The Healing Power of Art

In some ways Brian Strange could not be more different from Brian Conway. Strange is tall and has long hair and is in his early 60’s. Conway, on the other hand, is in his mid thirties. He’s average height with a shaved head. Strange smokes while Conway does not. Conway wears glasses; Strange does not.

Strange started going to the City Art Centre four months ago; Conway has been going for the past 20 years. Recently he’s stopped.

In some ways Conway’s journey with the City Art Centre has come to a close. For Strange it is just beginning.

The City Art Centre is on the second floor of an old military supply store near Adelaide and Oxford. It is a place where people with mental health issues can go to paint. They call it art therapy — and for both Brian Strange and Brian Conway it works.

“I was isolated and didn’t feel like I could do much,” Conway says with a small smile. He has schizophrenia and says that when he was younger he really struggled with the illness. The City Art Centre gave him and others like him a place to “get things out of your system…work through things.”

Brian Strange has depression. It started 10 years ago. He says he doesn’t feel the symptoms every day; they come and go. But he says the worst thing you can do when feeling depressed is go to sleep.

“You wake up feeling the same way you did when you went to bed,” he says. After that, he says, the worst thing you can do is stay inside — alone. He recognizes something about mental illness and the City Art Centre which Brian Conway articulates well: that being around other people helps just as much as painting. “Everyone at City Art is positive and easy to get along with and encouraging,” Conway says. “That’s one good thing is that they build people’s confidence.”

Conway’s wife, Denise, agrees. “I can see that it made him more confident,” she says, looking at her husband. Before joining the City Art Centre, Conway says he didn’t feel like he could make art at home. Now he paints at home all the time. And not just that — he writes and performs music at home. He plays guitar while Denise plays the drums. They both sing. Together they are Cordcalling, an art rock band. Their albums consist of Brian’s artwork, Denise’s poetry, and the music they come together to create. In that sense Denise says art has “really connected [them] together”.

Their latest album is called We Are Still. Denise jokes that it’s a bit of a play on words. They want to let people know that they are still a band and still making music, but also that they have reached a point in their lives where they feel at rest — peaceful. Part of that peace comes from creating of art because, Denise says, art is about “expressing yourself from your innermost being.” While every song is different Denise says that part of that means that they want to “inspire people to have hope in life.”

But our other Brian is no stranger to music either. He is a classically trained composer who graduated from the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. After he played in various progressive rock bands and toured across Ontario and Quebec. He says there’s a parallel between the type of music he likes and the way he paints. Progressive rock is always changing time signature and style. Brian says he wants his art to feel the same, and tries not to get “stuck in the same genre all the time.” When he paints he, like Conway, “just lets things go in his mind.” After that ideas start to form. He starts by painting the background and then slowly moves inward to his main subject. While there aren’t any subjects he wouldn’t paint, he says he prefers “to stay away from landscapes because the world is full of tens of thousands of landscapes.” At any given time, he has a list of 40 or so ideas he wants to paint. Most take anywhere from one day to two weeks to create. His favourite work and self-proclaimed masterpiece, however, took two months. It depicts “a guy trying to get a door open and he’s put his foot against the door and he’s pulling against the door to get a girl in.” His other subjects include flying toast and Louis Armstrong.

Strange used to attend other clubs like the City Art Centre, but none, he says, were anywhere near as good. He describes some of the other clubs as “dungeons” so stuffed with people that they were “literally bumping into each other.” He likes that the City Art Centre is more open, with lots of natural light. He also likes that everyone is polite and careful not to disturb anyone focused on their work. He says there are rules that make sure everyone behaves. He likes these rules.

Increase in Londoners who reported Fair/Poor mental health. Population only increased by about 15,000 during this time.

Conway agrees. He says the rules help maintain a positive environment. Although he admits that sometimes “someone’s struggling [and] it can be a little difficult,” he says it’s nothing worse that what you would encounter in any other community, like a workplace or a family or a social group. Both Brians agree there isn’t anything they would change about the City Art Centre. And while Brian Conway doesn’t go anymore to paint he wouldn’t be where he is today if he had never gone at all. Maybe one day Brian Strange will stop going as well.

But for now they’ll both keep painting.