A Space To Create

A Space To Create

Artsenta is a place where people using mental health services can go to do art. The studio is based on an ethos that everybody should be able to access art materials and to use them in any way they want to.

Artsenta kindly let Critic in for a chat with the staff. A group of people sat quietly talking at a table while they drew. A prolific painter sat to the side with a small easel working on a new piece. It was of a stormy sea crashing onto rocks topped by a lighthouse, with ominous grey clouds above. He told us he regularly paints over top of his paintings, so the lighthouse might be there one day and gone the next. Somebody played the piano in the background while we were talking. The tune is slow but steady and melodic. All around the space are fantastic artworks—a wall of framed painting and prints, huge cardboard sculptures, knitted clothing, pottery, and, of course, art in the making.

We spoke to Kari, the assistant director of Artsenta, who has been there for 11 years. The first thing she told us was “Artsenta is not a therapeutic or clinical service." Kari says they are a respite from that for everyone involved. “As soon as someone comes in here we call them an artist. We don’t refer to people as clients or consumers or patients, they’re an artist and they’re here to work as an artist in a studio.” The idea is that everybody has the right to creative self-expression. Artsenta provides the means for people to do that. A lot of artists make for the sake of making, not with the idea that they’re going to exhibit or sell, though some do do those things. Kari says whatever the artist’s motivation is, “it always comes back to being able to provide materials to give people the chance to do it.”

Those who make art know how expensive materials can be. “People don’t realise that some of our artists are on benefits and have very little money,” says Kari. Some people don’t have scissors in their house.” Some people who come to Artsenta don’t have access to pens and paper, or space in their house to work. “One guy comes here to paint because his house is so full of his family and what’s going on - he doesn’t have a spare table to sit down and paint at.” People come to the studio to make cards for loved ones, or to knit a scarf or hat to give as a gift for someone. Artsenta provides not just pens, paper, and space, but paints, sewing machines, fabric, wool, a music room, a printing press, a pottery kiln, and equipment for candlemaking, leadlighting, and jewellery making.

Anybody using a mental health service can come to Artsenta. This includes people seeing a GP, using addiction services, or seeing a nurse or psych team. None of the workers like the word “disability” because it implies a physical thing. A lot of the people here with mental health problems don’t see it as a “disability” per se. “We have people who work, students, people with different levels of wellness depending who they are.” The staff at Artsenta all come from arts backgrounds rather than from medicine or social work, though most of them do have some training in those areas—their previous director was an occupational therapist. There is a glass artist, two musicians (one of whom does printmaking), a potter, a jeweller, and a textile artist. If health workers ask Kari how to get into creative spaces, she tells them “You learn to do art, because that’s what we do here.” The staff teach each other their skills.

Claire is an Art Worker at Artsenta. She comes from a fashion industry background and specialises in textiles at the studio. “I just love working with people.” Claire had wanted to work at Artsenta for a whole before she got the job a year ago. “I was probably a bit rosy eyed. I didn’t really know what it was like - you never do till you do it.” But Claire loves the job and the hands-on creativity she gets to do every day. She did a workshop in resin casting and then used the skills to make jewellery with people. The morning we talked to her she had made a crochet bowl she was going to put through the washing machine, an experiment she intends on using next month when they do felting. Kari is also an artist. A lot of her work was community project and event management and her background is in theatre design.

Artsenta moved in December from an upstairs space to their current open-plan space. Kari says the move has worked out well. She says it was difficult for some people to get up the stairs into the old studio. “It’s an anxiety thing. A lot of people said ‘it’s taken me three times to get up those stairs’.” In the new place, you walk in off the street and you’re already in the middle of things, with the materials already out. Some people find the open-plan difficult. “A few people were anxious about it when we were planning the move. There are so many windows. Because of the stigma of mental illness, people don’t want to be looked at like they're’ in a fishbowl.” Many artists prefer to work in privacy. Frosted glass and screens shield Artsenta from passersby.

Artsenta gets funding from the Southern District Health Board, but they also get some materials donated. Gallery De Novo ask their customers if they want to keep the frame when they sell artworks, and if they don’t they give the frame to Artsenta. The staff at Artsenta source a lot of materials from op shops, such as fabric and wool. Since they have been going for so long and are quite careful with money, they have been able to buy expensive pieces of equipment, like the kiln and printing press. In the new space they have been able to build a soundproof room full of electric instruments and recording gear.

With each person who comes in the door, the staff ask if they are eligible for the service, and if they are going to benefit from it. “Sometimes it’s not a good place for them, it’s overstimulating and they don’t actually want to be here.” Some people do better being out with their peers, or getting a job. “Some young men would probably do better if there was a blokes’ shed kind of place.”

Once a person is in, staff need to record a certain amount of information, such as age and ethnicity. They try to keep the paperwork to a minimum so people can relax have a break from the bureaucracy of the mental health system. They then make an “art plan” to work out what the artist would like to achieve. “It can be just ‘I want to see what’s going on,’ or it can be very specific—‘I want to learn the drums’.” A lot of the plan is for the purpose of teaching people to use equipment safely. There are facilitated sessions with staff members for things like pottery and jewellery. “It can be a slightly less confronting way to join. You can get to know a few people.” There are activities that can be completed in an hour, which Kari says are useful because “although we value process, people can get frustrated if they have to come back day after day, week after week. I do jewellery and people say, “‘what do I do now?’ I say you get to sand and file, file and sand. Welcome to jewellery.”

The staff do not put pressure on people to turn up or participate. “Depending on their level of wellness, someone might have every intention of showing up, but for whatever reason they can’t leave the house that morning and they don’t end up coming. We understand that.”

Kari told us about one young man who barely left the house who started coming to Artsenta. Within a year he was going to Aoraki polytech. “He pops in to say hi now and then, but he’s out there now.”

Kari says one important thing the studio does is it gives people a place to come during the day. “It means they leave the house. It’s a sense of community, people you know you can have a laugh with and a friendly face, you know you’re not going to be judged. No one’s here because they’re well. There’s varying degrees of wellness, but it’s a very tolerant community.” Other people are in supported housing and come to the studio for a place to create. People have told Kari that “‘this place means they’re not dead.’ To that point.”

Some people need to make art. “We’ve got one guy - I don’t love the term outsider artist (art created outside the boundaries of official culture), but he’s a true outsider artist in that he just makes art. He just makes art. He doesn’t do it with any goal but the compulsion to make.” This artist works mostly in printing, painting, and drawing. “And he’s extraordinary.” Kari relates to the creative drive, having made art compulsively since she was a child. “As a child you don’t think about making a career.”

So what happens when an artists is discharged from the mental health services? Surely it would be a massive blow to lose access to such a wonderful resources? Kari reassures us: “It’s like Hotel California. You can check in anytime you like but you can never leave. It would be quite a loss to lose the facility just because you aren’t in other mental health services anymore.” Sometimes when someone has been discharged it doesn’t mean they are mentally well, for example, bipolar can be manageable but it is a lifelong condition. “It’s like being a diabetic. You’re going to be on meds and have it for your whole life. It doesn’t mean you can’t live a full life, but it’s not going to go away.”

Art has the capacity to give people new confidence in themselves. One time a young woman came in wanting to do a mosaic in the shape of the fish. Kari said, “ok, you’re going to have to cut the shape of a fish out of a piece of wood. Have you used a jigsaw before?” The woman hadn’t and Kari showed her how to use it. The woman forgot about the mosaic because “she was just so empowered about using the power tool. She went “oh my god I’ve never used a power tool before, I can't believe I learned how!”” The boost to self-esteem and self-confidence “from learning something new, learning a technique, that’s the positive side.” “Unfortunately,” Kari says, “people assume it’s only positive because it can actually also be hugely frustrating if it doesn’t work out.” People can blame themselves and think it means they’re useless. “You’ve got to work through that as well. That’s where something like candle making is good­—it can’t really go wrong.”

“Sometimes you get really affected by someone." Claire said. Some of the people, shit’s happened, you’re just like oh man. Especially when you see young people. I find that quite hard sometimes. You just think it’s not like a broken leg where you can go to the doctor and get a cast. It can be tough for their whole life.” Claire also feels for older people who have struggled their whole lives because of mental illness. “Because of their mental health issues, their whole life has been lived in poverty. It makes me feel so privileged and so lucky. Some people really don’t have any money.” The week before someone told Claire they live in Green Island and can only afford to get the bus in once a week. “This place could really help them more by giving them a place. They’re obviously a really creative person. Knowing they can’t come here more regularly because of poverty is really sad.”

Part of getting people into participating at Artsenta can be changing the idea of what art is. Claire says people will come in and say they’re “not creative” or “not artistic” because “they think of art in a certain way, in a gallery, and think that painting looks like something. The think they need to be able to draw a perfect face to be an artist. It’s not about that. It’s about colour, texture, expression. All those other things.” Claire sees people come in, learn a new skill, and gain confidence in realising they can find their own method of artistic expression. “I taught a guy to knit the other day. He’d never done it, and now he’s knitting himself a scarf.”

Kari says a lot of the artists don’t go to art galleries or take much interest in the art world outside of the studio. “They’re interested in coming here and making their own stuff.” But some people do put their work in galleries, and some have won art prizes. Artsenta have supported people to have solo shows at the Otago Art Society, for someone to have a studio for a year, and they have a permanent display or art in the hospital.

Artsenta have an annual exhibition at the community gallery, where people can sell their work or just display it. Check it out when it happens because, as Kari says, “There are some extraordinarily talented artists here.”

Artsenta. 462 Princes St. facebook.com/art.senta

This article first appeared in Issue 20, 2016.
Posted 4:11pm Monday 15th August 2016 by Lucy Hunter.