‘Diamond’ Doug Keith stands in front of a painting he created of a cowboy riding a horse in a vibrant green field under a bright yellow sky. He points to a small square in the painting.
“That’s for nobody else but me, that is called my depression square,” says Keith. “It will go on all my western paintings that I do here, and from now on. It is a one-inch by one-inch square and what it says is that no matter how bright, beautiful, sunny and wonderful the painting is, the depression is always there.”
Keith is an artist with Artbeat Studio. The program, celebrating its tenth anniversary, supports people affected by mental illness by providing them with a workspace, artistic mentorship, and access to a supportive community.
The interior of Artbeat Studio is warm and welcoming. Colourful paintings created by the artists hang on white walls and the abundance of open space and natural light contribute to a collaborative atmosphere. Each artist has a workspace decorated with posters, photos or other inspirational items.
While Keith is working on a painting of a cowboy, other members of Artbeat Studio are expressing themselves through a variety of different types of art, such as creating clay sculptures, painting fantasy characters and even designing board games.
Keith is an artist, a poet, a horse trainer and lives with depression. He felt the need to seek help after a knee injury he sustained while training a horse forced him to give up his ranch and move to the city.
“It was devastating. I needed help dealing with it because I lost my whole identity in one fell swoop,” he says.
Keith describes Artbeat Studio as a creative community where resident artists exchange ideas and talk about mental health issues free of stigma. He says being a part of this supportive atmosphere has been a life-changing experience.
“The whole focus of this place is therapy through art, and to me that is absolutely incredible, and no matter what I am painting, it is therapeutic here,” Keith says.
Lucille Bart is the executive director of Artbeat Studio and the mother of Nigel Bart, the creator of the program and its studio facilitator.
In university, Nigel was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He realized the therapeutic potential of creativity while making pottery with Bart at her studio.
After going back to university and graduating with a degree in fine arts, Nigel Bart enlisted the help of his parents to create a program to support people like him. They selected a board of directors and raised the necessary funds, opening Artbeat Studio in 2005.
“We focus on the idea that creative expression is an invaluable alternative means of expression and communication. It engages the whole person. It’s a physical, emotional, spiritual and mental experience, so it is very helpful on that journey,” says Lucille Bart.
Violet ‘Vi’ Stoesz is a recreation coordinator at Victoria General Hospital, working at an inpatient unit. She connects patients who are well enough with Artbeat Studio and Studio Central, an urban arts centre managed by Artbeat Studio.
“I find Artbeat Studio gives a place to belong, and that is the ultimate purpose I think,” says Stoesz. “It is a community, there is nobody there to judge you, so that is really important.”
Keith says Lucille and Nigel Bart, along with the rest of the staff at Artbeat Studio, have done an amazing job creating an environment where people with mental health issues can heal through self-expression and creativity.
“I am going to come out with more than just a body of work,” Keith says. “I have developed as a person, as an artist, and with my mental illness.”
During its ten years of existence, Artbeat Studios has built a growing community of creative, supportive people who have been through the program. When his residency is finished, Keith plans on staying connected to this community and giving back to the program that has done so much for him, perhaps by teaching painting lessons.
In the meantime, Keith hopes people who see his paintings ask him about the small squares, and this encourages conversations about mental health. That way, the art Keith creates in the program can contribute to Artbeat Studio’s mission of promoting mental health and reducing the stigma around mental illness.