RAW VISION: The Power of Art in Healthcare

by Jeff Nachtigall

In November 2006, I began a residency with the Saskatoon Health Region. As Artist-in-Residence, I worked with individuals coping with limited mobility and/or cognitive disorders at the Sherbrooke Community Centre; a long-term care facility in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. I implemented a studio program that provided participants with the opportunity to express themselves visually. The studio was to be a place of experimentation and self-expression. I was not interested in teaching art classes, but in facilitating the creative process through self-exploration and self-discovery.

The studio started small. Within a month, more than a hundred residents were working in a variety of mediums and styles, filling the small space to the point of overflow. Most had never made art before. Reduced and restricted mobility (paraplegia and quadriplegia) and cognitive disorders (Alzheimer’s, dementia, and acquired brain injuries) presented them with new challenges and limitations. With perseverance and dedication (and in some cases, working through physical pain), these limitations grew into strengths. Through art, the participants of the studio program have found a new voice…and this new voice has empowered them.

In September 2007 the Mendel Art Gallery shared this life changing experience with an enthusiastic audience. “The Insiders” exhibition showcased the work of twelve artists from the Sherbrooke Community Centre. The response was overwhelming. The National Film Board of Canada featured the studio and the artists in an inspirational and moving documentary; “A Year at Sherbrooke”. The Mendel Art Gallery toured the exhibition throughout Saskatchewan, engaging rural communities in an ongoing and passionate dialog. With the support of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Potash Corp., the Mendel Art Gallery and several community partners, “The Insiders” catalogue was published in the fall of 2009.

The studio is more popular than ever and continues to be a vibrant hub of activity and exchange. The breakthroughs have been substantial and the benefits profound. Residents who once contemplated suicide are now mentors and role models. Individuals who were previously inactive have found a new energy, enthusiastically expressing themselves through art. The level of productivity has grown exponentially, as the residents dexterity and confidence have increased. Fine motor skills have improved; those who once shook as they tried to grip a brush are now expressing themselves through fluid motions. The positive impact on the residents and their families is astounding. New projects and exhibitions are underway as we continue to push the boundaries of self expression and challenge the stereotypes of individuals with special needs.

In 2007 I designed the Mobile Painting Device (MPD). The MPD provides quadriplegics and paraplegics the ability to express themselves on a very large scale. This fluid form of mark making has helped inspire and invigorate a growing and often overlooked segment of the population.

The “Open Studio Model” I have developed for healthcare is based on a philosophy: I believe that we are all born artists, and that art is our first language. This visual language transcends borders and has the ability to bring people with diverse backgrounds together. This model focuses on the “art” and not the “therapy”, and raises the bar of the ubiquitous “craft room”. Art is a vehicle for change, for healing and for hope. Although initially developed for long term care, this model has since been adapted for acute care, mental health and addictions, at risk youth, transitional environments, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, and the private and public sector.

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