Artist mentorship society builds artists’ portfolios while reinforcing mental health
After moving to a new space to accommodate their growth, the Art Mentorship Society of Alberta (AMSA) is ready to expand. Celebrating their third year in operation this November, the arts group is carving out a niche in the city.
The society offers studio space, professional development, networking connections, and exhibition opportunities along with their standard schedule of drop-in classes and workshops. But the emphasis is on mentorship.
Executive director Robyn O’Brien built the society around a single goal: to provide structure and tangible career advancement to artists that deal with mental health. When she first decided to incorporate the group O’Brien found that while there were programs supporting artists with physical disabilities, there was a gap in services offered to those balancing mental health in Edmonton.
Serendipitously, she discovered that one of the byproducts that comes along with art mentorship is a support system—a vital connection for those who battle with their mental health. AMSA was born out of an artist collective called Out of the Shadows that was associated with Alberta Health Services’ Addictions and Mental Health arm.
Now at St. Andrew’s Centre, AMSA accepts members ranging from 18 to 65, focusing their programming on adults with lived mental health experience.
“But really,” says O’Brien, “as a human, as a breathing human, we all have lived mental health experience, regardless of where that has taken you or what tools you have to kind of battle the everyday. Some of our tool belts are a little lighter and some of us have some extra tools that we can share.”
Their increasing numbers speak to the amount of people that can benefit from their formula; what began as eight artists three years ago has now grown to a group of roughly 85.
She and the society’s instructors find that one-on-one mentorship with more established artists is most effective in teaching the many skills an artist is expected to have, many of which go beyond creating art.
Skills like networking, public speaking, self-promotion and business savvy aren’t always second nature, especially when it comes to something as personal as art.
“Artists, as a whole, they tend not to be business people,” says instructor Tamara Deedman, which is exactly the purpose AMSA serves. “Some of our members have longer CVs than I do, and more exhibitions than I have,” she adds.
“There’s a lot of barriers—both financial and emotional—to creating art, and that’s for anyone,” O’Brien says. “Artists don’t really get paid a lot, and if they’re not really getting paid a lot, how are you supposed to pay for classes? How are you suppose to expand your skills and learn and diversify if you’re not bringing in a lot of funds?”
This financial instability can play a part in mental health problems. This is particularly the case for those living on AISH (assured income for the severly handicapped) or assisted-living, where income is on a short leash but time is bountiful.
“Your mental health is at an extremely fragile sort of state,” O’Brien says. “They have a lot of time, but they’re limited in what they can do day-to-day because of income.”
With a degree in printmaking, AMSA art instructor Tamara Deedman knows just how difficult it can be to build your skills on an artist’s budget. There is no shortage of places that offer courses she says, but a class at a printmaking studio can be $300 to $500 for a six-week class. A six-month membership with AMSA is only $80.
“So many artists are asked to trade, or do something for free, or it’s really good for exposure. And that’s not enough,” says O’Brien.
Artist Shawn Zinyk says that along with low membership cost, he found both the community and reliable routine to be effective forms of healing, helping him recover from a significant battle with depression.
“It was really good for me to find something that was a good routine that I could walk to everyday and hang out with people,” he says.
“It’s outside of the battle between either suffering or therapy. It’s not just a bandaid,” Zinyk says. The instructors also find solace in the group supports of AMSA and know the importance of being plugged-in.
O’Brien says many of the members report feeling isolated before joining the group.
“Being isolated and having that sense of community—I mean, that’s how loss of life happens in the mental health field,” she says.
Beyond the money and supports, artists are able to accelerate their skills with AMSA’s mentorship structure. Each instructor has a different background of specialties, so members can surpass their own limits of favoured mediums and explore newly discovered talents.
“We are able to really push our art, where we couldn’t before because we were just on our own and we couldn’t afford art classes,” says Zinyk.
Artist Tomas Illes, who has been with AMSA since the beginning, had his first solo exhibition in 2016 at the Nina Haggerty Gallery. He had been refining his skills with an instructor at AMSA leading up to his show, and for the first time realized that he could finally see a future for himself in his art. Illes has gone on to sell many pieces creating a name for himself in the city.
“With AMSA, I am being educated, and corrected, and critiqued—my artwork,” Illes says. “Before AMSA my work was mostly just free-flowing.”
O’Brien and her instructors plan to get each of their members to places like Illes and Zinyk with support and time.