‘Piece’ and joy abounds at Hillel Lodge with collaborative artwork

Residents at the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge worked on a collaborative art piece during 10 weekly art therapy sessions this spring and summer, and finally put their creation on display in August. 

The mixed-media work included fabric, clay, and collage and was inspired by Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil. When community members went to see the artwork when it first went on display Aug. 10, they could even add a flower of their own. 

Two art therapists, Mindy Alexander, and Andrea Steinwand, worked with the Hillel recreation team and a social worker to explore the residents’ views of hope and joy. The duo went to school together and did a practicum placement at Hillel Lodge, which ended right as the COVID-19 pandemic began. The two were asked to return after the Lodge received a grant for their work.

“We used the grant in two distinct phases,” said Steinwand, a registered psychotherapist (qualifying). “We wanted to work with groups and support as many people as we could while working with the cohort they had at the time (due to the pandemic),” said Steinwand.

The grant was from Healthcare Excellence Canada. Launched in 2021, Healthcare Excellence Canada brings together the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement. They are an independent, not-for-profit charity funded primarily by Health Canada.

Alexander, a registered psychotherapist and art therapist, had worked virtually with residents during the pandemic, where they’d look at artwork with the residents and discuss memories or stories that arose in reaction. When she was invited back for this project, she was excited to work on a collaborative creation with the residents.

The two art therapists didn’t know what the final piece would be when they began the weekly art sessions.

“We wanted to support their messages of hope, using imagery and concrete themes each week,” said Steinwand. “We were trying to get conversations happening through witnessing and then creating art.”

“We wanted to hear what elicited hope for them,” agreed Alexander. “COVID was so challenging for them, so how do you maintain hope in adversity? Andrea and I started out with a plan for three sessions where we’d bring in images of artwork and photos that we thought were a metaphor for hope.”

The first sessions looked at flowers, light and flight — symbols that represented hope to Alexander and Steinwand. They let the residents lead the discussion from there. 

“They always wanted there to be more than one,” said Alexander. “Even just one flower was lonely, so there had to be a group of flowers.” 

Other motifs that gave residents hope included photos of the younger generation, and helper-workers, like social workers. Alexander and Steinwand selected images that combined those landscapes and asked residents which images were most hopeful for them. 

“Everyone selected the image by Monet,” said Alexander. “So once that image was selected, Andrea and I figured out how to create one cohesive piece.”

The weekly sessions used paint, collage, clay and more to find out what each resident liked best. 

“We wanted to engage people wherever they were at and be client-centred, while also exposing them to lots of different materials,” said Steinwand. 

Once a backdrop was agreed on, the residents created their own individual artworks that were connected to the full piece. 

“There was an early conversation about piecing things back together, using metaphor … Hillel Lodge suggested using that as puzzle pieces, to come back together after the necessary isolation of COVID,” said Steinwand. 

And so the ‘Piecing Joy’ concept came together, and Steinwand said there is a “real sense of joy” in the final product. 

“There have definitely been some expressions of pride in their work,” she said. “They spoke about being able to see themselves as part of this life cycle of the flowers.” 

Alexander said that the word ‘happy’ came up a lot from residents after seeing the final piece. 

“That’s why we shifted from ‘piecing together hope’ to ‘piecing joy,’” she explained. “Hope is very future-oriented, but regardless of what’s coming, you can find joy in the present moment. Happy kept coming up, so that’s a shift that we had.”

Reactions from residents include: “It’s amazing, it all fits together!” and “It’s happiness's spirit.” Another participant said that while initially, it was uncomfortable to make art, they became more comfortable over time.

“They said that because of the simplicity and encouragement, each item is original and unique and all come from their own minds,” explained Alexander. “It was quite moving to hear those comments.” 

If you missed the display, community members can view the artwork by coordinating with the team at Hillel Lodge