Blog post 7 – March 7, 2016 by Alisdair MacRae
The last day of February would be the 13th workshop since starting the Art Place d’art project at the Ottawa Booth Centre. Some things had changed, while others had remained the same. The weather was milder, and the evenings were brighter. Melissa, the chaplain I had started the project with, was off on maternity leave. A person named Rick was filling in for her. As I approached the centre, I walked past a metal container about the size of a small refrigerator. It was a drop box for used needles, but somehow I hadn’t noticed it until now. The sidewalk was typically crowded near the entrance, with people smoking cigarettes or otherwise socializing. Just inside, a man was slumped on a circular container. He was unconscious from drinking too much, and several people were trying to rouse him as an ambulance arrived. Some of the clients made remarks about the ambulance type, indicating their familiarity with such events.
As usual, Lee was already inside the Chapel setting up tables, chairs and the art supplies for the workshop. I knocked on one of the small windows in the doors, and he approached to let me in. The previous week was very busy, with a lot of new people that I hadn’t seen before. Only some of the regulars were there, or only made brief appearances. However, it was always encouraging when making new contacts, that word of the workshops had spread. The front desk staff had asked us to put a sign on the door indicating that people needed to be working on art in order to get a free cup of coffee or tea. When the sign first went up, there was a noticeable drop in attendance. But, people’s curiosity or boredom seemed to win out, in spite of the distractions that they could find elsewhere. Of course, there were also the clients who were pre-disposed to making art, whether it was painting, drawing, or writing.
Some of the workshop participants used the time to make something they would later share in their group counselling sessions. As Howard had mentioned, he appreciated the workshops as a time when people didn’t have to think about their circumstances, whether that involved living in the shelter, or trying to stay sober. When announcing the workshop in the common area or on the fourth floor, I became aware of how little privacy people had. The rooms were shared, and a person’s living circumstances could change dramatically depending on who could be your roommate each night. I overheard one of the clients describing to the front desk staff how he had to move due to bed bugs. I was sympathetic, having almost been driven from my apartment by them last fall.
Unlike the previous week, there were few attendees during the workshop. Lee had explained on previous occasions that the end of the month meant people had likely received social assistance cheques, and wanted to party. People could also be away due to health reasons, or had simply moved on. Some of the workshop participants actually came from other shelters, but they were clients at the Ottawa Booth Centre in the past. It was encouraging to see people actively involved in changing their lifestyles with such acute awareness. I could think of many instances where I avoided or hid from events that I thought would somehow interrupt or alter my routine. Sometimes it was just a question of vanity, of avoiding new experiences so as not to look foolish. I suppose some of the clients had reached a point where they had few options left, and appearing foolish was not such a priority.
Towards the end of the evening, one of the past workshop participants came in. He had lost his position in the treatment program, and was at a different shelter. He was dismayed about his experience, describing how he had really just wanted someone to talk to. Unfortunately, no one was available, or willing to listen, so he had relapsed. Although his behavior in the workshops was sometimes disruptive, his options had been further diminished, so I told him he was always welcome. If he showed up in the future, it could only be seen as positive.
Alisdair MacRae received a BFA from the University of Victoria in 1998, an MFA from Bard College in 2002, and completed a graduate thesis in Art History at Carleton University in 2012. MacRae uses plans to examine community and exchange, experienced through a do-it-yourself approach that enables social interactions.