Taking creative steps to healing

  • May 4, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - Before he walked into 6 St. Joseph House a year-and-a-half ago, Dave Evans was no artist. “I was getting drunk on the side of the street,” is how he describes his typical day as an addicted and usually homeless man.
Now Evans’ days inside the four-storey brick house just off Yonge Street south of Bloor are spent drinking coffee, chatting with friends and painting landscapes.

“There’s no time to worry about the problems of my mind,” said Evans. “It keeps you grounded I guess.”

Six St. Joseph House is neither a government agency nor a church project. Founded five years ago by Toronto real estate investor David Walsh and a group of his business friends, supported by the Toronto Arts Council, Phoenix Community Works Foundation and Seeds of Hope Foundation, 6SJH describes itself as a place to “acknowledge the journey of life as an ongoing shared experience” and as “a creative resource centre.” Its mission is “awakening compassion in the creative city.” But behind the mottos and mission statements are the founders’ commitment to Christian meditation and art.

Walsh acknowledges that 6 St. Joseph House’s loose theory that art, music, poetry and related endeavours are a path to healing for the homeless, isolated and addicted has no scientific or professional basis.

“We don’t pretend to be counsellors or anybody else,” he said.

The house has just one full-time staff member, and its programs — including art workshops, poetry readings, musical events and a community meal on Tuesday afternoons — are run by more than 100 volunteers, including such Toronto artists as photographer Edward Gajdel, actor Nick Mancuso and recording artist Emer O’Driscoll.

The 6SJH board recognizes that art isn’t the only path to healing, and the organization has recently partnered with Our Homes Association to open a post-treatment home for up to eight alcoholic men at 682 Broadview Ave., south of the Danforth. Hospital-run treatment centres are sometimes called “spin dries” by people who have been through them more than once. After two or three weeks of detoxification and counselling, men are sometimes discharged without having a home to go to or a network of support for a different way of life. The supportive housing project at 682 Broadview tries to address the gap in the system after treatment centre care.

The idea for 6SJH came out of Walsh’s daily morning meditation group which follows the teaching of Benedictine spiritual writer Dom John Main. The focus on art just seemed to fit with Walsh’s own experience as an art collector and fan of artists.

Walsh’s friend Michael Kupka described how he spent 14 years sinking deeper and deeper into isolation working as a professional artist. Setting up a studio inside 6 St. Joseph House and now making his three-dimensional paintings and photographs along side the formerly homeless and addicted has rejuvenated Kupka’s art and outlook.

“Here you’re always sharing ideas,” he said.

{mosimage}Kupka recently helped organize a show for 12 6SJH artists at a downtown Starbucks at King and Yonge Streets. It’s not the first time the 6 St. Joseph House artists have arranged shows of so-called outsider art.

World-renowned Toronto photographer Gajdel is convinced 6SJH offers real hope to the homeless.

“The key thing was how they tap into the healing power of art,” he said.

Gajdel has been photographing the artists at 6SJH. It started as a one-time visiting artist appearance and has blossomed into a long-term project. In the fall Gajdel’s black-and-white portraits of 6SJH artists hung at Toronto Image Works.

“The kind of love and joy that I get reflected back from these subjects is extremely powerful,” he said.

As an artist, Gajdel has always sensed that art has healing power, and sees no reason that shouldn’t apply to the homeless and addicted.

“I know of (art’s) healing power through my own involvement in it for 25 years. I have seen it in my subjects over and over. I have an overwhelming history of its potency in my life,” Gajdel said.

Mario Paolella never thought of himself as an artist before he discovered how participating in the 6SJH workshops changed his outlook. Divorced, separated from his children, bipolar and addicted to cocaine, Paolella had no shortage of problems when he first came to 6SJH.

“My life had pretty well fallen apart,” he said.

The key was how being part of the community at 6SJH changed his focus.

“It got me out of myself,” he said. “It made me think of other people... When you get out of yourself, that’s when you heal.”

The key to many of the successes 6SJH has seen has been the ability of formerly addicted and homeless people to act as mentors for one another, said Walsh.

“These people are prepared to be leaders in the community,” he said. “People listen to them because they’ve walked the walk.”

Paolella is one of those leaders who has emerged from his own history of drug use and suicidal thinking to help run the place that once helped him.

As a volunteer, Xerox Canada executive Joe Bartolacci finds involvement in 6SJH a more satisfying response to the real pain he sees around him on downtown streets.

“We’re a society that’s used to paying the government to make the problem go away — so we don’t have to look at them,” Bartolacci complains.

Actually including himself in a community with the homeless and addicted simply feels like a more meaningful response than most of the worthy acts of charity on offer in the city, he said.

For Walsh, calling the people who come to 6SJH artists and not clients, paying attention to the dignity and uniqueness of each person, is the fruit of meditation.

“We take inspiration from Jesus,” he said. “Jesus had a vision that was gracious and compassionate to other people.”

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