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“Recovery Happens in the Community”

The Willow Spring Artist Showcase

When you visit the most recent (the fourth, so far) exhibition of works by artists whom are part of the Willow Community Member Spring Showcase be mindful of the following. This event is just one aspect of an ongoing project, a continuing initiative within the Niagara communities (artistic, medical, mental health services and the many spaces where those intersect) that foregrounds the idea that “recovery happens in the community.”

One of the (many) reasons this exhibition is worth your time is that one of the agendas of the Willow is to destigmatize mental illness, but the manner in which that happens is multi directional, multi organizational, and in referencing “community” in the context of “recovery”, the Willow Community is authentic in bringing together many people from many places to facilitate this. In the excellent conversation I had with Shauna MacLeod (founder and director of the Willow Community, and a very deserving nominee in this year’s STC Art Awards category of Making A Difference) many ideas came up, and I’ll touch on several of them here. The Willow Community is an enterprise we’ll be covering more in future issues (#wearethesound has many contributors being positioned to explore these issues, and Emily Spanton joined in conversation with Shauna and I, earlier this month, and will be offering a more in depth profile soon).

The agenda of your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is to gently push you along to see these artists’ works, and to emphasis that they ARE artists in a space (Rodman) that is an important haven for many cultural producers and appreciators in Niagara. (An aside: when the horrid “consultations” were happening with Van Zon as – perhaps – an agent of Brock to divest the university of its responsibilities to RH, one evening was dominated by advocates and individuals from various communities who, sometimes formally, sometimes more grassroots, found RH an invaluable, and under appreciated space for groups that may not feel as “welcome” elsewhere. This idea of unavoidably “rigid” “institutional” spaces versus more “joyful” responsive ones came up several times, when MacLeod, Spanton and I talked.)

Opening on May 31st, at Rodman Hall (with a reception from 6 to 8 pm), the Spring Member Showcase is an event that’s open to everyone (perhaps you enjoyed Songs from the Willow Community during the last In The Soil, at NAC, which was also an open and inclusive happening). On display until June 24th, this is exhibitions highlight how, “[t]hrough a partnership with Rodman Hall Art Centre, Willow members attend workshops at the gallery facilitated by local artists, musicians, writers, and educators. These programs provide a safe space that inspires ability, creativity, empowerment, community, and healing.” (I must add that these are the words of Head Curator and Acting Director Marcie Bronson, from Rodman Hall, whose support of the Willow’s partnership with RH has been indispensable. This is unsurprising, if you’re familiar with her strong commitment to community, both in terms of exhibiting artists but also in engaging many people and groups to help illuminate that RHAC belongs to everyone.) The Willow Community is a “non-profit arts organization that provides free artistic training and exhibition opportunities to community members with lived experience of mental health and/or addictions”.

When Shauna and I spoke, several ideas of personal history and experience arose that are intrinsic to not just understanding and appreciating what the Willow Community is, but also how it originated. Even simple things, such as referring to members as “artists” or “member artists” is powerful, as it defies the usual “identification through diagnosis” which is a often the default position for how society – or the medical community, with a clinical model system – engages with people. Instead, a basic tenet of the Willow Community is “How do we support you as an artist in the community?

There’s a simplicity that is profound in MacLeod’s statement that “my recovery happened in the community and that is why the Willow exists.” The art workshops and drop-in classes happen with a minimal framework, where you’re not “told what you can or can’t do” in terms of creativity. Members are often referred from local community mental health and addictions programs so MacLeod frequently has to “cut down and equalize the language” upon meeting new members to facilitate the growth of the members as artists, and foster and nourish their creativity and art. MacLeod reiterated often that another base point of engagement is to make it clear to members that “I’m one of you, I’m here to support you.”

Another sentiment I want to share from our chat, that also acts as a teaser, is to keep an eye out for future projects, exhibitions and artistic ventures that the Willow member artists will be making happen in Niagara: MacLeod’s encapsulating of how there is “what we’ve been trying to do, what we’re currently doing and what we hope and will be doing.” This is also a good phrase to hold in mind, as you visit Rodman Hall and experience the artworks, as it speaks to not just how Willow serves a significant community in a new, authentic manner right now, but to consider the stories and experiences of people who are part of it, and engineers of it. In terms of what “will” be happening, some of the planned ventures will expand to even more community spaces (literally and philosophically). These include working with aspiring, emerging and established artists in ways that “farm” a cultural community, that continues to collaborate with spaces both cultural and community focused and helping to illustrate that these are symbiotic terms and sentiments that grow both communities and make them stronger. Recovery happens in the community.  

What can you expect to see at Rodman Hall? The words from their site: “[t]his exhibition will showcase works created by members this season, including a collaborative abstract painting installation, creative writing presentations, and performances from the forthcoming “Songs from the Willow” music release. Seasonal member showcases help to facilitate dialogue, reduce stigma, and celebrate the value of diverse voices in our artistic community.”

The Willow Community Member Spring Showcase runs until June 24th, at Rodman Hall Art Centre, on 109 St. Paul Crescent. #wearethesound will be talking more with / about Willow Community events and member artists in future issues. The image is courtesy The Willow Community, and is from one of the many workshops they offer (in this case wet felting, facilitated by artist Tammy Jane Lepp).

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Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta, Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.