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Open studio, open hearts

Creative partnership forms 'hive' of healing for refugee students

By Marcia Porter

Suzanne McBride’s English as a second language (ESL) classroom undergoes a kind of transformation once a week.

If you climb the stairs to the second floor of Holy Heart of Mary High School in St. John’s on a Wednesday afternoon, you will hear the sounds of Iraqi, Bollywood and African pop tunes. Turn the corner and a buzz of activity inside this classroom-turned-pop-up art hive is revealed.

Also known as The Open Studio Project, the pop-up art hive is a community open art studio that welcomes everyone as an artist, and where materials and space are provided. The program is a partnership between Memorial’s Faculty of Education and the English School District of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The art hive is brilliant,” said Ms. McBride, who has worked with ESL students for many years at Holy Heart and jumped at the opportunity to partner with Dr. Leah Lewis, assistant professor, Faculty of Education, and project lead on The Open Studio Project.

“It brings together refugees from so many different cultures and gives them a chance to build new friendships, to come together and have a greater understanding of one another in a safe space. I can’t stress enough what a safe space and a place to belong means to a refugee. It is so important in their new life and the art hive offers just that.”

Artful communication

Young women in hijabs of bright pink, yellow, brown and black, and young men in flannel shirts and long sleeve T-shirts sit at desks that have been grouped into art stations.

At one table, colourful lanterns are beginning to take form from glass spaghetti jars and strips of tissue paper.

“You wonder if you can do it like [the instructors] and, if you practise, yes you can.” — Aisha Hamid

The students come from countries such as Tanzania, Burundi, Sierra Leon, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Brazil, Congo, Ethiopia, Jordan and China.

“I like to do art,” said Aisha Hamid, a Grade 12 student originally from Sudan in East Africa who’s been living in St. John’s for the last two years.

Aisha Hamid holds up her creation from the art hive.
Aisha Hamid holds up her creation from the art hive.
Photo: John Harvey

“I find it fun, and so cool. You wonder if you can do it like them [the instructors] and, if you practise, yes you can.”

Ms. Hamid’s friend Samar Abdelgadir also enjoys making art. But there’s another reason she’s here on Wednesdays.

“It’s fun here,” she said. “The hours go by fast and you get to see all of your friends.”

Creative energy

The art hive is loosely structured, and deliberately so. Cathea Finkel, a visual artist and research assistant, gives basic instructions and then circles the classroom.

In one corner, students learn printmaking with Abena Boachie, a PhD student in art education; Dr. Willow Jackson, also a research assistant on the project, knits and crochets with another group.

From left are Abena Boachie and Dr. Leah Lewis.
From left are Abena Boachie and Dr. Leah Lewis.
Photo: Chris Hammond

Working with her Faculty of Education colleagues Dr. Xuemei Li and Dr. Heather McLeod, who have expertise respectively in the immigrant and newcomer experience, and art education, Dr. Lewis created The Open Studio Project: Exploring Immigrant and Refugee Students Experience of Belonging.

It’s funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s (SSHRC) Partners to Prosperity (P2P) that supports projects looking at issues around the newcomer experience in Canada and the Faculty of Education research and developing fund. Drs. Li and McLeod are P2P collaborators, which enabled the three women to apply for a grant through the program.

“Newcomer population has become more diverse even in the last few years,” said Dr. Lewis, who has a PhD in creative art therapies and applied psychology from Concordia University.

She had been looking for ways to bring the art hive movement to the province for a while.

“While we have a really small representation of minorities in Newfoundland and Labrador, research has identified that newcomers really experience a visceral insider/outsider dynamic when attempting to integrate,” she said.

“The idea is to use arts-based community practice to explore those themes of belonging. Making art engages the brain and the mind in a different way then talking about our experiences.”

‘I feel happy’

When asked why they come to art hive on Wednesday afternoons, the young people express themselves differently, but there is a common thread: a sense of joy.

“I like to paint, I like colour,” said Alaki Mboko, a Grade 10 student from the Congo. “It’s good, and I feel happy [here.]”

Naima Ayub loves to draw.

“It’s relaxing and enjoyable,” said the Grade 10 student from Ethiopia, who wants to learn more and “be good at it.”

One of the scenes at the pop-up art studio at Holy Heart of Mary high school in St. John's.
One of the scenes at the pop-up art studio at Holy Heart of Mary High School.
Photo: John Harvey

“Many students have come from places of political turmoil,” said Ms. McBride.

“The art hive offers many mental health benefits and helps them heal through experiencing art, making new friendships and having positive experiences in their new life in Canada.”


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