts down his brush to tell me how the crow is not only a trickster figure in Aboriginal Canadian culture, but in his own Finnish culture, as well. Courtney is painting beside him, a highly detailed work that's reminiscent of a mosaic, but also has the luminescence of a stained glass window. Meanwhile, across the room, Rick is painting a small abstract in acrylics, the background of which is an intense Indian peacock blue. Not everyone is working on art at the moment. Linda and Kate (whose colourful painting of a house graces the welcome page of Creative Works' website) are busy writing holiday cards to the studio's generous donors.

There's a great vibe in the room and I'm suddenly hit by a desire to paint, myself--though I don't think I've done so since high school!! Isabel says, sure, why not. She gives me a piece of paper, little tubes of watercolours, two brushes, a cup of water, and a small styrofoam palette. I settle down beside a guy named Scott, who's working on a landscape. "It's a real place," he says. "The Humber River, near where my sister lives." He also confides that he has schizophrenia and was not always able to express his feelings well. "Coming to the Creative Works Studio helps a lot."

I'm trying to recall what I learned in school about laying down a preliminary "wash." Isabel comes over and gently suggests that I first brush some water on the paper, and then add the paint to it. The colours soon begin to spread in an effortless way, magically blending and layering. "Now, it's happening," she says, looking on. In a little while, my companion, Scott, asks if he can play some music on the CD player. I am touched by a strong sensation of deja vu when he puts on Neil Young's 1970 album, After the Gold Rush: Mr. Brands, my hip high-school art teacher at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute, had allowed us to bring in music to listen to while we worked. After the Gold Rush was the album that I had brought in.

The Creative Works Studio closes for the day at 4:30 pm. A little beforehand, the artists start to clean up. While I wait for my painting to dry (an abstract that I decide to name after a recent blog), I purchase some holiday cards. As I'm leaving, Scott asks me when I'll be coming back. I tell him real soon, and I'm sure I will.

1 comment

Love your blog, Karen! How you put the music in. Your mention here
of Neil Young's 1970 album, After the Gold Rush, brings me back to some
of the other stuff I was listening to at the time: Steve Winwood and Traffic, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Brian Auger's Oblivion Express, and the glam rock of Marc Bolan and T. Rex-- "Bang a Gong, Get It On." Oooh, nostalgic.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page