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Ontario Arts Council’s Artist in Residence (Health): Journeys to Health, One Video at a Time


I Introduction
II Artist in Residence (Health) pilot program
III Art and health
IV Complementing existing programs and services
V Keys to a successful partnership

--submitted by Howard Shrier with contributions by Geneviève Vallerand and Jennifer LaFontaine

I Introduction

July 5th 2010: a group of women gathers at the Four Villages Community Health Centre to watch stories unfold on the big screen.  But these are no Hollywood films:  the women are watching short videos they have made themselves about their respective journeys to health.

They have never aspired to be professional videographers. These women come to Four Villages, in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood to access various programs and for community support. Four Villages provides primary health care services and programs that include treatment, prevention of illness, health promotion, and capacity building. This community health centre has two locations in western Toronto, serves a diverse population, including isolated seniors, lower-income families and newcomers from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe.  

Led by artists in residence, Emmy Pantin and Jennifer LaFontaine from Toronto’s Centre for Digital Storytelling, the women use video editing software and voice-over narration, along with family photos, drawings and other materials to craft simple but moving videos, three to five minutes long, that tell who they are and some of the challenges they have faced in their lives.

Digital artist Emmy Pantin assists a participant in the story development of her “Journeys to Health” digital storytelling video at Four Villages Health Centre


Digital artist Emmy Pantin assists a participant in the story development of her “Journeys to Health” digital storytelling video at Four Villages Health Centre


A woman who battled flesh-eating disease…one who barely survived a terrible car crash…one who grew up with a physically and sexually abusive father…one who has coped with crippling shyness and anxiety…one who is raising a child with profound special needs. The digital storytelling helps the women creatively narrate those challenges, but also share the growth, transformation and change that have since occurred in their lives. After each screening, they reflect on the creative process, and offer each other encouragement and support. Many express that the video-making, which seemed so daunting at first, has ultimately rewarded them in ways they had not anticipated.

II Artist in Residence (Health) pilot program

It’s all part of the Ontario Arts Council’s (OAC) Artist in Residence (Health) pilot program that places artists in health settings for long-term residencies in Toronto and North Bay and explores connections between wellness and creativity.

The residencies, which last approximately eight months, are designed to engage the health centre community, and promote interactions between artists, health workers and diverse client groups.

The pilot is modeled on OAC’s Artists in Residence (Education) program, which was launched in 2007 – 2008 and now counts five educational partners across Ontario, says Bushra Junaid, Manager, Outreach and Development. “We already had a model in place for longer-term residencies. We built on this, as well as our experience in programs like Artist in the Community/Workplace (AICW). The new pilot is specifically designed to explore the impact longer-term arts residencies can have in health care settings,” Junaid explains.

The OAC funds the artist fees and material costs, while the health care partners provide artist space and other forms of in-kind support.

III Art and health

Interest in the connections between art and health has also increased significantly in recent years, with arts funding agencies in the U.S., Australia and the U.K. exploring a range of initiatives. A growing body of evidence points to the positive impacts of integrating the arts into community health services.

One recent report by the U.S.-based The Society for the Arts in Health Care (SAH) notes that arts initiatives in health settings can improve patients’ overall health and treatment compliance, as well as workplace conditions for health workers. Such initiatives also reduce patients’ length of stay and ultimately, overall healthcare costs.

News of the pilot program was met with overwhelming interest on the part of health care practitioners as well as artists. Many are already doing work in this field, some funded in part by the OAC’s Artist in the Community/Workplace program, and beyond it. As Junaid notes, “we were flooded with inquiries from artists, therapists, physicians, health centres.”

The artists and staff from Four Villages worked together to identify “Journeys to Health” as the overriding theme, reflecting that a healthy state is not a goal but a process. “It was broad enough for everyone to relate to but could also be very personal,” according to LaFontaine. “People could share their experiences with the health care system and discuss what makes a healthy community. Our goal is to create a broad picture of individual and community health through art.”

IV Complementing existing programs and services

At Four Villages, the pilot is meant to complement existing programs and services, says Sandra Almeida, Director, Programs and Community Initiatives. “We link it to programs we already have for parents with young children, pregnant women, and people with undocumented status or mental health challenges. Digital storytelling is a unique, respectful and empowering way for our clients to voice their stories.”

Listening deeply to each person’s story is the backbone of the process. The workshops begin with no technology in the room. Participants share their stories in an oral storytelling circle, providing an opportunity for a collective experience of sharing and listening. This also enables the group to see what they have in common, and to get feedback that helps them identify the most compelling aspects of their story. They then write short scripts, record their narration and gather and create materials they will use for their visual story, before being introduced to the video editing software.

Even though the software—Adobe Premier—is fairly accessible even to beginners, many participants have had limited experience with computers and approach this part of the workshop with trepidation.

articipants at the Four Villages Community Health Centre tackle video-making


Participants at the Four Villages Community Health Centre tackle video-making


Says one client, “I was terrified at first to even press a key on the computer. But Jennifer and Emmy were so gentle and patient, that I eventually felt it was really neat stuff and I could create a whole story with their help.”

Digital storytelling helps us understand broader social issues through an individual’s particular life experience. The storyteller can make the connections for us between their experiences and the impacts of social, cultural and economic factors on their health. For example, it is through the experience of a young person’s challenges after her father has a stroke that we understand that translation is a burden that falls to a child in a health care setting that does not have enough resources for immigrant families. With a collection of digital stories from many community members, a holistic picture of health emerges.  

LaFontaine, Pantin and the digital storytelling team worked collaboratively inviting Four Villages staff to participate in digital storytelling workshops themselves. LaFontaine notes, “having staff tell their stories along with clients helped both groups better understand health care practices and how they can be improved.”

The staff members who have taken part in workshops say they reaped multiple benefits.

“It helped me get to know other staff and clients across all programs,” says social worker Michelle Nichols. “Hearing their stories was inspiring and kindled my interest in my own creative journey.”

Social worker Ela Rozkowska’s digital story documented her first vacation away from her family in 24 years, and revealed a new and playful side of her as she posed with abandon on one foot, arms spread wide, near the edge of the Grand Canyon. “It was a challenge at first to get past the idea that I was a staff member and they were clients. But as I went through it, the experience resonated in new ways. It didn’t matter any longer that I was a counsellor. These distinctions became secondary to sharing personal journeys, as women.”

Almeida notes: “Jennifer and Emmy really integrated the centre’s mandate and values into their storytelling process. They were sensitive to clients’ needs and issues and implicitly understood, for example, that people with undocumented status had to feel safe when telling their stories, that they needed anonymity and choice in how they portrayed themselves.”

Because they are working with such diverse clients, LaFontaine and Pantin emphasized the need for flexibility in their approach.

“One of the challenges was how to integrate this workshop into a variety of existing programs,” says LaFontaine.  The digital storytelling model is a 24-hour program that many people cannot access because of the intensive time commitment. It became only one of a variety of methods that were used during the Journey to Health project.  LaFontaine and Pantin created a series of short art workshops using photography, audio, storytelling and visual art that could be easily integrated into already existing programming.  For example, the centre has a walking group for women to help them get exercise and feel part of a community. The facilitators brought cameras along, and had the women record their walks and their observations. Some of the clients enjoyed the experience so much they began bringing cameras on their own so they could continue photographing their walks.

Walking and sharing stories in this group inspired a larger community event: on September 11th , 2010, Four Villages clients and board members, OAC staff and other community members joined together for a 100 Steps Stories walk that took them from Four Villages to the nearby Junction Arts Festival. Pausing every hundred steps, the group shared stories about their own journeys to health. Later that day, they hosted an art making and storytelling table, and at night the digital stories were screened.

Another example of finding creative solutions to road blocks happened when planning the second digital storytelling workshop. “We worked with Four Villages staff to develop an intergenerational digital story workshop,” LaFontaine recalls, “but outreach to youth proved to be a challenge.  So we decided to shift our focus and tailor the workshop to seniors only. As it happens, just as the workshop had begun, a number of youth contacted the volunteer coordinator for a summer placement at Four Villages. As part of their placements, they ended joining the digital story program. We wound up with an intergenerational program after all, with people aged 15 to 95 working together. It was just what we envisioned, we just took a circular path to get there.”

Almeida explains that the goal of these workshops is different from traditional forms of art therapy. “In art therapy—whether visual arts, drama, dance or music—the client takes part in order to achieve therapeutic goals. In this case, you have artists, not therapists, working to help people create art that empowers them in some way. It may help in a therapeutic way, but that is not the primary goal. We want to help them discover and define their own creativity.”

“Digital artist Jennifer LaFontaine helps participants refine their stories onscreen



Digital artist Jennifer LaFontaine helps participants refine their stories onscreen


As Lynn, a participant in the walking group and intergeneration digital storytelling group said, “Art made me feel well. I was eager to begin each day. I had more energy and more hope. I found my art revealed untapped pieces of who I am – I felt more wholeness, which is what health is all about.”

Four Villages and the Centre for Digital Storytelling have collected participant feedback and are completing final reports and evaluations. Junaid has little doubt the program will move forward. “Based on the success of the initial pilot projects, we will maintain our commitment in 2010–2011 and may expand the number of pilots, depending on available resources.”

In the meantime, OAC continues to support community-based work through programs, such as its Artists in the Community/Workplace (AICW) program, that nurture collaborations between artists and  arts organizations and a range of organizations for short-term projects.  Interested artists can learn more by visiting the OAC website at

V Keys to a successful partnership

Funders, artists and health care partners need to consider the following:

  • Carefully identify and agree upon shared values for the project. Find common ground and areas where both the artists and the health care partner can benefit.
  • Be sensitive to the context, needs and issues within the specific health care setting.
  • Build strong foundations from the start: engage staff, and participants on equal footing.
  • Be open and receptive to what’s happening in the arts and health care field. Ask questions and prompt discussion:
  1. What is emerging from the work that artists are doing?
  2. What’s happening in communities?
  • For all partners, communicate on the projects widely and where possible make connections and presentations.