For the past 25 years, Workman Arts has been working with people stigmatized by mental health, helping them find their strength and ability through the arts.
“They come in and they can get a good footing on being an artist,” said Lisa Brown, Workman Arts’s executive/artistic director. “We aren’t interested in what your diagnosis is, we aren’t interested in where you have been, it is only where you are now and where you want to go.”
Workman Arts is an arts and mental health company known internationally for its artistic collaborations, presentations, knowledge exchange, best practices and research in the area of how the arts impacts on the quality of life of people living with mental illness and addictions.
Brown was working as a nurse at the former Queen Street Mental Health Centre, now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, when she founded Workman Arts in 1987.
“I worked evening shifts and I gravitated to the people who were in treatment care,” Brown said. “We started doing drawings and jamming and poetry readings.”
According to Brown, those artistic pursuits became a regular Friday night event and lead to an event they called “Uncle Buddies Talent Hour”.
There were 13 performers, doing everything from Shakespearean soliloquy to ventriloquism, in front of an audience of 200.
“It was fantastic,” Brown said. “I felt it was such a good experience for these individuals and for the audience.”
They produced a play about being homeless during the holidays called Home for Christmas, which featured actors from outside of the hospital and clients.
Workman Arts incorporated as a company in 1991 with the goal of being an arts resource to the arts and mental health community, to provide support and training opportunities, to connect the company with other arts organizations and to provide public education through the arts.
“Those were our objectives in 1991 and they still hold true today,” Brown said. “They are just more developed.”
“After that it (Workman Arts) was sort of organic in its growth,” Brown said. “We started creating more plays and, in 1993, we started the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival,” the world’s first and longest running film festival showcasing films that address issues of mental health and/or addiction.
From the beginning of the film festival, there was always the notion Workman Arts would air the films, but they would also host a discussion afterward.
“It was important that we had someone with lived experience, a mental health specialist and the filmmaker so that you would have all these different points of view,” Brown said. “It was an interesting way of looking at a piece of work and seeing the different sides of it as it related to mental illness.”
Visual artists wanted to start to hang their work in the theatre they used to occupy at CAMH and Workman Arts started running training programs.
Workman Arts now boasts 230 artists training and working in theatre, music, literary arts, visual arts and film.
“We have a multidisciplinary thrust in our work,” Brown said.
Workman Arts facilitates aspiring, emerging and established artists with mental illness and addiction issues to develop and refine their artforms through its arts training programs, public performance/exhibit opportunities and partnering with other arts organizations. As well, Workman Arts promotes a greater public understanding of mental illness and addiction through the creation, presentation and discussion of the artistic media.
All of the training programs are free and any money the artists make through the sale of their work goes to them.
Workman Arts operates out of St. Anne’s Parish Hall on Dufferin Street where they run most of the workshops and training programs.
“This is a temporary space for us,” Brown explained. “In the next five years we will be moving into what we are tentatively calling The Creative Arts Healing Centre at Queen and Shaw as part of the Centre for Innovation and Discovery.”
The space is slated to have a 450-seat theatre, storefront art gallery, artist studios, digital media studios and the Workman Arts offices.
Workman Arts do research on “art and madness”, Brown said and produce shows such as the fashion show, ‘Mad Couture’ and had a symposium at the AGO in April.
Programming in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Workman Arts has included a screening of William Kurelek’s The Maze. The screening, held in October, was held in conjunction with St. Anne’s Church on Gladstone Avenue’s 150th Anniversary celebrations.
Workman Arts also presented ‘Beneath the Surface’, a collection of artist projects screened on TTC subway platform screens throughout Toronto and ‘Being Scene’, the 12th Annual Juried Art Exhibition at the Gladstone Hotel.
The 20th annual Rendezvous with Madness (RWM) Film Festival opens Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. with the film Little Bird (Kauwboy) by Dutch director Boudewijn Koole. The festival runs until Nov. 17.
RWM explores these cinematic representations and hosts panel discussions after each screening. The films are the art, the discussion gives them perspective, Brown said.
For more on Workman Arts, visit www.workmanarts.com