Local Calgarian artist, Dick Averns, presents a prototype framework and process to improve both personal and collective mental health through his latest public art project, Recognition…Validation…Reassurance…Art + Mental Wellness.
“I came up with the notion of Recognition…Validation…Reassurance, during a conversation with someone in a workplace environment that was not very supportive,” said Averns.
“This person said ‘so what do you think would be the answer?’ I was like, well I think we could all do with a bit more recognition, validation and reassurance.”
The title for the initiative glows bright in the Lightbox Studio at the Arts Commons. The sculpture “recognition….validation…reassurance” as a flashing neon artwork is like a beacon or a sign, said Averns.
Over the last couple of months, Averns and his team have been running workshops in various locations, such as Arts Commons, Alberta College of Art and Design, the University of Calgary, and Fresh Start Recovery Centre, with an open call to the community to participate.
Brandon Hearty, Averns assistant with the project, describes it as an effort to encourage people to talk about their own mental wellness and to engage in a public dialogue about mental illness.
“We leave things quite open for participants,” Hearty explained.
“They can talk about their own experiences, they can talk about other people’s experiences that they’ve witnessed by curiously. But ultimately, it’s about creating a public forum for that kind of dialogue to reduce the stigma around it.”
The workshops start with a presentation by Averns, discussing the topic of mental wellness and how it connects with art. From there, participants are encouraged to create pieces of art that represent their own approach to mental wellness.
“People can keep their artwork, or they can donate their artwork to the project,” Averns explained.
“I would say 95% to 99% of people left their artwork with the project for public display. I think that’s a real testament to people not being precious about their art and being willing to actually take their private thoughts and feelings and make them public in a way that other wise wouldn’t happen.”
Pieces that are donated to the project are displayed in pop-up shows around the community, while some will even be displayed on transit billboards and posters throughout the community.
Averns interest in the relationship between mental health and art came about ten years ago, after being diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome.
“I was born with Tourette’s. It manifested itself in childhood,” Averns said.
Throughout his childhood, Averns had a lot of unaddressed learning difficulties that created problems in school. He left school at the age of sixteen and ran away from home.
“It took a long time to get back to upgrading and getting into the workforce.”
“Once I was finally diagnosed and was able to receive medication. I kind of came full circle with the relationship of who I am and what I do, and making art about that.”
Averns currently teaches various art classes at the University of Calgary, including studio art, sculpture, public art, and art history and theory. Before his time at the University of Calgary, Averns also taught at the University of British Columbia and the Alberta College of Art and Design.
His journey in the arts began in the U.K., where he went to school and studied art before immigrating to Canada twenty years ago. From there, Averns attended grad school at the University of British Columbia.
“My art practice has been pretty vibrant from the get go,” Averns said.
“I was really starting to make work, a lot of it in the public domain, that engaged with the audience in off-topic social issues.”
Over a year ago, the City of Calgary opened a call to artists for a mentor workshop program in social practice, where one would collaborate with people in the community to create pieces of artwork that would reflect community interest.
Out of six artists who submitted proposals, Averns was ultimately chosen to put his idea into action with his project Recognition…Validation…Reassurance…Art + Mental Wellness.
Averns brought in Hearty to help him assist with the enormous project. Hearty first met Averns while completing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary. He had acted as a teaching assistant for Averns during his first year.
“I never took a class from Dick,” Hearty said.
“But he was one of the facility members that would make it out to shows and openings. So I kind of got to know him through that, and then we just sort of maintained communication and friendship.”
Hearty was excited to be involved in this project, since most of his own artwork during his masters and before already revolved around the theme of mental health and art.
“It seemed like a really natural jump for me to sort of get involved in the project and kind of facilitate that in mode of thought for other people too,” Hearty said.
Hearty described his role in the project as being a “cheerleader.”
“All I’m there to do is to root for people and tell them that they can do it. I help people get started,” Hearty explained.
“We have somebody in every group that before we’ve started will say the phrase ‘I’m not much of an artist’ and if one person is saying it, you know at least five people are thinking it.”
“People just need some encouragement, and that’s what I’m there to do.”
Behind the scenes Hearty helps Averns with supply runs, as well as any other type of assistance that may be needed.
Averns and Hearty also receive help from various mental health facilitators — such as social workers, therapists, nurses, and doctors — during the workshops.
Sonya Jukubec, a community mental health nurse and researcher, helped facilitate the workshop held at the University of Calgary and describes her role in the project as a “co-researcher.”
“There is still much to be learned and discovered about the process of art and creativity – and to hear from people about their experiences is an important place to begin – always,” Jukubec said.
“The workshops are highly contemplative and reflective. Imagine having the chance to pause to be inspired and refelect and create…It’s always a great experience for me personally too.”
Jukubec recalled a specific moment at the close of the workshop, in which everyone stands around a table that displays the artistic products that were created throughout the session.
“Images of inspiration and struggle both appeared and made me think,” said Jukubec.
“Participants talked about how the time to simply reflect and be moved to express themselves was calming. I heard people comment on how the time flew, and how they were in that state of “flow” that often escapes us in the tasks of work-a-day life.”
Shannon Mackinnon is another facilitator involved with the project. Her role in the workshops is to act as an adjunct mental health support; she ensures that people are in a well-supported environment.
“This project brings together my two career interests quite well,” Mackinnon said.
Mackinnon has her BFA in Drawing, as well as a BA in Psychology and a MSW in Clinical Social Work.
“I really enjoy being part of projects where people who are not formally trained artists are given the space, tools, permission, and support to create their expressive views; to be able to self-reflect as well as communicate ideas, feelings, and experiences to others.”
Mackinnon says that this project has the most concrete focus on mental wellness that she has seen to date.
“This project combines something I have been doing my entire life, art, with a social justice lens, putting resources and the power of expression in the hands of everyday people,” said Mackinnon.
Participants who donate their artwork even have a chance of having their pieces displayed in the public domain. Billboards, transit signs, bus overheads and posters of participants’ artwork will be going up around the city in the New Year. A panel made up of mental health facilitators and individuals from the Calgary Arts Development, as well as Averns himself, will choose which pieces of artwork will be put on public display.
On top of five pilot workshops, Averns and his team have done six workshops in different community centres so far. Averns says that the workshops have been going well in terms of reaching diverse audiences.
The turnout for the workshops vary, it can be anything between two to twenty people, says Averns. They find that the majority of the participants are female, since men aren’t always very open to addressing mental health.
“I’ve done a workshop for faculty and staff at the University of Calgary,” said Averns.
“I’ve received great support through the Department of Art and the Faculty of Arts to be able to undertake service work for community engagement in place of teaching.”
“The university is very committed to improving mental health.”
Averns has also done a workshop for students at the University of Calgary and the Alberta College of Art and Design. Due to a high-stress environment, there’s quite a lot of worrying stats about anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among students, says Averns, that is why he chose to collaborate with post-secondary institutions.
Other workshops have been done at the Arts Commons, in collaboration with SPARK Disability Arts Festival. A range of people attended these specific workshops due to a public call in the community.
Hearty says one of his favourite workshops thus far was at the Fresh Start Recovery Centre, an all-male addiction treatment centre in Calgary.
“All the participants were in a mode in which they’re used to talking about what’s going on inside a lot more because that’s apart of their recovery process and being apart of the program,” says Hearty.
“When this room filled with tough looking men started opening up way more than any other workshop for men, it was really cool to witness.”
“These guys were great. Some of the artwork that came out of it was just amazing.”
Averns and Hearty said that the feedback from the workshops have been overwhelmingly positive.
Hearty said that he has had many participants approach him after the workshops to thank them for the opportunity.
“Even if they didn’t create something they were proud of, just to have the chance to sit down and quietly think about things can be a rare opportunity that we don’t make time for because life can get busy,” Hearty explained.
“It’s just great that Dick had the idea to do this.”
Averns thanks all partnerships involved in this project, especially the City of Calgary, Arts Commons, SPARK Disability Arts Festival, Calgary Transit, Pattison Sign Group, the University of Calgary and Fresh Start Community Centre.
“I always highlight the fact that art is about self-expression and mental health revolves around self, and how does your self-expression go hand-in-hand with your mental health?” Dick explained.
“A lot of mental health is invisible, visual art is around making things visible.”
Work created in these workshops will be displayed at pop-up shows around the city, as well as at the Arts Commons in the Lightbox Studio.
More workshops may be provided in the New Year, for more information visit the Arts Commons website here.
The content of my multidisciplinary practice recalibrates the commodification of space: probing how spaces are valued, bought, sold, bartered, exchanged or fought over. Work is disseminated via sculpture, performance, installation, lens-based media, and writing on art and culture: invariably exploring socio-political themes and often as public art. In 2009 I was embedded with troops in the Middle East; the first time Canada has deployed a non-fiction writer as an official war artist. Additional thematic examples found in my work include environmental issues such as water and energy, and mental health.
In my teaching I work between both studio and art history, including entry level and intermediate studio courses in sculpture and drawing, and art history and humanities classes covering 20th century art history, performance and installation, and contemporary art and design. Senior classes include studio sculpture, drawing and critical studio practices, plus Canadian art history, and seminars in contemporary sculpture, and art theory. As a teaching philosophy I deploy a range of performative pedagogies and aim to ensure students have fun whilst learning.
Significant exhibitions include the national touring show Terms of Engagement: Averns, feldman-kiss, Stimson (Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Agnes Etherington Art Gallery, and Esker Foundation); the Brick + Mortar International Video Art Festival (curated by Denise Markonish, Mass MoCA); Revolver (University of Manitoba’s Gallery One One One); Ambivalence Blvd (multiple sites and solo show at Vernon Public Art Gallery); and Art & Activism (YYZ).
Notable published articles I have authored include “War + Peace: Monument and Counter-Monument” in the On Site Review, “War Art in the Face of The Project for The New American Century: A Postmodern Rake’s Progress” in Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, Convergence, and “In Deference of a New Diabolique” for the major international group exhibition and catalogue Diabolique.
My work has been exhibited, performed and presented in Canada, the US, Australia, the UK and the Middle East. Support has been received from a wide range of funders including the Canada Council for the Arts, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Calgary Arts Development and Calgary Allied Arts Foundation. I was born in England, have studied and Parsons and the Wimbledon School of Art, and received an MFA from UBC in 2003. From 2004-2015 I taught at the Alberta College of Art + Design and commenced teaching at the U of C in fall 2015. When not teaching, writing, or making art I like to run, cross-country ski, and grow food in my back yard.