It didn’t take long for visitors to realize there was a much deeper message behind the colourful images that adorned the display at one of the exhibits from the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth at Nocturne – Halifax’s art at night festival.

The theme of the exhibit was “Painting Peace,” and the walks of the presentation space were lined with canvases drawn and painted by new Canadian youth who participate in programming through the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs. The paintings ranged from a child playing soccer, a single flower, birds, and a sunset, words that had meaning or tied to the artists’ conception of peace. Many of the images were quite profound, and members of the public who viewed them often had visceral reactions to the display.

“I find some of them very moving because I think there’s a deeper meaning that’s coming off the canvas. And it gets me thinking about the experiences these artists have had with peace, or events in their lives that have made them value peace even more,” says Susan, an exhibit visitor who wasn’t aware yet that the images were created by new Canadians. “I think it’s a beautiful thing that after the experiences many of the young people would have had coming here that they’re still able to express something beautiful like peace in their own personal way.”

Susan added she had a particularly strong reaction to the image of the word Harmony, which was created by a YMCA volunteer.

“I like the artistic way he expressed the thought and the word and the way the image is rendered – it reminds me of Nocturne tonight and the theme of “Vanish”, with the word sort of emerging and vanishing depending on your perspective. It’s a powerful illustration of the fragility of harmony and peace.”

Tye, also a resident of Halifax, viewed the images with a limited understanding of who created them. As he read the quotes from the artists explaining why they chose their particular subject, he quickly gained a deeper appreciation for the concept of peace, and how important it must be for new Canadians who have not always lived in peaceful surroundings.

“I’m drawn to the painting of the sunset and it’s making me think about my perspective of how many quiet, beautiful moments in my life – like watching a sunset – that I’m able to take for granted. I can watch a sunset and not have to worry about the bigger picture because I’m not in a worn-torn county.

“I think given everything that’s going on in the world, discussions about peace are relevant, and the exhibit was a powerful way to communicate that message.”

Lorraine MacAskill, a longtime YMCA member and former volunteer with the YMCA Centre for Immigrant Programs, said she helped out at the exhibit because she believes strongly in the YMCA and its mandate. She says she found the display moving because she understands from volunteering with new Canadians in some cases how complicated their transition can be.

“I really feel the personal impact of the stories and experiences that people have been through and how they have expressed that through art,” she says. There’s happiness, but there’s also deeper meaning. Art is the medium that connects them and gives them a voice about what’s good and not good in their history, and it is an emotional experience.”

Safe Surroundings

The idea for the project stemmed from an art therapy session arranged by Bridget Ebsary, Communications Manager at the YMCA, who previously worked at Avalon Sexual Assault Centre. She reached out to her former coworker Trauma Therapist Allison Desjardins and with Registered Canadian Art Therapist Katie Hanczaryk, they brought the project to fruition. Katie and Allison facilitated the art therapy session and created a safe environment so the participants had the time and personal space required to process their individual concepts of what peace meant to them.

“Initially we entered into the group knowing that the topic of peace was a challenging one for young newcomers, and the safety of each group member was our top priority,” Katie explained. “The initial activity was a group drawing that used both the left and right hands at the same time, incorporating bi-lateral stimulation, which helped get creative juices flowing.”

Katie added that some participants were hesitant to start, but eventually everyone relaxed into their creative processes.

“We laughed, danced, ate, listened to music and had silent, safe spaces for each other,” she says. “Many participants chose to paint more than one canvas, which spoke to their level of involvement.”

Allison said as the session progressed, it was important that the participants understood there were no expectations for the final product, and that ideally the experience would help them be true to themselves and the emotions they were feeling.

“Channeling emotions into the art allowed them to express themselves in a safe and contained way,” she says. “For this group, art provided each person with a transitional object – a physical object that reminds people of the importance of certain people, memories and places – in their painting to take with them and remember the connections they made during the evening.”

The women said they are honoured to have been a part of the New Canadians’ art therapy session, and to have been given a chance to see the final products on display.

“It was powerful to be a part of Nocturne and hear from our community how each painting spoke to them and what they related to the most,” says Katie. “Some voiced that this display should have won an award, while others stood silently observing and mindfully reading each write-up of the artist. Others smiled and even allowed us to see their vulnerability through tears.”

“We are thankful to have been a part of this project and hope to be a part of future opportunities as well. We hope the artists were as proud of their creations as we were as facilitators,” Allison adds.