The healing power of art

“Art is a vocabulary that everyone can understand”



The styrofoam plates covered with blobs of bright primary-coloured paint, the cups of murky water for cleaning the brushes and a table ringed with girls hunched over, painting intently, are familiar sights in Beth McKenty’s front room.

But on this day there is an unfamiliar face: visiting west coast artist Edward Epp.

In 1999, McKenty began inviting children into her house to paint after noticing a lot of children in her neighbourhood, down by the breakwater, who seemed to be wandering around without much to do.

Over the years many Iqaluit children have come through her door and spent mornings or afternoons trying their hand at painting as part of the Arctic Youth Art Initiative.

Word of McKenty’s work has made its way around the Arctic and onto the national airwaves when she was a guest on CBC’s Sounds Like Canada back in January of this year. Epp heard the program and, since he does similar work, wanted to meet McKenty.

Epp is an artist and a therapist from Prince Rupert, B.C. He works with members of the Tsimshian Nation in the community of Kitkatla, where he flies in once a week to offer counseling. He has also used art therapy when working with children as part of the Emily Carr outreach program.

“Art is what I have to offer,” said Epp last Monday morning, while sitting in McKenty’s front room at a table of nine girls, watching them paint and working on his own piece.

The girls were shy when receiving Epp’s compliments and preferred to giggle rather than discuss their paintings. But they were energetic and focused, and the table was covered with their work.

McKenty and Epp, both members of the Baha’i faith, met fortuitously at a convention in Toronto and began discussing their common work. They agreed that Epp would visit Iqaluit, see McKenty’s program, and meet the children.

“In aboriginal communities, as well as in Inuit communities, art is a vocabulary that everyone can understand,” said Epp. “Children don’t always have the language to express themselves. Art can be that dialogue.”

Epp and McKenty both hope to provide environments where children can be expressive and constructive. A difference Epp has noticed in the children’s paintings in Iqaluit, compared with the West Coast aboriginal children he works with, is the expression of the landscape.

“The stillness of the landscape, and the sense of scale and depth really comes through,” he said. “And of course they use representations from a completely different mythology.”

While visiting town Epp gave private lessons to a few of McKenty’s longtime attendees. He and McKenty also spent time sharing ideas and sharing notes.

“I like to invite other people because I like to keep opening up the world for the kids,” said McKenty in her kitchen as she dished up slabs of ice cream into nine small bowls as part of her assembly line sundae production. “He’s been here for a very short time, but it’s been wonderful.”

Although Epp was only able to spend four days in Iqaluit, he doesn’t doubt that the trip was worthwhile. “I don’t underestimate these brief meetings,” he said.

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