“I am here as an artist,” Brian Nichols emphatically states through his mask, while stopping mid-pace, on both feet, as if to punctuate his statement. “I’m here as a volunteer.”
With a nod, the artist, volunteer, and psychotherapist springs back into action, energetically fluttering about the studio once more.
It’s the first day the drop-in open studio at One City Peterborough has reopened since the most recent provincial-wide lockdown, and the energy in the room is palpable.
The new studio space at One City Peterborough, which first opened in October 2020, is buzzing with excited artistic experimentation. Located at 541 Water Street in Peterborough, the studio is open on a drop-in basis to community members between 2:30 and 4 p.m. every Monday afternoon.
Light pours through the large windows onto colourful works of art displayed on the mantle, tables, and walls. That foreboding sense of dread we’ve all grown so accustomed to can’t help but give way to pure joy inside the small studio.
Were it not for the masked participants partaking in the occasional six-foot-shuffle — that awkward physical-distance dance we’ve all shared with unwitting partners over the past year — one could almost forget, if only for a fleeting moment, that we are living in times of crisis.
This is not a typical art class. There is no teacher standing at the front of the room imparting their knowledge onto passive recipients. Rather, it’s a non-hierarchical environment where the small group can safely gather to actively make art together, and learn about themselves in the process.
“It feels even more important during COVID,” says Tammy Kuehne, warming room coordinator for One City Peterborough, which is focused on housing, food security, community safety, and inclusion. The organization is an amalgamation of Warming Room Community Ministries and Peterborough Reintegration Services.
“The need for spaces where people can connect with each other in person, still being safe, is crucial,” Kuehne adds. “We’ve had a lot of people really excited to learn that we’re opening back up.”
Now more than ever we all need community self-expression and creativity, but for those who have faced marginalization and alienation — mental health challenges, homelessness, illness, disability, and poverty — community art making represents a vital lifeline during the isolating conditions of the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, both Nichols and fellow local artist John Marris have been hard at work finding ways to deliver the community arts programming they facilitate, respectively, with various not-for-profits.
Prior to the most recent lockdown, Nichols had been facilitating the open studio at One City Peterborough for Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA) — a restorative justice program — since October.
Throughout most of the winter lockdown, Marris has been offering art-making sessions for young residents in a bubbled household at YES Shelter for Youth and Families. He also managed to offer outdoor art-making sessions with YES in the summertime.
In January, Marris and local artist Wendy Trusler moved online the community art making workshops they had been running with mental health patients at Peterborugh Regional Health Centre so they could safely continue their important work.
This past fall, Marris and Nichols were also able to continue the ‘You Can Make It Art’ workshops at The Mount Community Centre, though only for residents of the centre. Previously, the workshops had been available on a drop-in basis to the broader Peterborough community, after Nichols launched the program in 2018.
Marris and Nichols have made it their mission to provide those facing marginalization with something the artists believe to be as vital as food, shelter, water, and air.
Art is neither a luxury nor a pursuit reserved only for the cult of the expert. Self-expression is an integral part of being human.
“These community art projects take us back to the fundamental need to express ourselves and explore ourselves in healthy and productive ways,” Marris writes for a presentation he recently delivered before the Arts, Culture Heritage Advisory Committee for The City of Peterborough.
“They help us develop skills and confidence and self-belief. They teach us how to be present, to find focus, and to know we have the right to express ourselves — to be the authors of our world.”
For both Nichols and Marris the impetus to create, and to encourage others to do so, is anchored in the two artists’ introspective and philosophical investigations of presence, respectively.
“I need to find things that take me into that moment of presence,” explains Marris during a telephone interview. “What I’ve discovered is that making art, working with play, and making art with other people has become this way to be absolutely present in the moment.”
As for Nichols, his background in psychotherapy certainly contributes to his approach to community art-making. Most participants with whom he works have experienced grief or trauma in some form. However, his process is also born from a place of vulnerability and empathy from his own experiences.
In 2018, after a diagnosis of giant cell arteritis (a rare autoimmune disease) forced Nichols to leave his psychotherapy practice, he felt a sense of urgency to make art and to encourage community art-making. Since then, his artistic output has been as prolific as his community art-making initiatives.
“It’s been an incredible journey to figure out how to do the work,” Nicols says. “And it’s really subtle and easy, but difficult to grasp, how it’s not teaching, how it’s not simply making art — it’s about connection.”
“What is present is a new pain and the absence, for me, is often hope and a sense of future,” he replies when asked how presence and absence figure into his process. “To help others embrace the new pain, without trying to minimize it — we’re not just the pain but that’s hugely a part of our existence — without moving to hope and without any sense of future. What we have is now — being in the now — which is that sense of presence.”
Art making is, in many ways, world making. There exists an essential connection between the real and the imagined. An artist’s created world is necessarily separate from, yet connected to, the world in which we live.
“I think living is that whole process of world making,” Nichols acknowledges. “To live authentically is to create both your own interior and exterior world.”
Through art, Marris and Nichols offer people not only the opportunity to be the creators of their own worlds, but also to create an inclusive and even emancipatory community of art makers, connected by their shared presence in the present.
As such, their practices — art making, world making, and the gift of presence — transform the One City Peterborough studio into a sanctuary for all.
To support the important work Nichols and Marris are doing in the Peterborough community, you can make a donation to One City Peterborough at www.onecityptbo.ca/donate or to YES Shelter for Youth and Families at yesshelter.ca/help/help-yes/donate.
Atelier Ludmila Gallery, in the Commerce Building at 129-1/2 Hunter Street West in downtown Peterborough, will be exhibiting Marris’ most recent body of work, Material Dialogue. The show opens on the First Friday Art Crawl on March 5th from 6 to 10 p.m. It will be exhibited until Sunday, March 28th. Fifty per cent of all sales from the show will be donated to YES Shelter for Youth and Families.