Tracy Xu is walking around Victoria these days with an additional item hidden in her bag, a small sketchbook. When she has a little time, she draws. When she wants to express what she feels, she draws.
“I’m still learning English, so sometimes I couldn’t say the correct words. So I can draw… because it can show my emotion, ”explains Xu, who moved to Victoria from Shanghai in 2013.
“I never draw before, I never paint, I have no experience. “
Xu started making art and was given this sketchbook as part of a foundation-run wellness program started by Canadian naturalist artist Robert Bateman. Created during the pandemic in response to isolation and depression, the initiative provides free therapeutic arts programming to the community. It offers organized group sessions, walk-in sessions at the Bateman Gallery in Victoria, and one-on-one private sessions on Zoom. This fall, Nature Sketch – Wellbeing won the BC Museums Association Audience Award.
“So many times people have come and at the end they said, ‘I feel so much better,’ says art therapist Kaitlin McManus, who runs the program.
While Bateman himself is not personally involved, the program stems from his work as an artist and his central philosophy: that being in nature is nourishing.
“If I were a missionary, this is what I would do – everyone would be spending time in nature. It has measurable benefits for your physiology and your mental health and everything, ”Bateman, 91, said in a recent interview in Salt Spring Island, BC, where he lives.
The pandemic offering arose out of the foundation’s Nature Sketch educational program, where participants go out into nature in groups led by an artist and a naturalist. They bring a pencil and a sketchbook and draw.
A 2021 research paper commissioned by the foundation found that most students said feel more focused after returning to class “after a Nature Sketch intervention”. And that time outdoors, engaging in sensory activities like this program, can decrease stress, anxiety, and depression.
“Research has shown that this is a unique combination; that it impacts different areas of the brain and the way mindfulness is promoted, ”says Peter Ord, executive director of the foundation. “And it comes down to what Bob has been saying for decades.”
The mental health benefits of Nature Sketch – Wellbeing are twofold: the ability to use art to examine and express your feelings, then simply the therapeutic act of making art.
“Drawing in this program is not producing an artist; it’s a way of forcing yourself to look and see and pay attention, ”says Bateman.
For this program, the foundation has partnered with many community groups, many of which represent more vulnerable sectors. The group Xu belonged to was organized by the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA). The women met on Monday morning at the Bateman Gallery in Victoria’s Inner Harbor.
It has been a lifeline during a period of isolation – a pandemic – for women in already isolated circumstances, living far from loved ones at home, in a new country, where even their ability to express themselves. can be difficult.
“English is such a difficult language to learn,” says Jennifer King, ICA program co-host. King herself immigrated to Canada from Taiwan in 1993. “I understand. Sometimes we have so much to share and we just can’t find the words. So using this medium, the drawing, we share what we are feeling.
On that horrific Monday in November, as it rained en masse and parts of the province were inundated and stretches of highways were destroyed by mudslides, King, who co-hosts the group with the art therapist , figured that day’s meeting might be a washout.
“And then they all came. In such horrible conditions. I was so touched. I thought, the participants must like it. There must be something there. In such horrible conditions to show up and draw, ”King said. (A member of the group was unable to do so that day.)
Svetlana Mir was one of the women who survived the pouring rain on Monday. For her, the program has been a huge connection source. “Because of COVID, I felt very isolated and very lonely,” says Mir, who moved to Victoria from Moscow in 2015.
“I missed being around people. It was really nice to see other immigrants… and it was really great to reconnect and just see how we find strength during this time and share a little art.
For an exercise, they drew a force tree: the participants traced the outline of their hands, then transformed the drawing of their hand into a tree. “So your fingers are the branches and your arm is the trunk of the tree and you can make it into any type of tree you want,” McManus explains. Then they would write things on the sheets that give them strength.
In another exercise, a large piece of paper was folded on both sides. Outside, the women were drawing a safe or special place. Open the flaps and inside they’ve drawn what this place makes them feel.
On Mir’s outer flaps, she drew a house overlooking a lake with ducks. And inside: a big smiling sun, radiating warmth and happiness.
“It’s the feeling of connection that the class helped find,” says Mir. “Maybe life is horrible. But there is always something good about us. We have a lot of love in us.
Mir and Xu’s Monday group is over, for now. But they both continue to make art. When they saw each other on Zoom during their interview with The Globe and Mail, they hardly recognized each other – as the women wore masks at all meetings.
“My dream after COVID, regardless of ‘after COVID’, is that we can have a big table in the center and mingle with each other and work on projects together and make it even more of a community building experience.” , explains McManus. “I can’t wait for this to be a big table. “
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