Valerie Hodder has been the art instructor at the Waterford Hospital’s Open Windows Studio for the last 23 years. It’s a role she’s cherished and one that, as she says, “fills her.”
Each year, for 22 years, she and her students have hosted the annual Open Windows Studio Art Show. This show will be Valerie’s last, as she’s about to take on a new adventure – retirement.
Eastern Health’s Open Windows Art Program is designed for individuals with diagnosed mental illness, who would like to explore art as a form of recovery. It’s structured on the strengths, hopes and dreams of each participant, and is modified as their needs evolve.
“It’s such a good program,” says Valerie. “I love seeing how people who were so shy at first, and perhaps not confident in their skills, grow and change.
Valerie was a high school art teacher for seven years before joining Open Windows. “To me, being a qualified teacher is really relevant because part of my role is working with students who have various levels of artistic ability. It’s a key piece in being able to motivate them. It’s what teachers do.”
Angela Hennebury has been a student at the studio since 2013. She says that the program helps calm her anxiety, especially her social anxiety.
“The first day I came in, one of the students teased me – in a good way,” says Angela. “I joked back, and it was like, okay, I’m comfortable here.”
According to Valerie, the art of creating gets the students out of their own heads and enables them to focus on something outside of themselves. In fact, research has shown that engaging in creative activities can help improve and maintain well-being because it encourages the development of skills for self-care and stress management, such as: relaxation, self-expression, concentration, confidence, and a sense of personal identity.
“Basically, it takes you out of all that crap that comes with mental illness and lets you be you,” says Angela.
And when students are in the studio, their main focus is their art. “What matters is what they’re doing in this room – right now,” says Valerie. “They’ve developed this symbiotic relationship where everybody’s working towards a similar goal. And they talk. And they play. I say play because that’s important,” she emphasizes. “Play is just as important as anything else you do in life. If you find joy in it… that’s where play comes from. We try to find that joy within and bring it out.”
For student Gail Nicholson, the art program has helped bring her art to a whole new level and has made a positive impact on her emotional development.
“Valerie’s helped me grow a lot and helped me realize that my real love is painting – that’s what I want to do,” she says. “And during times when I get anxious, Valerie helps me calm down, remember where I am, and what I need to do. She’s a beautiful person.”
After trying several different group therapies, Kasey Coady came to the art studio a year ago.
“The first day I came here, I was kind of mortified. I was again the stranger walking into a room full of people who knew each other, but Valerie made the transition as smooth as possible.”
By the end of Kasey’s first day, she was more comfortable at the studio than she’d ever felt in a group recovery setting. And she’s developed a love of soft mediums such as pastels and charcoal.
“I find these mediums engaging and they allow me to be very expressive. There’s so much room for quirkiness here,” she says. “It’s hard to feel isolated. Through an art program, I’ve been given a sense of participating in a community. It’s a reason to get up in the morning, come in and spend time with people, and do something productive. It means a lot to me.”
“They find friends here,” adds Valerie. “That’s the biggest thing. They create a whole community. They have little art groups that meet outside this space. They socialize, go to dinner together. That’s powerful, because they’re creating the connections. We’re just providing the medium to help them grow.”
One of Valerie’s other goals is to teach her students techniques to help support themselves through art.
“It’s important for them to understand that they can be their own small business. They can be part of the burgeoning craft market circuit, which explodes during holidays and special occasions.”
An important part of maintaining supply for the customer is knowing how to create multiples of their work. “It’s easy to create one,” says Valerie, “but how do you create more – and keep the same integrity of that one? It takes time, experience and motivation.”
Selling their first piece can be an emotional – and validating – experience, as student Angela Hennebury can attest.
“The first piece I sold, Valerie laughed because when I finished it, I cried. She got it framed, and I cried. When I sold it, I bawled. This was something that came from me – and somebody else wanted it. It was such an amazing feeling.”
This past August, Valerie arranged a one-month long art show for the students at the Quidi Vidi Village Plantation artist colony, and it was the first time that most of the students had their art displayed in a gallery setting.
“It was the coolest thing. Even people from cruise ships were coming in to look at our work. It was an opportunity we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten,” says Angela. “And I realized, these strangers don’t know me and they’re not buying my stuff out of pity. They’re buying it because I’m an artist. And that’s what we all are in this program – a group of artists – not a group of mentally ill artists.”
“We try to emphasize that point with new people who come to our program,” adds Valerie. “If you’re here, you’re treated as an artist.”
While the students are sad to see Valerie retire, they’re also excited for her to begin her new chapter. “Valerie has held our hands as we’ve developed and grown,” says Angela. “Now it’s her turn.”
So what are Valerie’s plans for retirement?
“I really want my last art show with them to be a huge success – for them,” she says. “And I invite the public to come and buy some beautiful pieces for themselves and their loved ones. My last day here is December 20 and I’m looking forward to having time where I can do something for me. It’s my turn to focus on my art. My turn to play.”
The Open Windows Studio Art Show will take place in the east basement of the Waterford Hospital from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. until Friday, December 6. ■
This story was written by Robyn Lush, a communications manager with Eastern Health.