Tracy Xu walks around Victoria these days with an extra item stashed in her bag, a little sketchbook. When she has a bit of time, she draws. When she wants to express how she’s feeling, she draws.
“I’m still learning English so sometimes I couldn’t say the correct words. So I can draw … because it can show my emotion,” says Xu, who moved to Victoria from Shanghai in 2013.
“I never draw before, I never paint, I have no experience.”
Xu began making art and received that sketchbook through a wellness program run by the foundation started by Canadian nature artist Robert Bateman. Created during the pandemic as a response to isolation and depression, the initiative provides free therapeutic art programming to the community. It has been offering organized group sessions, drop-in sessions at the Bateman Gallery in Victoria and one-on-one private sessions over Zoom. This fall, Nature Sketch – Wellbeing won the B.C. Museums Association People’s Choice Award.
“So many times people have come in and by the end say ‘I just feel so much better,’” says art therapist Kaitlin McManus, who runs the program.
While Bateman himself isn’t personally involved, the program stems from his work as an artist, and his central philosophy: that being in nature is nourishing.
“If I was a missionary that’s what I would do – I would have everyone spending time out in nature. It has measurable benefits to your physiology and mental health and everything,” said Bateman, 91, during a recent interview from Salt Spring Island, B.C., where he lives.
The pandemic offering grew out of the foundation’s educational Nature Sketch program, where participants go out in nature in groups led by an artist and naturalist. They bring along a pencil and sketchbook and draw.
A 2021 research paper commissioned by the foundation found that most students reported feeling more focused after returning to the classroom “after a Nature Sketch intervention.” And that time outside, engaging in sensory activities like this program, may decrease stress, anxiety and depression.
“The research has found that this is a unique combination; that this does impact different areas of the brain and how mindfulness is promoted,” says foundation executive director Peter Ord. “And it speaks back to what Bob has been saying for decades.”
The mental-health benefits of Nature Sketch – Wellbeing are twofold: the opportunity to use art to examine and express your feelings, and then just the therapeutic act of making art.
“Drawing in this program is not to produce an artist; it’s a means of forcing yourself to look and to actually see and pay attention,” says Bateman.
For this program, the foundation has partnered with numerous community groups, many representing more vulnerable sectors. The group Xu belonged to was organized through the Inter-Cultural Association of Great Victoria (ICA). The women met Monday mornings at the Bateman Gallery on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
It has been a lifesaver during an isolating time – a pandemic – for women in already isolating circumstances, living far away from loved ones back home, in a new country, where even their ability to express themselves can be challenging.
“English is such a difficult language to learn,” says Jennifer King, who co-facilitates the ICA program. King herself immigrated to Canada from Taiwan in 1993. “I understand. Sometimes we have so much we want to share and we just cannot find the words. So using this way, the drawing, we share how we feel.”
On that one horrible November Monday when the rain was coming down in droves and parts of the province were flooded and segments of highways obliterated in mudslides, King, who co-facilitates the group with the art therapist, figured the meeting that day might be a wash.
“And then they all came. In such horrible conditions. I was so touched. I thought, the participants must love this. There must be something there. In such horrible conditions to show up and draw,” says King. (One member of the group was unable to make it in that day.)
Svetlana Mir was one of the women who made it through the driving rain on that Monday. For her, the program has been a huge source of connection. “Because of COVID I felt very isolated and very lonely,” says Mir, who moved to Victoria from Moscow in 2015.
“I missed being around people. It was really nice to see other immigrants … and it’s been really great to connect again and just to see how we find strength in this time and share some art.”
For one exercise, they drew a tree of strength: Participants traced around their hands, then turned the drawing of their hand into a tree. “So your fingers are the branches and your arm is the trunk of the tree and you can create it into any kind of tree you want,” says McManus. Then they would write in the leaves things that bring them strength.
In another exercise, a wide piece of paper was folded over from both ends. On the outside, the women drew a safe or special place. Open the flaps, and on the inside they drew how that place makes them feel.
On Mir’s outside flaps, she drew a house overlooking a lake with ducks. And on the inside: a large, smiling sun, radiating warmth and happiness.
“It’s the feeling of connection the class helped to find,” Mir says. “Maybe life is horrible. But there’s always something good inside us. We have lots of love inside us.”
Mir and Xu’s Monday group has wrapped up, for now. But they’re both still making art. When they saw each other on Zoom during their interview with The Globe and Mail, they almost didn’t recognize each other – because the women had been wearing masks to all the meetings.
“My dream after COVID, whatever ‘after COVID’ is, is that we could have one big table in the centre and mingle with each other and work on projects together and make it even more of a community-building experience,” says McManus. “I can’t wait until it’s one big table.”
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