When the Hamilton-based Arts For Health Community Trust ran weekly “Zui” (Zoom meetings) for its artists during the Covid-19 lockdown, the participants were much more interested in talking to each other than in talking to the staff – and that made programme manager Cass Hendry very happy.
“Everything we do is about relationship building so we really liked the fact that once they’d said ‘hi’ to us they just wanted to talk to each other,” she says. “One of our greatest strengths is that we help people connect, firstly with each other, with like-minded people, and then going out and starting to connect with the wider community.”
As well as running Zui, Arts For Health also responded to the lockdown by sending out art packs filled with materials such as paint, paper, pastels, pens and pencils to all its active clients – a total of 100 packs that were funded with support from the Ministry of Social Development.
Arts For Health’s commitment to providing an accessible creative space to those with limited access to make art was recognised in Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2020 on 13 October when it won the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award. The award carries a prize of $3000.
In their comments the judging panel said: “Arts For Health is an outstanding grassroots creative space, run largely by committed volunteers, and has had a huge impact over 30 years. The breadth of its reach and artforms is impressive as it touches the lives of people in its communities: students, hospital patients, senior citizens in rest homes – in fact, anyone who wants to use creativity as a means of empowerment and wellbeing.”
Set up in 1997, Arts For Health’s goal is to promote wellness through art. Everyone is welcome to use the organisation’s fully equipped art studio in central Hamilton, which is currently open three days a week. It costs $5 to get access to the studio and each session includes support from an art tutor for those who want it.
Many of those who use the studio are managing mental health issues, or have physical or intellectual disabilities or medical issues. But Cass says they operate an open-door policy and there are no entry criteria.
“Anyone can come. We don’t need to know the reasons why. It’s for people who want to be well and maintain their wellness. We have some people who come just because they’re lonely and that’s fine.”
Arts for Health also runs community outreach programmes such as art therapy programmes in schools and rest homes, as well as a weekly arts programme for older people in two rehabilitation wards at Waikato Hospital.
“It’s quite a shock to go into hospital when you’re older,” Cass says. “Our role is to provide a safe space where people can meet and talk to each other and engage in meaningful activity.”
For Cass, who is a trained art therapist, one of the biggest rewards of working for Arts For Health is seeing the huge changes that being involved in the creative arts can make. She says for the artists it’s a chance to build relationships, develop confidence and gain a sense of purpose.
“Some people are already really accomplished artists while others are just learning, but it doesn’t matter – it’s about inclusion and accessibility.”
In some cases, being involved with Art For Health can be transformational. Just one of many examples: one woman, when she first started going to the studio, sat on her own with her head down, drawing with only a pencil and paper and refusing to be photographed.
“Last week she let us take her photo. She looked straight at the camera, her artwork was lots and lots of different colours, and she was sitting in a big group with everyone else,” Cass says. “That was quite an achievement for her.”
Arts For Health does not receive any direct government funding, and as well as relying on the support of almost 100 volunteers, it also runs an active fundraising programme.
Among its fundraising activities is a yearly arts competition as well as a popular one-day event called Arts in the Park, which is held each year at Hamilton’s Norris Ward Park and provides an opportunity for local artists to display and sell their works.
“We’re also really awesome at sausage sizzles and quiz nights,” laughs Cass.