Social Rehabilitation: When Art Changes Lives (Part I)

By holding a paintbrush, a camera or a pen, marginalized persons discover unsuspected strengths and passions. They rekindle their own self-confidence, not to mention their taste for dreaming dreams. In prison, on the street, in youth centres and at halfway houses, art can spark a new flame in people, getting them back on their feet.

By Anne-Frédérique Hébert-Dolbec

Finalité Finale, by artists Geneviève Fortin and Paul Litherland, presented at the Agir par l’imaginaire exhibit. Photo: Art Entr’Elles

In 2009, after serving time in prison, Geneviève Fortin spent some time at the Maison Thérèse-Casgrain Halfway House, Québec’s first halfway house for women, in the NDG neighborhood of Montréal.

Attracted by art and photography, she participated in weekly art workshops “to pass the time,” as she puts it.

Gifted with obvious creativity, Geneviève quickly attracted the attention of the course’s facilitators. They invited her to participate in Agir par l’imaginaire (acting through the imagination), an exhibit project organized by the Elizabeth Fry Society’s Quebec chapter. This project involved women “in conflict with the law,” as the Society puts it, and professional artists.

The goal? To give women a positive work experience, and to make the public reflect upon the inequalities and the criminalization caused by poverty. “I didn’t hesitate for a single second,” she reflects.

For over six months Geneviève participated in creative workshops as well as in multidisciplinary training. She imagined, refined and tweaked her photo project. She prepared to exhibit her works. Little by little she gained confidence, discovered her strengths and weaknesses, and, above all, managed to stay motivated.

“For the first time,” she says, “I understood that I was capable of finishing what I started. Before, my unusual life path had often led me to give up or fail. Beyond the pride of having succeeded, the project unleashed a process of reflection of everything I’m able to accomplish. And that drove me to take concrete steps, to build a life plan and go back to school.”

The counsellors and social workers who work in the community have no doubt as to art’s efficiency as a tool in the social rehabilitation process. The Elizabeth Fry Society has even established a work contract and payed project participants, in order to give them a true pre-employment experience.

“By putting their imagination, their life experiences and their critical thinking to good use, the women acquire new skills. They discover strengths within themselves they never suspected they had,” says Anne-Céline Genevois, a development officer at the Elizabeth Fry Society and the coordinator of the Art Entr’Elles Collective. “They learn to work as part of a team, under pressure. They also learn to exploit their leadership skills and resolve conflicts. Above all, the projects allow them to change how they look at themselves.”

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 29 no. 3, avril (April) 2021, pages 16 – 17.

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