For many years now, Portage has made art workshops available to the residents of its rehabilitation centres. The workshops promote creative freedom in a non-judgmental environment. I recently met with Catherine, who teaches art at the MICA Centre, to discuss their impact.

A pause in the therapeutic process

Portage’s Mentally Ill Chemical Abusers (MICA) program is specifically geared to people who struggle with both substance abuse and mental disorders.  Residents of the MICA Centre, which is now open to women, often have a history of social exclusion and stigmatization, and the road to recovery can be long and full of pitfalls. According to Catherine, who teaches art at the MICA Centre, art therapy is a welcome pause in their journey.

Catherine has been conducting art workshops at Portage for six years now. I met with her recently to discuss their impact on residents.

“Art has always been a part of my life and a source of personal balance,” explains Catherine. “I studied visual arts, followed by psychology and psychosocial intervention, which I feel are all interrelated. I initially came to Portage to do an internship and never left.”

At Portage, residents are encouraged to identify the feelings and behaviours that trigger substance use. As a group, they explore and help each over overcome these feelings. According to Catherine, the weekly two-hour creative workshops allow residents to unwind and express themselves, and they are just as important as sports or reading: “I start with a round table discussion so that everyone has a chance to talk about how they’re doing (feelings, energy level). Sometimes the workshop is very structured, sometimes I just give the residents the tools they need to start creating. I put on some music to set a relaxing atmosphere that’s conducive to creativity. Music is a great ally! At the end of the workshop, we have another round table discussion to talk about the participants’ artwork and how they’re feeling. An addictions counsellor is always present at the workshops and joins in the activity, which I think helps strengthen the bond between residents and staff.”

Empowerment through creation

Talking about her goal for the art classes, Catherine explains that “there is a positive therapeutic intent to the workshops. MICA residents are extremely creative and truly value self-expression. I think it’s because many of them have been marginalized by society because of their substance use or mental health problems. I pay special attention to marginalized people because ‘artists‘ always fall somewhat outside the norm. I like that about the MICA Centre.”

The workshops seem to help residents express themselves through their artwork and feel valued. Self-esteem is one of the cornerstones of the therapeutic journey at Portage and art teacher Catherine has no doubt about the beneficial impact of the workshops: “I think working with materials, working with one’s hands is therapeutic. It’s empowering to create something!”

Projects aplenty

Catherine proudly showed me the treasure trove of artwork created by her residents when I visited her workshop. Portraits, still lifes and abstract paintings are displayed in the art therapy room and a large cloth-covered table bears the traces of many hours of work. Everything in the room is geared to creating an environment that is safe and conducive to creating. “Inclusive and performance-free are my watchwords!”, says Catherine.

There is no lack of projects at the MICA centre. Huge Jackson Pollock-style paintings and plaster sculptures enhance the space. Whenever an event is planned, the art teacher enlists the help of her students to work on a special project. For Metamorphosis Day this year, they created an installation artwork evoking a butterfly’s development from the chrysalid state to the moment it takes flight. Former residents’ artistic creations constellate the floor of the centre like so many steps along a path, and slowly morph into an illustration of a colourful butterfly. The creations that were pooled together to make up the art installation remind us that each person who comes to Portage brings something to the community of residents.

Thomas Benilan

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