Alisdair MacRae

Art-making and the search for safe spaces

Blog post 8 – April 29, 2016 by Alisdair MacRae

Salvation Army Ottawa Booth Centre


This Monday 18 April was likely my last appearance at the Ottawa Booth Centre, at least for a couple of weeks. Jadzia Romaniec and Lee, also known as Chi Wey Lee, were facilitating an art therapy workshop for clients in substance abuse programs. James Jenkins was there to finish transferring his poem, “Conquering Hate”, onto canvas. Amongst the dozen or so faces, I also recognized Jason and Sean. I had met Sean a couple of weeks ago during one of the last evening workshops. He was relatively young, and had described not enjoying staying at the centre, preferring to stay outdoors as weather and safe spaces allowed. I can appreciate his stance, as he’d been attacked in his sleep once before by a very unstable roommate. However, the options were pretty harrowing, especially given the weather during the last few weeks of winter. Howard and Lee had tried convincing him it was better staying at the centre.

Since the Art Place placement started last December, I had met a wide variety of people from an assortment of backgrounds. Many of the clients at the centre were not from Ottawa. As it was explained to me, individuals often sought substance abuse treatment in unfamiliar locations as it allowed them to avoid connections and patterns associated with a given addiction. Relocating provided a fresh start. I had seen Howard successfully complete his five month treatment program at Ottawa Booth Centre, and as far as I know, he had returned to Kingston on 6 April. Others, like Sean, were just getting started. Fortunately there were mentors amongst those like James, who had established a stable lifestyle several years ago, and now actively participated in various sports groups. Both Sean and James played soccer in a team for homeless people, and it had even provided an opportunity to travel as far as Amsterdam. James enjoyed coaching, and didn’t hesitate to offer advice from his own missteps to those who were struggling with their circumstances.

With the completion of the workshops, I definitely felt a sense of sadness, as well as a slight loss of direction. I came to the afternoon workshop the previous week to meet Jadzia and deliver some shirts that were screenprinted with John’s artwork. Jason was there, and he was typically aloof, never asking much from anyone, and disappearing before anyone realizes it. However, as the workshop ended, he leaned over towards me, and asked very earnestly if I would be there that evening. I explained that there wouldn’t be an evening workshop, but I’d be back the next Monday afternoon. This week, he was excited to show me a drawing he had worked on, and asked if there was a way it could be framed with a purple mat. I agreed with his choice of colours and took a photo of the work for reference.

The placement at Ottawa Booth Centre had its challenges due to the shifting circumstances of the clients. However, even in the best case scenarios, the clients are meant to move on from the centre, having completed a substance abuse program or achieved some sense of stability. Howard was one such example of a success story, as was Lee, and he still actively volunteers each week with the art workshops and curates exhibitions of the clients’ work. My initial goal of being placed at the centre was to provide a space where people could develop projects that would offer tangible benefits. The opportunity certainly gave me a chance to consider the best possible use for funding where it is desperately needed. I really wanted to provide the chance for the workshop participants to access resources that were beyond their means. It was one thing for someone to create a drawing or painting. Having that work transferred to an article of clothing that could be worn offered a new level of pride and a glimpse of possibilities that weren’t previously considered.

Based on feedback from staff, workshop participants and others involved in the project, the grant allowed for the following, in addition to art supplies: 12 greeting cards, 24 embroidered toques, 6 screenprinted hoodies, 18 screenprinted t-shirts, 12 screenprinted long-sleeved shirts, 48 embroidered baseball hats, 6 embroidered jackets, and $95.00 in gift certificates to a local discount variety store. Four display cases for artwork will be installed at the centre, including three more artworks that do not fit in the display cases. No matter what was produced, or what opportunity was offered, the guiding principle was to instill a sense of dignity in the work, in the project, and amongst those that participated. Although that is a very subjective sensibility, I do believe it was present throughout the project, and may continue with future work.

Thanks for sharing / Merci d’avoir partagé!

About The Author / À propos de l’auteur

Alisdair Macrae

Alisdair Macrae

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.

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