Until recently, the only thing I found striking about the St. James United Church, aside from its Gothic grandeur, was the collection of “Ice Falling” warning signs that stay up year-round. There’s something comical about being cautioned about falling ice when you’re frolicking around in flip-flops. However, I’ve come to discover that the establishment’s exceptional qualities actually rest inside. When I first entered the seemingly empty church, I made my way through a maze of narrow and dimly-lit hallways and two flights of stairs, the creaking of old floors permeating the eerie silence, before I found what I’d come for: the St. James Drop-In Centre for the Needy.
One of the newer additions to the centre is the Creativity Program, started by Montreal artist Sandra Bailey in 1996. Bailey thought that there was a real need for self-expression through the creative arts among the centre’s members, all between the ages of 30 and 60. Over the years, the Creativity Program has expanded into poetry and music in an attempt to become a catch-all program. When I walked into the art room, I was overwhelmed by the rich colours throwing themselves at me. There were skillful paintings in various styles covering every inch of the walls, art books scattered on tables and in shelves, and a cabinet stuffed to the brim with art supplies. The inspiration surrounding me was intoxicating.
I got the chance to sit down with the coordinator of the art studio, Anne-Marie Beaulieu, and the director of the centre, Alain Spitzer, to ask some questions about the Creativity Program. They explained that the art room is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, and the projects pursued are mostly products of the members’ own initiative. The Creativity Program has been supporting exhibitions and community events since its creation. The artists, all members of the centre, are encouraged to sell their work and receive 50 per cent of the purchase price, while the other 50 per cent goes to the Creativity Program to purchase art supplies.
Nonetheless, while a lot of the members “have low-incomes or are on welfare, and making additional money is good for them,” Spitzer explains, “it’s not the purpose of the program.” “I’m not their art agent,” Beaulieu adds.
“In the centre are urban poor, people with mental health issues – basically people marginalized by society,” Spitzer continues. “As children, we dream; when we’re adults, we’re told not to. The people who succeed in life are the people who still have dreams,” he says. “The marginalized aren’t dreaming; they have no self-esteem; there is no creativity there. This program allows their creativity to come back and offers them a launching pad in all dimensions of life. We are offering a workshop that transfers outside the art studio into everyday life.”
Beaulieu believes that mental health problems are essentially “an energy of the mind and soul you don’t understand. Some of the drug and alcohol abusers here are so mixed up in their heads. But when they pick up the paint brush,” he adds, “their art is raw, and it’s so connected to the person.” The art room coordinator insists that when she promotes exhibitions, she wants society to know that these artists are people who are cared for and have the ability to be extremely creative. Spitzer expands: “We want to build community at the lowest level, share ideas and values, and we want the community to respect the people who are bringing the ideas.”
Check out the St. James web site to stay in the know about upcoming events and on how to make donations: stjamescentre.ca/home.html.