The art studios helping people rebuild their lives through creativity

by Ruth Nichol / 21 August, 2017
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Room 5 artists Joleen Patterson, Kerry Gray, Narelle Kemp, Sue James and Carmen Brown. Photo/Janneth Gil

Pablos Art Studios and Room 5 are tapping in to the connection between creativity and well-being.

The growing evidence linking creativity to emotional well-being comes as no surprise to staff at Pablos Art Studios in Wellington. Since it was set up 24 years ago, the central-city studio, which provides free access to art materials and tutors, has helped transform the lives of thousands of people who have experienced mental ill health or social isolation.

For some of those people, working at Pablos – which recently won Arts Access Aotearoa’s creative space award for 2017 – has provided a springboard to a successful career as an artist. For others, such as Soraya Edwards, it’s provided a confidence-boosting opportunity to show and sell their work in the studio’s adjoining gallery, ROAR. Edwards started going to Pablos two years ago after reading about it online and now works there on a range of projects three times a week.

“It’s not just about access to materials,” she says. “It’s therapeutic. I like the fact that the environment is mindful of mental health. That’s really appealing to me.”

But for most of the 130 or so artists Pablos works with each year, it’s not so much about creating great – or even saleable – art. It’s more about building self-esteem and reconnecting with friends, family and the wider community.

“The creative process gives them a step-by-step way of growing their confidence,” says director Deidre Dahlberg. “As they’re learning skills, they learn resilience. When someone is drawing, they might be quite intimidated to start with. But then they make their first mark and after a while they realise they’ve created something.”

For some people, simply being at the studio is as important as the art they create.

Pablos Art Studios director Deidre Dahlberg.

“The isolation that comes with mental-health problems is one of the toughest parts of it. Coming in here then going home again can help keep people healthy.”

The routine of going to Pablos can also help people gain a sense of control over their lives.

“One woman told me that she started coming to Pablos to give her a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” says Dahlberg. “That got her back into doing that every day, then her confidence grew and eventually she was able to go back to work.”

Pablos was established in 1993 to help fill the gap created when mental-health institutions around the country closed down. Since then, a growing body of research has found that creativity is just as important for well-being as diet and exercise.

A recent University of Otago study, for example, found that regular creative activity can lead to an “upward spiral” of increased well-being. Other studies have found that drawing or painting can help people with dementia reconnect with the world, and improve resilience in older people.

Pablos’ full-time tutor, Menno Huibers, agrees that creativity deserves more attention than it gets. “We have a big emphasis on physical well-being through sports and other activities. I think creativity is just as important. The key is offering creative challenges that people can push through and come out with something tangible to give them confidence they can build on.”

Huibers says one of the biggest satisfactions of his job is seeing how creating art builds self-esteem. “People become happier, they engage with other people, they open up.”

Manager Kim Morton.

That’s also been the experience at Room 5, a community art studio run by Otautahi Creative Spaces in Christchurch. Set up two years ago to help people coping with mental-health issues following the Canterbury earthquakes, it is so popular it now has a waiting list.

As with Pablos, the goal is to give people the opportunity to be part of a creative community that helps build a sense of well-being and reduces social isolation.

“For some people, just coming along is a major achievement,” says manager Kim Morton. “But for others, we’ve seen huge changes, including taking up tertiary study, volunteering and stepping up to leadership roles.”

The studio recently held its first group exhibition, which resulted in several sales.

“Exhibiting work takes bravery,” says Morton. “It was wonderful to see Room 5 artists getting recognition and having their work celebrated. When people have the opportunity for creative expression, they can create amazing work and transform their lives.”

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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