The healing power of art

“Art conveys a person’s story, which is at the heart of mental health,” says Dr. Jan Banasch, Site Chief, Mental Health Program at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

“The gallery is a gentle, neutral medium to express love and concern, as well as recognition that someone has been through painful times—but it’s also a celebration that something positive and beautiful has come out of it,” says Dr. Jan Banasch, who spearheaded the art project at the Grey Nuns.

Many of us already recognize the healing power of art. But the Grey Nuns department of psychiatry has taken this one step further in their new art exhibit: all paintings featured in their new gallery were created by artists who have experienced mental illness. 

“Traditional gallery settings don’t always open up the possibility of having a conversation around mental health,” said Robyn O’Brien, executive director of the Art Mentorship Society of Alberta (AMSA). “I think that’s such an important part of what we do and why the art within AMSA is so significant.”

AMSA is a non-profit that provides affordable art education and mentorship for Edmonton artists who struggle with mental health. For Jan, teaming up with AMSA was a natural fit, as she learned about the group through her own patients. 

“I have a number of patients who are also artists,” says Jan. “I see it as visual journaling—a way for them to share their story without all the judgments that go along with it.”

There are 26 pieces in the Grey Nuns art gallery with 15 artists represented. All paintings were donated by staff in the department of psychiatry at the Grey Nuns.

“I invited staff to come together as a group or individually,” says Jan. “The money went directly to the artist, which was also important—they have such skill and it earns them such self-respect.”

One staff member who donated a painting was Dr. Tania Oommen, a psychiatrist with the Grey Nuns.

“I liked the idea of supporting artists who are struggling with mental illness in other parts of their life,” says Tania. “The gallery is also a nice way to help patients that’s different from traditional treatment.”

The identity as both patient and artist is not a new one to Kim Fehr, who has a painting in the new exhibit. Kim has been under Jan’s care for about 28 years. She’s proud to have her artwork on display—but she’s most proud to be contributing to others' healing journey.

Kim Fehr has a piece in in the new Grey Nuns Art Gallery. She loves to draw old boots and shoes because they each have their own journey and character to share.

“I think it opens up another world for patients,” Kim says softly. “Walking down the hallway and seeing a piece of artwork from someone who might understand what you’re going through—it can help you open up. Art can remove you from your own suffering.”

Jan agrees, adding, “We want patients and their families to be able to identify themselves in the art. If they’re feeling down and they look at the Myself in Blue—she epitomizes what it feels to be depressed. But behind that is hopefulness.”

She pauses to reflect before adding, “May these walls of art provide hope, validation and comfort to all who pass through them.” 

"Myself in Blue" by Aneta is one of 26 pieces hanging in the Grey Nuns department of psychiatry's art exhibit.

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