Art heals hurts in Christchurch
1 August 2018
Any visit to Christchurch brings vivid reminders of the devastation the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 inflicted on the city. Their impact on the community was unprecedented and along with the physical damage, the earthquakes caused other kinds of hurt.
People who had already been living with mental illness and distress experienced new levels of challenge; others who had not previously suffered mental distress began to do so.
Ōtautahi Creative Spaces Trust was founded in 2015 in response to this “hidden” damage. Only three years on, its work was recognised at Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2018 on 1 August when it received the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award.
Of its achievements, the judging panel commented: “Ōtautahi Creative Spaces Trust is doing fantastic work and is a leader in providing evidenced-based research on its outcomes and value. Built on a strong foundation of policies and partnerships, its programmes are innovative and responsive to the health and wellbeing of people in Christchurch.”
Founder and director Kim Morton knew about the value of creativity for people with mental health challenges. “We’ve always known that providing a creative outlet for people with poor mental health helps to grow self-worth and self-esteem, and leads to new connections and friendships.
“I have experienced places like Vincents Art Workshop and King Street Artworks, and learned so much there about the impact of this kind of work.”
That was Ōtautahi Creative Spaces’ inspiration to develop Room 5 at the Phillipstown Community Hub, a special place where artists can enjoy a safe, well-resourced and inclusive space to create. Now, close to 70 artists attend Room 5, usually working in groups of ten supported by two tutors.
Other Christchurch people are on a waiting list, an indication that the trust needs to find new resources to grow beyond its current capacity.
The psychological and emotional impact of the earthquakes has been felt across all parts of the Christchurch community, Kim explains. “It is undiscriminating in its reach. There are layers of distress, which are quite complex and affect people in all aspects of their lives. Many health workers refer people to us who are desperate for a creative outlet and a way of connecting with others. They feel we can help.”
Moving from isolation
The interactions that artists have with others struggling to cope with similar or different challenges offer a chance to move out of isolation and develop their social skills. One artist, John, says: “So now I’ve got actual friends who are artists that come here. There’s one lady whom I go and visit … It’s been a big change.”
The artists are also supported by skilled art tutors, who encourage and challenge them to develop their skills and knowledge. Of that process Julie comments: “I thrive on being pushed, as long as I am pushed in the right direction, of course.”
Many of the artists are displaying their work in Room 5 exhibitions, opening themselves up to vulnerability and risk. But exhibiting and selling their artworks provides them with a renewed self-image and confidence. Terry says of the experience: “When I sold the art, I was like floating on cloud nine for weeks.”
In 2017, Ōtautahi Creative Spaces commissioned an external evaluation from Ihi Research with funding from New Zealand Red Cross. Findings from the evaluation were very positive, noting the “profound impact the programme had on participant wellbeing and general health”.
It made clear that initiatives like Ōtautahi Creative Spaces help individuals live longer and better lives, address the challenges of loneliness and mental health, and save money in health and social care.
Kim is hopeful the research and the work of the Mental Health Inquiry being undertaken by the Government will lead to “equitable and sustainable” funding and support for the work of creative spaces across the country.
About receiving the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award 2018, Kim says: “This means the world to us. It's a really moving recognition of what we are doing and of our experience in Christchurch. It’s joyful work but a struggle too, so it's powerful that Arts Access Aotearoa has recognised all of us – our artists, our team, the board and supporters.”
A psychologist from an early intervention service supporting young people says: “The enthusiasm and confidence that we saw grow in our young people attending Room 5 was wonderful … due to … the incredible artists who support the groups – talented, inspiring, patient and compassionate.”