Public art project puts mental wellness on the mind of commuters - 660 CITYNEWS
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Public art project puts mental wellness on the mind of commuters

Last Updated Jul 23, 2018 at 5:10 am MDT

Dick Averns talks about his public art project, called Recognition...Validation...Reassurance, which features art pieces on a Calgary Transit bus and train. Wednesday, July 18th, 2018. (Tom Ross - 660NEWS)


That’s the title and the message from a public art project currently being shown on Calgary Transit and a couple of billboards around the city.

Until the end of August, five buses, a train, and several LRT platforms are outfitted with pieces of art that address an emerging theme in our society.

“We’re exploring the theme of mental wellness through visual art,” said the creator of the project, Dick Averns. “Mental wellness, mental health, mental illness sometimes people will refer to it as, I think is certainly reaching epidemic proportions. We know as many as 1 in 5 Canadians are going to have some kind of mental health episode within their lifetime.”

On board the Route 7 bus, Averns shows some of the 40 different pieces being featured on Transit until the end of August.

He brought in people from all walks of life to take part in workshops where they were allowed to create anything they wanted that detailed their experience with mental health.

“I think people really found that it was validating — like the project title suggests, validation can go a long way. For people to be able to feel supported and share their own stories when they otherwise might not be heard.”

The result: 139 participants who created 187 pieces of art. Along with being featured on transit and billboards, Averns has held several pop-up galleries to show them off.

The pieces are in several different mediums, but all are eye-catching. They address topics like addiction, depression and anxiety — while also containing empowering or inspiring messages.

Averns made a specific, but discrete, effort to not get professional artists as part of the project, to ensure the authenticity of the message. As a result, he learned several things.

“You definitely don’t have to be an artist to make art. Some of the works that are here by people that were very challenged at the outset of being in a workshop environment, but give them half an hour or an hour, give them some examples, let people play, give them some dinner, I think only one person or two people out of 139 left the workshops early,” said Averns.

He also noticed most participants were women, and they were more likely to be open about their experience. But there was one group of men that stood out, from an addiction recovery facility.

“Actually found that they were some of the most creative and open people. Maybe because they’re in a supportive residential environment, living at a treatment facility.”

That indicates some of the motivation behind the project. Averns hopes the images can reduce stigmas surrounding mental health, encourage more people to talk, and maybe get some people to become more forward about their experiences.

“A lot of people do see aspects of themselves within the work. So there may just be that bit of encouragement for someone that is struggling,” Averns added. “Mental health is about self-expression, this project with visual art makes one’s self-expression visible so the issue of mental health now can be seen and can be acknowledged, where previously perhaps it wasn’t.”

Most of the artists donated the work as well, and posted it anonymously. Averns himself has a couple of pieces in the project, under a pseudonym. By posting it in places usually occupied by advertisements, it can get commuters to think differently about the space around them and provides a different outlet for public art – which is sometimes maligned in Calgary.

“It’s sometimes said that good art allows you to step outside of yourself, and so I think that a lot of these works, you can fall into the work without realizing it and then when you come back to yourself — it’s like when you’re in a movie and you see yourself within that role.”