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Art for All

This interview appeared in our Summer 2017 Newsletter. We are re-posting it ahead of Visual Voices: Telling Our Stories Through Art, the YESS Youth Art Show and Sale, opening Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Earlier this year we put a call out for a new YESS Artist in Residence with support from the Edmonton Arts Council. Our Artist in Residence leads the Interactive Art Program at ARC. The art program is constantly evolving, but it’s always a favourite with our youth. The Interactive Art Program is proudly sponsored by Simons, who hold the power of art near and dear to their vision. “What resonates with us most at Simons is the ability to contribute in a way that taps into the creative positivity of the youth and help others see the potential,” says Yvonne Cowan, Director of Store Operations for Simons.

Local artist Allison Tunis was selected to be YESS’ new Artist-in-Residence in the spring. Allison is an Edmonton artist whose work in embroidery and mixed media primarily explores body positivity. She has a graduate degree in Art Therapy and has already worked extensively with youth from difficult realities.

We met with Allison as she began to set up shop at ARC to ask her a few questions.

Interview with Allison_01You already have experience with this demographic. What drew you to the artist in residence position at YESS?

 This position seemed like it was tailor-made for me. I do have quite a bit of experience working with this demographic – I’m trained as an Art Therapist from the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute, and did many of my practicum placements working with youth from difficult realities. When I moved back to Alberta, I worked at the Old Strathcona Youth Society for nearly two years, and participated on the Youth Connect committee and currently work for the Action Alliance for Youth Inclusion (AAYI) group (a local group of non-profit agencies working towards inclusion of high-risk youth) as an administrative assistant. This residency position is a perfect combination of working on my own artwork, and helping youth to use artistic expression in new ways.

 What are you hoping to accomplish with our youth through the Art Program?

 Through this program, I’m really hoping to introduce to the youth the ways that Art and Activism can be used as healing tools. This is the basis of my own work – raising awareness of feminist and body diversity issues, whilst working through some of my own history. The skills that I’ve learned as an artist, an art therapist, and an aspiring activist, are very useful in developing healthy coping mechanisms and methods of self-expression, and I think the youth would benefit from exploring different avenues for how art can contribute to their lives.

In your opinion, what is it about art that makes it such a powerful medium for therapy?

 The powerful aspect of art is that it can really be what you want it to be. You can use it as a diary, as a therapist, as a voice to raise awareness, as a form of meditation, and so on.  It allows for individuals to engage in a variety of different ways, whatever their comfort level and experience level is. As well, regardless of what most people think, artistic skill is not required for making art. It’s accessible to everyone. The benefits of art don’t just magically appear if you are able to produce realistic looking portraits, they are there if you are doing abstract expressionism, if you are finger painting, if you are embroidering, if you are colouring in colouring books. Art can be something different for each person, and it can be a very powerful way of expressing what’s inside when you are unable to put it into words.

Is there a particular project or art style that you’re most excited about sharing with our youth?Interview with Allison_02

 I’m really interested in sharing that art doesn’t have to be traditional “Art” media with the youth. I work mostly in embroidery, which is a traditional craft medium and not usually considered Fine Art. I’d like to show the youth that their skills and histories can be used to make unique art, whether it’s repurposing items they find out in the world, or beading techniques that they learned from their family. I’m also thrilled that there is a high chance that we will be creating a colouring book with the youth, which is something that I have done in the past and am happy to pass on to the youth.

Our youth have learned so much from Allison! Come see their work at Visual Voices: Telling Our Story Through Artthe YESS Youth Art Show and Sale. Opening night is Thursday, October 19, from 6:00PM-8:00PM and the showcase will be open October 20-21, 10AM-4PM, at our Armoury Resource Centre (10310 85 Ave)

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Meet Our Youth: J.L.’s Story

This piece was one of the most talked-about works at the Youth Art Show last year. Titled Yin and Yang, its graceful fish and pale colours invoke a sense of calm, and incredible artistic talent is clearly on display. Everything about it seems so effortless, but for its artist and former YESS youth, J.L, the journey to this tranquil place was a long one of perseverance, focus, and patience.

“In grade 10 I started to feel a lot of depression, so I stopped going to school,” says J.L. “My mom thought I was lazy… I was kicked out of my home.”

After staying at friends’ houses for a while, J.L. found her way to the YESS Nexus shelter. Without school or a stable place to stay during the day, J.L. fell in with a rough crowd. She had already been a cutter for most of her life, and her life became a spiral of cutting and drinking to cope with her depression and loneliness.

Through it all, J.L. still had a goal to continue her education and was admitted to Graham’s Place, one of our long-term residences. She completed her grade 11 coursework, but still struggled with addiction.

“All of the staff at YESS would always try to get me to make better choices. They would encourage me to work on my art and would try to suggest treatment and stuff like that. Even though I had a bed, I was always choosing to sleep in the River Valley… It can be super tough to make good choices.”

J.L. moved to our other residential program, Shanoa’s Place, in the west end to help empower her to break some of her negative cycles. She continued school through the Boyle Street Charter School and completed her high school diploma, but she knew she had more work to do before she could look to a brighter future.

“I started drinking again… Changes don’t happen overnight,” says J.L. “It was bad because I was drinking in residence. I kept falling off. I left the program.”

J.L. tried returning home, but the addiction and mental health issues among her family members made it difficult for J.L. to overcome her own obstacles.

“I knew I needed to put the effort in myself,” says J.L. “So I started staying at shelter again.”

J.L.’s struggle with addiction came to a terrifying head when she was on a binge one night and was badly beaten up. Her worst injury was her leg, which she tried to treat herself with a makeshift splint. She continued to walk on it for a day before seeing a doctor, and found out that her leg was actually broken. J.L. needed four surgeries where screws were put in her leg, followed by six months of physiotherapy and bedrest.

“This incident really sparked me to wake up and start taking care of my body,” says J.L. “Ever since then I haven’t touched drugs. Every time I think about it I feel my leg and I remember to take good care of my body.”

Once she had recovered physically, J.L. turned her sights back on her goals for her independence. She applied to the Housing First program for adults and to a post-secondary social work program—and she was accepted into both!

J.L. worked so hard on her goals for her education and a brighter future. What advice would she give to someone facing similar obstacles?

“I would say it takes a long time to learn what you know now and it takes a long time to unlearn it. I would say there are people you don’t even know who care about you. I would say that you matter. I would that who you surround yourself with makes all the difference, and that could mean you surround yourself with hardly anyone for a while, only with positive people you can find and connect with.”

J.L.’s future is so bright, and she has the drive and passion she needs to make it reality. Though her focus is forward, J.L. has many positive memories from her time at YESS.

“They helped me with every single thing. They were my support. They gave me the energy and the courage to make better choices. They encouraged me. At the time I thought all the things they wanted me to do were so small, but all those little choices were so good for me.”

Like her artistic skills, J.L.’s path to health and happiness took a lot of practice, focus, and bravery—one good decision after another. Her Yin and Yang fish prove that there is hard work beneath even the calmest surface.

Congratulations, J.L., on everything you’ve achieved so far. We know that the skills you’ve learned to become healthy and independent will serve you well in your goals and dreams for the future.

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