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Building Community through Art Discovering our Creative Potential

Hearts and Hands, the creative arts space of L’Arche Antigonish, is promoting creative expression, belonging, and inclusion in Nova Scotia through community arts.

By John Guido

drumming circle

When you enter Hearts and Hands in a repurposed house in the centre of this college town, you step into another world. Everywhere you look there are musical instruments, art supplies and materials, and arts and crafts in every imaginable medium – and some you couldn’t have dreamt of. The people you meet are sure to welcome you, ask your name, and take you to meet others and show you some of the paintings, weaving, pottery, paper-making, etc. in the warren of rooms. If it’s Wednesday morning, you will be invited into the drumming circle – no experience or rhythm required.

If you’re like me, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of people, artworks, and activities. Yet before long, you discover order in what appeared to be chaos, calm within the whirlwind of activity. Whether working as a group on performance or a project for a local art show, learning new skills from a local artist, or working on individual projects, everyone is focused on making art in an atmosphere of mutual encouragement, support, and respect.

two men drumming

A space for creative expression

Our mission is to promote creative expression, which foster journeys of self-discovery, self-expression, and self-promotion.

Hearts and Hands welcomes people with and without disabilities, from the L’Arche community and from the wider community to express themselves creatively. It’s a space free of judgment that allows each person to explore, discover, and develop their creative capacities in a variety of media. Here is what some of the artists – with and without intellectual disabilities – have to say about the experience:

  • Daniel says, “I like to paint… waves… It feels happy.” He’s clear about why he likes coming to Hearts and Hands, “I want to be here. I do my own thing.”
  • Elizabeth loves to be “outside” and she draws scenes of people enjoying the snow or the sunshine. Her paintings often reflect her emotions – full of clouds when she’s having a hard day, and sunny when she’s happy. Now that she’s in her 50s, she doesn’t enjoy the cold so much, preferring to stay indoors to paint.
  • Carlo says, “I had no idea that deep within me there was a drummer who loves to speak and communicate to the world with just a beating action. No speech or conversation necessary. Hitting a (drum) … appears primitive, rhythmic, repetitive, monotonous – like in a trance or in meditation. Without speaking, the drum gives all of us a voice.”
  • Lisa was born to move. She loves performing in the community’s Christmas play, the drumming circle, and creative dance group. She was not interested in drawing or painting until someone suggested that she listen to music as she paints. Now, she enjoys painting as an extension of her dancing.
  • “It’s just creating for the joy and sake of creating, says Glen. “Here, we are all Artists and we all have something to teach regardless of our ability. It is a place where you can be yourself and can really make a fool of yourself exploring your creativity without feeling judged. It’s a place to be real!”
  • Jarrod likes to work with his hands. He likes to carve wood and work with stained glass. Here is a video where he speaks about an image he creates in stained glass.

A place of belonging

We foster collaborative art as a tool to connect, understand, and accept each other; to build relationships and community and enrich the lives of everyone involved.

In an era when collaboration is a buzzword, Heart and Hands has a lot to teach others about creating a space of welcome and hospitality, connection and cooperation, and respect for each person and their unique contribution. It doesn’t mean that everyone gets along all the time, but that people work through their issues because they care about each other and want to be part of something they are building together.

two community members smiling

Times for meals, sharing, and celebration are important in creating the space where relationships grow both within the group and with a wide circle of family, friends, volunteers, local artists, and other members of the broader community. As each person discovers and expresses their own voice, they grow in their capacity to encourage others to do the same. The creative community becomes a space not only of creative expression, but also of mutual transformation.

A pathway to inclusion

We exhibit and sell our art at The Studio and in other venues and participate in a variety of events and projects in the wider community.

Hearts and Hands is invested in building a vibrant, inclusive Antigonish.

  • In the public library, there are two collective art pieces made by Hearts and Hands on display, expressing the love of the artists for their town, and the town for these artists.
  • Hearts and Hands participates in Antigonight Art After Dark festival hosted by Antigonish Culture Alive, creating projects that engage the public in making art.
  • Most years, the whole L’Arche community performs The Gift, a Christmas story, that has become a popular tradition for many people.
  • The creative dance group recently kicked off a launch of book of Antigonish stories at the Legion, creating the spirit of an East Coast kitchen party.
  • Arts shows, performances, and calendar sales promote the gifts of the artists and build a town where everyone makes a valued contribution.

And they have an influence well beyond their town. A couple of times a year, Students from around the world attending the Coady International Institute at St Francis Xavier University come to Hearts and Hands for a day. As part of the community-based development approach of the program, the students come to learn from the artists who know what it means to build inclusive community. Many of these current or future leaders come from countries where persons with intellectual disabilities are not visible; they discover that they are individuals with unique gifts who have something to teach them.

group photo

Renewing the vision of L’Arche

Hearts and Hands is having real impact on the lives of those making art and the wider community. They’re hoping to expand their space – Elizabeth dreams of a ‘big room’ to house all those people and activities. Part of their success is a clear vision and principles that guide everything they do:

  • We welcome and value all creative expression.
  • We experience the personal fulfillment and joy that creating art brings to all of us.
  • Together we create an inspirational, positive and supportive atmosphere and promote equality and independence.
  • We appreciate and celebrate each other’s gifts.

Hearts and Hands is neither a home nor a day program. Like other L’Arche creative arts groups, it’s a new model that marries a vision of creative expression to the L’Arche vision of life-sharing, mutual relationships, developing and sharing gifts, and engaging with others to build a more human society. It’s a model of growth, bringing the vision of L’Arche to more people in new, powerful, and delightful ways.