Social Rehabilitation: When Art Changes Lives (Part II)

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

Geneviève doesn’t hesitate to admit that Agir par l’imaginaire changed her life. When the project came to an end in 2011, she was determined to share her knowledge and expertise so that others could experience the same sort of a revelation. That same year, she co-founded, with an ex-prisoner, the Art Entr’Elles Collective, a non-profit organization which aims to continue on with art projects at the Maison Thérèse-Casgrain Halfway House.  

Since then, eight other art projects have seen the light of day and been presented to the public. Among them is Donner une deuxième chance (give a second chance), a visual art exhibit based on the use of recycled materials. There’s also Dénombrement (counting), a video documentary installation that shows spectators the slowness of a day in a prison cell, as well as the anxiety-inducing return to the community.

“It’s really gratifying to share this work with the public,” says Sylvie Lanthier, a community artist who took part in Dénombrement, presented most notably at the Musée-Pop in Trois-Rivières. “It’s important to destigmatize incarceration, and to show that we are fully artists. Dénombrement really led me to recognize my strengths. You know, when we tell a child they’re good at drawing, they’ll dig in and continue. It’s the same thing for adults. The Art Entr’Elles Collective gives women the capacity to believe in themselves.”

Art also produces little miracles for another clientele: those with mental health problems.

The life of Raphaël Roy Dumont, 39, has been eventful. After a first psychotic episode in his late teenage years, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. The years that followed were difficult: homelessness, addiction, dark thoughts, relapses and suicide attempts marked his existence for 13 years.

Raphaël is doing much better these days. He lives in a halfway house in his home town of Bonaventure. He’s supported by counsellors who are helping him get back on his feet, plan his expenditures and control his impulses. This Gaspé resident is a lover of words and poetry. Before the pandemic he participated in writing workshops with Bilbo Cyr, a project officer at the Carrefour jeunesse-emploi Avignon-Bonaventure, a youth employment centre.

“Writing saved my life,” Raphaël says. “In my toughest times I wrote over 300 poems. They helped me keep the lamp lit, to find a bit of light in the very heart of the darkest days. They made me proud, too, because I feel as if my talent is recognized by my peers.”

Bilbo asked Raphaël to recount his own story, and to contribute to a poetry project on the diversity of experiences in mental health. “He sent me one text per day throughout the autumn,” Bilbo says. “I experienced what he was experiencing almost hour by hour. As a counsellor/social worker, it gave me a unique understanding of what he was going through.”

For this project officer, a poetry slam is an extraordinary tool to connect with young people, to gain access to their reality and their goals, and to get them interested in life. “When we give them a voice and promise not to censure them, we allow them to work through their emotions and to take control of their lives.”

People with mental health problems are often marginalized. Writing is a way for them to assert themselves; to define their identity; and to better express and claim a life story which is often a heavy burden to carry.   

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

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