The muse of madness

A look at Toronto creations inspired by mental health

Photo credit Planet 3 Communications Ltd.

Photo credit Planet 3 Communications Ltd.

Lisa Brown never thought her grandmother was crazy. While she saw the tissue in the window used to keep bugs out, and knew about her trips to the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, Brown says she never felt anything but safe and unconditionally loved by her mother’s mother.

“She certainly had challenges, but I didn’t think of her in the way that other people thought about her,” Brown said. “She’s been one of the reasons that I’ve sought to change the way that people might think about people like my grandmother, because it’s not right.”

Brown is the founder and artistic/executive director for Workman Arts, an organization that aims to provide a supportive environment to individuals with mental health and addiction issues by giving them the tools they need to express themselves creatively.

Since its inception in 1988, Workman Arts has used art as a way of encouraging personal growth in its members and to break the stigma and stereotype of mental health for its audiences.

Photo Credit Annette Seip

Lisa Brown. Photo Credit Annette Seip

Brown began her career as a night nurse at the Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction). She says she remembers watching patients there recite poetry and have talent shows on Friday nights.

“I was pretty inspired by them, so I thought about using theatre as an artistic discipline to have all of these artists participate,” Brown said.

Using the patients’ singing, painting and acting skills, Workman Arts created and produced its first play, Home for Christmas, in 1988, along with actors from the community. It took place at the Joseph Workman Theatre, and explored what it felt like to be homeless on Christmas Eve.

Ever since, the members of Workman Arts have been busy. With over 230 member artists, the program is multidisciplinary, working in film, theatre, music, visual and literary arts.

Workman Arts has presented plays across the country and curated multiple art exhibitions in Toronto each year. Mad Couture Catwalk, a runway presentation of wearable art, was shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario this year and as a part of Fashion Arts Toronto Week. The first Madness and Arts World Festival happened in 2003 at Toronto’s Harbourfront, before being adapted for its second and third run in Muenster, Germany (2006) and Haarlem, Netherlands (2010).

The organization also presents an annual film festival, Rendezvous with Madness, now in its 21st year. The six-day event screens short and feature-length films that explore different topics in the realm of mental health and addiction.

Delaney Ruston is the director for the film Hidden Pictures: A Personal Journey Into Global Mental Health. Her documentary showed on Nov. 13 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Ruston first participated in the festival in 2004, when she screened her film Unlisted, a documentary that centered on her journey to reconcile with her estranged father, a paranoid schizophrenic, with whom she had cut off contact for years.

Ruston says she believes the use of art to explore personal issues is an effective way for both the filmmaker and the audience relate, because it creates a parallel between the two.

“I think that the most personal films are the most universal and that when personal films touch at our emotions, whether you’re in a village of India or here in Toronto, we’ve experienced shame, fear, love,” she said, “and that’s where compassion is born, from that connection.”

Chris Mitchell is the visual arts manager at Workman Arts. She agrees with Ruston, saying that in presenting topics through art, artists create a level of understanding for their audiences that may not otherwise be achieved academically.

“I think (art) creates a way to engage with the topic that is less threatening to people, less intimidating,” Mitchell said. “(It) can break down barriers of prejudice or stigma and have people relate on a very human level to those issues.”

Mitchell also says the production of art can be therapeutic for the artists themselves.

“For the artists that are creating that kind of work, they’re often working through their own feelings and experiences through the creation of their artwork; it can be very cathartic for some of them,” she said.

Brown agrees, and adds one of the most important things that she’s learned throughout her years with Workman Arts is to focus on people’s abilities, rather than their perceived disabilities.

“Give people the right conditions to be able to create and they’ll thrive and they’ll surpass your original ideas,” Brown said. “Give people the tools and look at people’s abilities and strengths. Don’t try to fix what’s wrong. At least in our company, that’s what we’re about.”

-Kristin Eliason


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