Art workshop for people with mental disabilities battles through pandemic challenges

·3 min read
Located on Prince William Street in uptown Saint John, Creative Connections is intended to foster an inclusive atmosphere in the community for people with mental disabilities. (Gray Gillies Mott/submitted - image credit)
Located on Prince William Street in uptown Saint John, Creative Connections is intended to foster an inclusive atmosphere in the community for people with mental disabilities. (Gray Gillies Mott/submitted - image credit)

Nestled among a number of small businesses on Saint John's historic Prince William Street, it might be easy to miss Creative Connections.

But there's always something in the window of the workshop and gallery designed to catch your eye. Paintings and drawings, many brightly coloured, greet passersby every day, and often coax people inside.

"There are people who just come in and say, 'What is this place? I need to buy that! That's beautiful!'"

Gray Gillies Mott has been part of this place since it opened nearly five years ago.

She works with the local L'Arche community, a residential home for people with mental disabilities that opened in Saint John in June 2005.

All the artists who are part of this art collective, 16 in all, have some form of mental disability.

Gray Gillies Mott has been at Creative Connections since its inception five years ago.
Gray Gillies Mott has been at Creative Connections since its inception five years ago. (Submitted L'Arche Saint John)

Gillies Mott said Creative Connections began as a way to reach out to the community at large to be more inclusive.

"There is so much isolation in the populations we serve," she said.

She said the program has been successful.

Some of the artists come a few hours a week, others are there every day.

Gillies Mott said sometimes people stop and look at the work that hangs in the windows, or they just smile and wave to the artists inside. Others come in to talk, ask questions or buy a piece they like.

At least, that's what they used to do, until COVID-19 came along.

Jacques Chiasson and Krista Simmons are two of the 16 artists who make up Creative Connections.
Jacques Chiasson and Krista Simmons are two of the 16 artists who make up Creative Connections.(Gray Gillies Mott)

Creative Connections closed when the pandemic hit last March and didn't reopen until October.

"It's been lonely for people," Gillies Mott said.

With the seemingly always changing Public Health guidelines, she said it has been tricky to navigate.

While they were able to be open in the yellow phase of recovery, they've had to have two locations to ensure physical distancing.

During the orange phase, the public couldn't visit at all.

The sale of the artwork makes up a "significant portion" of the costs to operate the non-profit, and Gillies Mott said the events of the past year have certainly made it tough to make ends meet.

This piece was part of the annual art show put on by the artists at Creative Connections.
This piece was part of the annual art show put on by the artists at Creative Connections.(Creative Connections/Facebook.com)

So the organization has launched a fundraising campaign to help through its parent organization, L'Arche Saint John.

Creative Connections is important for Jacques Chiasson.

The 35-year-old works at Key Industries in Saint John, and said he spends at least two afternoons a week at Creative Connections.

"I like being there with my friends," he said.

He also likes creating paintings and drawings of "basically whatever pops into my head."

"It relieves stress," Chiasson said, "It relaxes me."

He has also sold some of those creations, a feeling he enjoys.

Krista Simmons is shown at work at Creative Connections. The artists receive part of the proceeds from the sale of their artwork. The rest goes to help keep the program running.
Krista Simmons is shown at work at Creative Connections. The artists receive part of the proceeds from the sale of their artwork. The rest goes to help keep the program running.(Gray Gillies Mott/submitted)

"It has happened a number of times," he said, "It makes me feel real important and that I really did that.

"And I get paid a good amount of money."

All the artists get a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their work.

Gillies Mott said the pandemic has made things tougher — art supplies are not cheap — but she believes they're not in danger of closing.

"We're not at risk, it's more that we'll be more sustainable."

For her, the program is too important to the people who take part to let it become less than it is.

"It's an absolute joy," she said. "I've had a place that, in the same way the artists have inclusivity and a sense of belonging, I feel the same way.

"We all care about each other."