Snapshot: Claire Robson

Our Snapshot article series features Q&As with key pioneers, innovators and emerging practitioners across the multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional arts and health field in Canada, who are part of the Arts Health Network Canada community.

Interview by: Zara Contractor

Claire Robson is co-lead artist for Quirk-e – the queer imaging & riting kollective for elders. The collective, which has worked under her direction for the last eight years, has made many public shows and presentations, including a human library project and workshops for queer youth and youth leaders. Claire was recently awarded a two-year postdoctoral fellowship by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is working in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies and studying arts-engaged community practices. A widely published writer of fiction, memoir, and poetry, Claire’s most recent book, Writing for Change, focuses upon the potential of collective memoir writing to effect social change.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you are involved in arts and health?
I’m a community artist working with a group of 27 queer seniors. Our focus is on memoir, which we explore primarily through writing and expand into theatre, three-dimensional work and digital imagery, including video and PowerPoint. I also research this work as a postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University, in the department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. My group was originally part of the innovative Arts & Health Project, managed by the Vancouver Park Board. We’re still connected to that community of practice, though funded by the City of Vancouver. Our community partners are QMUNITY and Britannia Services Centre.

2. What have been some of the major benefits in your experience, of engaging with the arts for health and wellness?

For the participants it has been life changing. Some of the group suffer from various physical, cognitive, and emotional ailments. Though it doesn’t make these go away, it makes them more manageable, gives them a reason to get up in the morning, and makes them feel more visible. They report feeling more confident, more connected, and more engaged. It’s difficult to do justice to the importance of this work. I have many stories that speak to it.

3. What do you love about the work you do?

I feel like it makes a difference. The community we have created is robust – a place of support, challenge, and kindness. I believe that this work is the reason that I am on the planet.

4. What are some of the resources that could help you in your work?

It’s a boring answer, but true – better funding and consistent funding. So much money is spent on health care after the fact. A little more spent on building resilience and capacity would be a huge saving. I’d like not to have to write grants every year to keep the project going. I’d like to bring health care professionals to the group. It makes more and more sense to me to change our current model, in which one client sees one psychiatrist or doctor. It would be way more effective to attach professionals to a group like ours, in which many different needs are evident and seen in their complex context.

5. What do you think is needed to continue developing the connections between arts and health in Canada?

The kind of work that’s happening here is key – sharing ideas and making connections between the many projects in the burgeoning arts and health field.

6. Looking to the next five years, what do you envision for the field of arts and health in Canada?

I think there will be a move towards assessment and monitoring of projects, and a related  move towards identifying and building assessable curricula and high quality training for  lead artists. Facilitating arts programs in a collaborative community context is very different  from leading an arts ‘workshop’ and teaching techniques. The skills are hard to define and  communicate, but this provides a great challenge and opportunity. Right now, I am working  I’m currently working with the Vancouver Parks Board to develop workshops and curriculum  for those wanting to get started in this work. We’re trying to provide a practical and  philosophical introduction to  working collaboratively with seniors, and at the same time, not  pin outcomes down too rigidly, since art is always surprising and emergent. We have  piloted the curriculum at several local community centres, and I’ll be delivering the first  workshop this Fall. Stay tuned!