A unique form of recovery

Art program at the Waterford hospital helps bring out the esthetic side of patients and clients

Danette Dooley danette@nl.rogers.com
Published on September 20, 2010
Artists Toby Rabinowitz (left) and Gerard McNiven (centre) display artwork they've produced at the Waterford hospital's Open Windows Studio. Joining them is art instructor Valerie Hodder.
Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

Gerard McNiven paces in the Waterford hospital’s art studio Thursday afternoon.

McNiven has agreed to do an interview about his artwork. However, he’s concerned that the other artist to be interviewed has not shown up.

“Toby (Rabinowitz) is the professional. That’s what I’m trying to be. But, she’s already a professional,” McNiven says, looking towards the door.

When reassured by art instructor Valerie Hodder that he’ll do fine with the interview, McNiven takes a seat across from Hodder.

Shortly after the interview begins, Hodder answers the telephone.

A huge smile crosses McNiven’s face when he realizes it’s Rabinowitz saying she’s on her way, just running a little late.

McNiven has been coming to the Open Windows Studio at the Waterford hospital for about five years.

“I told my psychologist that I always wanted to be an artist but that I never had the opportunity. … I was never encouraged. Actually, it was the opposite.”

McNiven’s psychologist suggested he participate in the Waterford hospital’s art program.

He was apprehensive at first, he says, but with Hodder’s encouragement, he soon found his niche among the other artists.

“You’ve got artists in this program that are as good or better than what’s out there. And I’ve got so much potential but I just need guidance in getting there,” he says.

McNiven doesn’t concentrate on any one art form.

“Most time in here I do acrylics. At home, I’ve started a series of oil paintings that hopefully will get in a gallery sometime. Because it’s my goal to be a professional,” he says.

When asked if he has any samples of his work, McNiven heads to the back of the studio. He returns with two framed sketches and one painting.

One of the sketches is of a home; the second is of row houses in the downtown St. John’s area, not far from where he lives. To an untrained eye, the artwork looks precise and professional.

He’s still working on the painting, he says.

“I come here four half-days a week. If I wasn’t coming here I’d be doing nothing,” he says.

McNiven is delighted when Rabinowitz walks in.

“She’ll tell you all about this place,” he says.

Rabinowitz holds a diploma in visual arts from Western Community College, as well as a diploma in fibre arts from Avalon Community College.

Her work has been exhibited at the Stella Burry Community Services Hungry Heart Cafe, at the Health Sciences Centre and was part of a national juried show in Montreal sponsored by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Rabinowitz is soft-spoken; not one to tout her own talent. She’s been coming to the Open Windows Studio for more than 15 years.

“Valerie showed me a lot of different things. We’ve done lots of things in the community and when I’m not here, I do pottery mostly and I help my parents on the farm.”

Rabinowitz says expressing herself through art helps keep her mentally well.

“It gives me something to get up in the morning for; something to do. And I feel a lot better when I’m working on something, whether it’s photography or pottery or painting.”

The studio gives her the routine she needs, she says.

“It’s a group of people I know and who I’m comfortable with and that’s really important.”

Open house

The studio is open to both the hospital’s in-patients and adult mental health service users who live in the community.

The studio hosts several exhibitions a year and also participates in events organized by CMHA.

Hodder teaches numerous art forms, including painting, drawing, sculpting and printmaking.

“Some people come in here with lots of skill and they just need the right environment to work with. Others come in as brand new beginners and then go to where they are selling their first piece.”

Expressing oneself through art is a unique form of recovery, she says.

In learning a new art skill, participants also learn to relax and manage stress.

They become more self-confident, Hodder say, which helps them in other areas of their lives.

While society has come a long way in understanding mental health issues, Hodder feels misinformation, apprehension and stigma still persist. Highlighting the artists’ work helps reduce such stigma, she says.

The Open Window Studio will open its doors to the public from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 24 as part of Culture Days.

A cross-country initiative, Culture Days run from Sept. 24-26.

Numerous free events will take place in this province, highlighting the work of artists, actors, architects, historians, curators and others involved in arts and culture initiatives.

Those visiting the studio will have an opportunity to see the artists’ work and to make their own creation through bas-relief (a form of sculpture in which artists form objects in clay).

“There are a lot of talented artists in our studio. Some of them will be here to show their work. So, this is a great opportunity for us,” Hodder says.

For more information on Culture Days events: www.culturedays.ca.