Building Community and Breaking Barriers Through Art

During the past four months, five local artists brought their talents into our Drop-in Centre, and led our community members through a variety of creative art workshops. With the help of our steadfast volunteers and practicum students, these generous artists-in-residence provided an opportunity for participants to express themselves through both new and familiar mediums. This endeavour, made possible through the generousity of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, left a lasting and positive impression on everyone involved.

In October, participants used paint-pouring techniques reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Artists poured, dripped, and stained un-primed canvases that had been placed on the floor. They were invited to “feel” their compositions as they layered the colours together.

The following month, participants were invited to try silk-screen printing; the art of creating multiples. For some of the “students”, the repetitive nature of this medium was therapeutic and calming.

With December came Relief Printing. This involved carving images into Styrofoam or Lino then transferring the images onto paper or fabric.

In January, participants enjoyed embroidery on Wednesdays. The needle work was popular with all — older and younger, men and women! On Saturdays they discovered the art of making traditional Indigenous rattles and fans, eager to learn about their ceremonial significance.

Over the months, a genuine camaraderie developed among those who took part. This was made evident through the increasing number of positive and encouraging comments about one another’s pieces. One artist noted:

“There was no segregation when it came to level of skill and ability. Everyone was welcome and that atmosphere was established”

— Artist from the Creative Arts Program

Bissell Centre believes that working alongside one another builds community, breaks down barriers, and fosters inclusion and respect. This Creative Art Program reinforced this belief.

Most of the community members who attended the workshops donated their work to Bissell Centre. Most do not have a place to call home, and no place to showcase it. If you would like to see more of their work, some of it can be seen in our reception area. We hope to display more soon. It is an honour to share their art created here at Bissell.

Thank you to the artists who shared their time and talents with our community: Debra Rusler, Leanne Olson, Brittney Roy, Devon Beggs, Carolyn Wagner    

We also want to express our utmost gratitude to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for making this project a reality!

Creativity knows no bounds, but arts supplies and equipment are frequently too expensive for people living in poverty. It was a delight to bring paint, brushes, textiles, a printing press, and more into the Drop-in! Our community members truly appreciated the opportunity!

When you support Bissell Centre, you support families. (Infographic)

Because of you, our supporters, we’re able to provide families with the resources and practical support they need to raise healthy, happy children. Thank you, and happy Family Day!

An introduction from Gary St. Amand, Bissell Centre’s interim CEO

When I look back over the long history that Bissell Centre has in supporting vulnerable citizens in the City of Edmonton, I am honoured and grateful for the opportunity to stand together with many, many other leaders, staff members, donors, and volunteers who have contributed to making a difference in their community and changing lives for over a century.

Over the past three years, I have had the great privilege of working closely with our former CEO Mark Holmgren. Bissell Centre experienced tremendous growth during Mark’s time with us and I am thankful for the opportunity that I had to learn from Mark and be part of the innovative initiatives that he led us through during his time with us.

As one person commented to me, those are big shoes to fill – figuratively and literally!

Humour aside, this is a true statement but I am able to move forward with confidence not only because of my own leadership experience and successes, but fundamentally and more importantly, because we have an incredibly talented team of staff and volunteers who are passionate about ending poverty in our community. It is they who truly make Bissell Centre the amazing organization that it is.

Who I Am

I came to Bissell Centre having worked for most of my career in non-profit agencies that were committed to supporting families and individuals realize their hopes and aspirations. Over those many years in leadership roles, I began to form and understand which values were important to me personally and professionally. As I learned more about Bissell Centre, it did not take me long to realize that my core values were closely aligned with the organization’s.

Respect, diversity, inclusion, integrity, compassion – these are the things that define what an organization is, rather than what it does. At Bissell Centre, it became clear to me that these values are not simply words on a webpage; they are characteristics that we seek to live out on a daily basis regardless of our role.

Personally, I am as concerned about who I am, and not just with what I do. To put it differently, who we are on the journey is as important as the end we are moving towards. As a father of three, I am reminded of the importance of this daily, as my children pick up my values (and at times my bad habits!), from seeing how I approach life on a day to day basis. Staying true to our values can be hard work, but in the end, the effort is worth it.

The Harsh Reality

As I think of my own children, I cannot help but reflect on the many children who are faced daily with the harsh realities of poverty here in Edmonton. I still find myself shocked at the significant numbers of families and children who find themselves lacking their fundamental needs. Consider this quote from End Poverty Edmonton:

“The most recent data from 2012 finds that one in eight Edmontonians experience poverty as a daily reality. The younger you are, the more likely you are to live in poverty. Just under one in five Edmonton children under 18 years of age live in a poor family. Just over one in three children living in a lone-parent family lives in poverty. ”

— End Poverty Edmonton

This was data from 2012, before the recent slide of oil prices and the resulting economic challenges for many in our community. I am afraid to think of what those numbers would be today!

This sobering reality presents a significant challenge to all of us.  But it also provides an opportunity. It is in this moment, perhaps more than any other, that we need to join together and come alongside our neighbours, our friends, and family members to join in the long history of those who have taken action to make a difference and bring hope of a brighter future.

This is why I am working with our team here at Bissell Centre to expand the services that we provide to families and children. It is why we are seeking to expand our Community Bridge Program, which helps prevent evictions for families and individuals.

Our Bold Vision

A number of years ago, Bissell Centre adopted a bold new vision, the elimination of poverty in our community. This was at a time when conversations were focused on the reduction or management of poverty. The idea of ending poverty seemed ludicrous to some – the problem was too big, too complex. Some have said it cannot be done. But this also what many told the Wright Brothers about building an airplane.

To believe that poverty is a foregone conclusion is to give up on what might be and preclude us from taking concrete actions that might actually bring the seemingly impossible closer to reality. How many iterations of the filament did Edison have to attempt before he was successful at creating an effective working lightbulb? Where would we be today if he hadn’t been driven by a deep belief that creating an electrical light was in fact possible? Doing something great is never easy. By definition, a great accomplishment is only great because it was so difficult.

“I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. ”

— Thomas Edison

In order for us to make the impossible possible, we need to begin with the belief that we can make a difference, we can succeed, and then we need to take concrete steps towards that end. Whether they are big or small, all of those steps joined together begin to form a movement, a wave of support and engagement that can change the tide and make the impossible possible.

Walk with us.

We want to hear from you! Join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Gary St. Amand
Interim CEO – Bissell Centre