Creative Works Studio: Art and Community for Health
January 25, 2017
Some bands are born of positive beginnings. Social Mystics is no exception. Born in 2007, this group was developed by the arts-based occupational therapy program, the Creative Works Studio (CWS).
Situated in Toronto, CWS is run by St. Michael’s Hospital, in partnership with the Good Shepherd Non-Profit Homes Inc. They offer therapeutic arts programming to those struggling with mental illness and addiction issues.
CWS serves between 80 and 100 members and hosts 2,500 visits per year. While the hospital finances approximately 40 percent of the studio, CWS self-finances the remaining 60 percent. Clients can be referred to CWS by a health care provider from across Toronto, though priority is given to clients from St. Michael’s Hospital. The music group Social Mystics is just one example of the many CWS projects.
Apart from participating in larger projects like the Social Mystics, CWS clients can find their passion by choosing from a variety of art forms, including pottery, painting, sculpture, songwriting, screen printing and digital photography.
Minds Matter Magazine interviewed the founder and creative lead of CWS, Isabel Fryszberg. She is also the creative lead of band, musical compositions, and rhythm guitar at Social Mystics. Social Mystics launched their first album, Coming Out of Darkness, in early March of this year.
Minds Matter Magazine (MMM): Why the name Social Mystics?
Isabel Fryszberg (IF): In our group, we collectively inspire each other and build on each other’s ideas. One day, someone said ‘oh yeah, we are the social misfits,’ and then the word mystic came up and everybody said, ‘yeah, that is a good name.’ In our group, you sometimes create unconsciously, in that your ideas, your thoughts and images, are ahead of you. When you think about Social Mystics, it is that we are, in many ways, providing a message that is not always understood or clear to people. But when we do present our message, whether it is through music, film, or art, photography, we appreciate it.
MMM: What are some of the important ideas that are in your songs?
IF: There are a lot of different messages that we have, such as acceptance, compassion, and community. Some of our music is nostalgic in the style of the melodies, so it kind of transports you in another time. In “I Could Build a New World”, we say in the lyrics what is important. We talk about love, we talk about talking to each other rather than texting and being so focused on our iPhones. We talk about smiling to each other, connecting, moving slower, breathing with ease. We also say, ‘hold on to the good.’ When you are dealing with a mental health challenge, it is hard to hold on to the good, especially when you are contemplating hurting yourself or suicide. So, we say it in the first line, ‘when the world tears you apart, hold on to the good.’
MMM: How do you create that space of mutual acceptance?
IF: This is done partly over time and partly by being nonjudgmental. We create a sense of safety, where everybody’s ideas are encouraged, and we play a lot. It is about how can we really make an interesting art piece with this song. Together.
MMM: At CWS, artists can create art through different mediums. How does the artist decide which art form they go with? How are people exposed to the different art forms so that they are able to choose which one to go with?
IF: The artists have the opportunity to try anything. We operate as an open studio. We have structured programs that people can participate in. Some are with instruction and some are not. We work right where someone is at. People are exposed to music who have never sang. In this studio, we could have clay going on, painting going on, and singing going on at the same time. It is done in a way so that people are focused on what they are doing. While some people are painting, they are hearing live music. There is this lovely back and forth thing going on. Today, people are picking up colouring books.This whole studio is about colouring, and creating, and being in that kind of zen place. But the difference between a colouring book and this place is we have expression. And we encourage expression.
MMM: On your website, CWS produced a film (What’s Art Got to Do With It?) capturing an insider’s view of CWS artists in the making of an annual art show, learning about the artistic process of the artists interlaced with their narratives on mental health challenges and addictions. What inspired the creation of your film?
IF: A number of things. As an arts-based occupational therapy program, one of the U of T occupational therapy students interviewed us to understand the impact of the studio. After interviewing our members, she discovered through these oral stories that consistent themes came up in terms of their transformation, in terms of how the environment affected them, in terms of how they came to find themselves in becoming artists. She said, ‘This would be a great video.’
I have a background in film, but I didn’t want to impose it in the studio. So when people were feeling the trust and safety, I partnered with a social scientist at St. Mike’s, Janet Parsons, and we collaborated with our members. We used a participatory community research approach and research design, and got them involved in designing the questions, and then we also used an arts-based research approach using film. And because of my background as a documentary filmmaker, I really wanted it to be not just a knowledge translation tool, but a real documentary, so that it could be accessible to the public shown at a festival or sold to a broadcaster. At the end, it was shown at the Toronto Female Eye Festival, a women’s film festival, and eventually acquired by the CBC.
MMM: How do patients come to CWS and transform into artists?
IF: A lot of people come to the program, many who have never worked in clay or painting before, and then they discovered that they can create, that they are an artist, and that they can move from being a patient to an artist. People are given a new identity. They take on the role and culture of being an artist. It is not art therapy, although it is therapeutic. My background is as an occupational therapist as well as an artist, so they are given a new form of occupation.
‘Art isn’t a luxury, it’s something that we need,’ said Fryszberg. “It’s important to have a space that is creative because together it creates a place of health.’
Why is art something that we fundamentally need?
IF: It gives you permission to express, take risks, to have a reflection of beauty, to have a reflection of truth. It is your culture, art creates culture. And I feel that science, true science, true math as an art. If you lose your arts, you lose your humanity. You lose a lot. You also lose your innovations. And you become robotic, mechanized and that’s dangerous.
CWS has important goals for the future. The program plans to develop a toolkit to replicate their model after receiving numerous requests from organizations and curious students. Some could potentially focus on the needs of specific demographics, such as postsecondary students.
Fryszberg encourages any student to volunteer and help with the program. Also, Social Mystics can be booked for playing by contacting her atwww.creativeworks-studio.ca. They have their album available for sale, along with paintings, sculptures, photography, and more created by the CWS artists themselves, available through the studio.
Isabel Frysberg is a graduate of the Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Program at the University of Toronto.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.