New start with art

Andrew Robinson
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Barriers to employment banished with brushstrokes

Leslie Wagner of St. John’s was in a tight spot prior to getting involved with the Community Youth Arts Program.

After coming out of an abusive relationship lasting three years, she moved downtown with few belongings.

Not having a job, she relied on employment insurance. Prospects were limited for Wagner, who did not complete high school due, in part, to what she calls “family issues.”

She felt alone and frustrated about her future options.

“It’s hard to get ahead when you don’t have a boost, something to inspire you, or someone to say you can do better. It is actually the program itself that made me believe that I could go further in life.”

A career services program offered through the Murphy Centre and funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada —the Community Youth Arts Program — offers participants a chance to hone their artistic and career skills through 34 weeks of paid work.

They create individual art pieces, but the participants do a whole lot more than that.

They also take part in workshops with visual artists specializing in a variety of media, engage in community-oriented projects as a group, and work on improving their general life skills.

Based out of the Harbourside Studio in St. John’s, the program is geared towards youth ages 18-30 who face barriers to employment.

“That can mean a lot of different things,” said program co-ordinator Candace Fulford.

“Some people are coming into this with a few years of university under their belt, probably almost a full degree, and some people were unable to finish high school for a variety of reasons.”


Founded in 1999, the program was viewed by the Murphy Centre as a way to develop job and life skills for people interested in the cultural sector. The centre, a charitable group, offers academic, career and lifestyle opportunities to 530 participants each year.

The Community Youth Arts Program accepts 12 participants working 30 hours each week.

Fulford, a graduate of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College’s visual arts program, said it attracts creative individuals who may be interested in any number of artistic disciplines — including musicians, writers, dancers and other performers.

“For the Murphy Centre, it’s the only program they have that offers something in that creative avenue,” she said, adding there are few programs like it nationally with federal funding.

Like Leslie Wagner, RN Wagner (who was engaged to Leslie prior to being accepted to the program) has not graduated from high school.

Born in St. John’s, he moved to Ontario at the age of nine. His father died of colon cancer when RN was a young boy, and his mother suffered a fatal brain aneurysm while he was attending high school.

A teenage golf prodigy who performed well on a national level, RN was also working to help make ends meet. Following his mother’s death, he spent some time living with his  stepfather, but left a short while later. An on/off recipient of social assistance since the age of 16, RN has spent time in shelters and worked a variety of jobs.

“My entire life, I always felt like I was on my own,” he said.

Since returning to Newfoundland four years ago, he has performed music and poetry locally and developed an interest in filmmaking. He was accepted to the program this year on his third attempt.

Group settings

Now, the 25-year-old is learning how to work in group settings.

“It’s tough for me to work in a group dynamic when I’m always used to doing stuff on my own,” he said.

Leslie Wagner painted prior to being accepted into the program and performed music at clubs.

Aside from revelling in the opportunity to make use of quality art supplies, she loves the atmosphere of the program.

“I get excited about going to work instead of dreading it,” she said.

More importantly, perhaps, she feels better about herself, eats better, and is making positive life changes.

RN Wagner has a lot of ideas swimming around his head — from starting up an all-age performance venue to filming documentaries — that speak to his passion for the arts.

“I really enjoy doing stuff in the arts and culture industry, because it brings people together and encourages them to work together.”

According to Fulford, engaging with the broader arts community is an essential element of the program. This year, the group is working with Eastern Edge’s 24 Hour Art Marathon and the Victoria Park Lantern Festival.

Past participants have subsequently obtained full-time employment, furthered their education, and become active members of the local artistic community.

“For some of them, it was just the right thing at the right time to push them forward, because they were already probably doing a lot of the right things in the beginning,” said Fulford.

In February, the participants get to share their creations with the public through a group show.

From there, they can choose their own future paths.

Leslie Wagner plans on applying for grants and sending applications to schools.

“It’s a pretty amazing opportunity,” she said.

“No matter what you go through, you can always do better and have something to look forward to.”

Organizations: Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Murphy Centre, Human Resources

Geographic location: Ontario, Newfoundland

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