Creative care

Painting isn’t just about colour on canvas. Often it starts a conversation about the simple things and the process of healing

By Starr Cunningham

Is painting child’s play or therapeutic recreation? Whatever you call it, there’s much more to the power of painting than just the finished product. As a child, I learned painting is about creation, self-expression, and fun. As an adult, I learned its impact runs much deeper.

The Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia supports many programs in our communities and hospitals. One of my favourites is the Art Therapy Program at the Abbie J Lane. That’s the mental health unit that works with adults who are experiencing an acute mental illness. It’s offered to both inpatients and outpatients. I recently experienced the art program firsthand.

I arrived early and met with the instructor. She invited me to take a seat. I immediately went to a chair in the corner of the room intentionally choosing not to sit at the art table. Within seconds she informed me there were no observers in her class, only participants. I also experienced a burst of anxiousness at realizing I’d be expected to expose my artistic talent (or lack thereof) to a room full of strangers. 

As the other participants arrived, the table became crowded. There was a quietness to the room that reminded me of being in a library. All that changed about 15 minutes into our session. 

As more brushes were dipped in paint, more voices started to speak. As more colours were splashed across canvasses, more connections were made. As more time was spent looking down, more personal thoughts and emotions were revealed. 

I ended up producing a simplistic painting of a lone pear. It looked like a child painted it. I felt a bit like a child while I was creating it. At first I was nervous, but by the end of the session I felt lighter and more at ease than I had all day, perhaps even all week.

You see, we weren’t mental-health advocates, art teachers, and patients around the table that night. We were simply human beings enjoying time together in a safe space with no expectations or boundaries. It was amazing.

In the mental-health field, experts know patients typically need the help of a doctor, medication, and the support of family and friends. These three components are integral to recovery. But what they also know is this: the simple things in life cannot be overlooked. Physical activity, spending time with friends, music therapy, peer support, and even the creation of art, all play a vital role in healing.

Former Global News anchor Crystal Garrett created this painting of a bunny.

Since participating in that first session, I’ve come to realize it’s often easier to talk when you’re not sitting face-to-face. I’ve always found my kids open up more when we’re in the car. A driver and passenger rarely get the chance to maintain eye contact so it can be easier to express something difficult.

The same is true when painting. With eyes focused down and hands busy it’s a perfect time to start those conversations that need to go a little deeper than the ones that take place after school or around the dinner table. It’s an ideal time to check in on your child’s feelings about friends, workload, overall emotions, and reflective thoughts. 

The creative process can also reduce your child’s stress levels and improve self-awareness. Quiet time at an art table is often a welcome reprieve from technology, school, work, and chores. And the supplies don’t need to cost a fortune. Paint, brushes, crayons, and paper are typically staples in most households and readily available at discount stores. 

Remember, it’s not so much about the finished product as it is about the process and you don’t need to be a budding Picasso to experience the benefits. Art therapy is meant to be colourful, creative and completely child-friendly.

The Foundation is fortunate to have an incredible art project currently underway. It was founded and is facilitated by our friends at Premiere Suites Atlantic. It’s called Mental Health Above All. The formula is straightforward. Volunteer artists are given a commercial, quality ceiling tile and are asked to paint it and return it. The tile is given to a business, individual, or organization that wants to raise awareness of mental health. The tiles are installed in their new homes and instantly become decorative conversation starters. 

We have one in our office at the Nova Scotia Hospital and it always catches the eye of first-time visitors. They inevitably look up, comment on the pop of colour and ask why we have just one painted ceiling tile. It then gives us the chance to say we put Mental Health Above All. 

It sounds like a pretty basic idea, but it really works. Tile recipients are encouraged to make a donation to the Foundation that will be put to work supporting programs just like the Art Therapy Program at the Abbie J. Lane Building. 

So the next time you’re looking to initiate a meaningful conversation with your child it might just be time to pull out some unconventional, yet tried and true tools: canvas, paints, a brush, and above all, an open mind.

* If you’d like to paint a tile, receive a tile (for your school, business or office) or find out more about this innovative project, visit