Lis Rate-Smith and Geoff Howard at Art-East

"I do artwork instead of use drugs all day," says one of the participants at Christchurch creative space Art-East. Others say it was lifesaving, and helped them feel supported, understood and less alone.

Art-East was set up Lis Rate-Smith in 2014 to create a safe, supportive environment for people who have struggled or are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction issues, mental health issues, isolation, social stigma, institutionalisation, and homelessness.

A white fantail screenprinted on a black hoodie by the Navigate Initiative“I wanted to begin an arts-based programme because of a growing dissatisfaction with what is essentially a very medical model of alcohol and drug addiction treatment within mainstream services,” says Lis, who facilitates the Art-East programmes. “The focus is invariably around a person’s deficits and tends to have a narrow lens on what constitutes ‘wellness’. 

“I am a great believer in needing to replace any maladaptive behaviours with positive activities, behaviours and expression. For me, this can be achieved through the arts.”

Art-East is a multi-disciplinary art studio, incorporating drawing, painting, mosaics, stone-carving, papermaking, woodburning, printing and sculpture. There are regular field trips to local galleries and other attractions within the wider arts community, and local artists are invited to share their skills at the studio.

Feedback from participants

Some of the feedback from participants in this group includes:

  • "Art group makes me feel a part of something."
  • "Thank you for this group. It’s been more than I could have dreamed of and is helping me heaps daily."
  • "The most important things have been mixing as a group, sharing with others and being understood."
  • "Wish it could be two times a week!!"
  • "Nice to learn and share and help each other do better and get well."
  • "Support from and to others…new family!"
  • "I love the information and skills/strategies I’ve learnt along the way.  Sharing and listening in the group has been helpful. I love the art!!"

Lis established Art-East after doing a clinical placement at its umbrella organisation Drug-ARM (Awareness and Relief Movement) two years before that. Drug-ARM’s  mission statement is “bringing life, wellness and hope for people struggling as a result of drug and alcohol abuse”. They do this by providing education, counselling and support to individuals, their families, agencies, and the wider community.

Other programmes

As well as the onsite art group, Art-East also runs programmes offsite. One of these is a residential programme, He Waka Tapu Mauri Ora.

A red kea screenprinted on a black hoodie by the Navigate InitiativeThe other is a screen-printing studio in Christchurch Men’s Prison’s community reintegration unit, the Navigate Initiative. The men in the unit are involved in all aspects of the process, from design to production. The tee-shirts and hoodies that are produced are gifted to their whānau. This programme is funded and supported by the Pathway Trust.

Lis is planning to turn the screen-printing studio into a social enterprise in the community, giving some of the men something to be involved with when they are released from prison.

“The feedback we’ve received from our clients as to the value and significant difference it makes to their wellness and reintegration journey is overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “Many speak of the opportunity the art programme has given them to express and process their situations and experiences safely.

Fostering connections

“Positive social connection, community engagement and the ability to foster ‘normal and healthy’ interactions are all things we have come to observe and appreciate in our collaborative work with the Navigate Initiative.”

Lis says it is “an absolute privilege” to be part of Art-East members’ journeys. “Our purpose is to help people connect with community through the arts.”

Art-East’s art group currently meets on Friday mornings, and the studio is also open by appointment. Lis says she would love to have it open full-time so participants can come several times a week if they want to.

Art-East is a self-referral service, and meets on Fridays between 11am and 2pm at City East Church, 118 Shortland Street, Aranui. For more information about Art-East, and to enrol, visit its website.

Art-East programme “lifesaving”


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