The Artful Mission at the Ottawa Mission

Centretown BuzzApril 11, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 9

Come to Where I’m From: shelter residents paint their space in art.

The Mission Hospice in Ottawa is unique to North America in that it happens to be attached to a shelter for the homeless. The Hospice makes it possible for vulnerable individuals in our community to find comfort and care in the last days of their lives.

When it was built, the intention was to create a “place to call home,” an environment that was both lively and comforting for their clients, and by their clients. While the men and women who fill the 14 beds of the hospice do not have long to live, the goal was, in the meantime, to have them live extremely well and in dignity.

With the generous support of the The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation, The Mission turned to the local arts community to help transform the entrance of their new Hospice into something warm and inviting. With the help of local artists, Pao Quang Yeh and Sandra Abi-Aad, the hallway has now become an interesting walk-thru of colour, powerful images and inspiration.

Yeh and Abi-Aad, both graduates of the University of Ottawa Fine Arts program, facilitated the creation of five photographic images (25″ x 35″) with The Mission clients over an eight-week period. Art classes with clients were based on respect and creativity to help enable the five Hospice/LifeSkills members to explore their own personal landscape through art.

The LifeSkills Program has been running for 10 years at The Mission and treats 15 participants to six months of rehabilitation for drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. The eightweek art classes introduced into the program are a first of their kind for The Mission.

Art Process
Yeh and Abi-Aad used a variety of free-flow and word-association exercises to encourage the men to think about their own personal spaces. Each of the five students then crafted a landscape using art supplies donated by the artists themselves and through the generous support of The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation grant.

With paint and coloured pencils, The Mission students created landscape backdrops of fiery sunsets, bright yellow skies and dark blue celestial universes. Next, they positioned tiny objects such as army figurines, animals, felt teepees, and in one instance, a miniature bedroom suite against the backdrops. This created three-dimensional maquettes or models of Vietnam war scenes, nature and native settlements, farms and a bedroom setting. They were then photographed by Yeh and Abi-Aad and framed.

Janet St. Jean, Director of Development at The Mission, attributed much of the project’s success to the professionalism and flexibility of the arts facilitators. St. Jean beams with enthusiasm and appreciation when she thinks of local artists Yeh and Abi-Aad, and their belief and interest in the project.

When asked to describe the experience Pao Quang Yeh stressed: “this was not art therapy. We were there to provide tools and share skills with them. It wasn’t instructional. If you wanted your apple to be purple, that’s ok, make it purple!” It explains why horses have big white eyes and skies are a bright yellow!

Trudging Through the Landscape
The Hospice with its palliative care unit as well as the Mission serve the needs of homeless men, women and children. Knowing that The Mission clients travel from one place to another, Yeh also knew each must carry with them some story that should be told. At the onset of the project, Yeh and Abi-Aad spent time walking through the buildings and talking to some guests. Both were compelled to ask the question, “what does it mean to be in a space?”

Pao Quang Yeh expressed that the objective was to get these men to reflect upon their own space and translate those feelings and thoughts in any way they wanted to through art. In one case, instead of painting scenery, one gentleman named Robert Mercer wrote out his feelings in a most powerful testimony that was moving in its honesty and touching in its humility.

It read: “My name is Robert Mercer and I am feeling inbarrassed do to the fact I can’t do whats required of me, I don’t mine being here, but I don’t know where I stand has far has having talent, I do believe there is something there, but ‘I’ always seem to get in the way ”¦”

Yeh admits the work can be taxing emotionally and there is a lot to juggle. Not all participants stick with the program and so it takes the help of a very dedicated facilitator and visual artist like Abi-Aad to make it happen, says Yeh.

Local Arts Programs
Pao Quang Yeh, who works as a Facilitator and Visual Artist for the City of Ottawa’s Community Arts Program, explains that local arts programs offered by the City emerged in the last 4 years. The idea was to link professional artists with the community and make art accessible to everyone of any socio-economic status and ability.

City of Ottawa arts programs are many and varied, he explains, ranging from getting well known writers to read at community centres and involving individuals with special needs or disabilities in modern dance explorations of the self to guiding and facilitating groups in art and drama. “Art should be for everyone,” he says.

An extension of his day job with the City of Ottawa, Yeh admits that The Mission Art Project was a personal project outside, and on top of his 9 to 5 duties. This dedication and drive has seen many other art initiatives succeed in countries such as the

As part of UK Accents in 1999, the British Council invited a Welsh Community Arts group to Ottawa to introduce their “Rock School” to the Nation’s Capital. In Wales, the group brings music to disadvantaged and under-privileged youth by visiting local council estate housing projects. Musical instruments are donated to the youth to use over the course of a weekend.

Their efforts are then showcased in the form of a rock concert at the end of the weekend. The question posed to the Welsh group about follow up work to community arts projects applies equally to The Mission Art Project as well. Now that the hospice entrance is beautifully decorated with quality art, what next?

Maybe it’s enough to note that some shelter clients are already referring to the Hospice hallway with the 5 colour photographs as “The Mission Art Gallery.” In all 5 cases there has been strong interest in purchasing the art, but some like James express their strong allegiance to The Mission and insist that their artistic oeuvres remain always at the Ottawa shelter they call home.

This permanent display at The Mission Hospice entrance reflects the unique expression of five individuals who have lived varied lives. Janet St. Jean smiles thoughtfully: “the art allows us to have an inside look at them.”

And while the Hospice hallway is not open to the public, the opportunity to volunteer or support The Mission is always there. More, it is Yeh’s hope is that this project will spark further interest in making the arts accessible to all in the community.

Special thank you to the following organizations for their generous donations and support:

The Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation
City of Ottawa, Community Arts Program
Eurocopies & Printing
Calabria Restaurant & Pizzeria
Emerald Bakery
The Manx
Boko Bakery
Sanjay Mohanta

– Sylvie Hill