Arts and Urban Youth: Interview with Phyllis Novak on why homeless youths need art studios, not just shelter
Urban arts programs often build confidence and agency among youth who are disheartened by — or disconnected from — public schools. Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring a series on Art and Urban Youth, featuring interviews with leaders in this field. At a time when education is being shaped by a rigid test taking culture, these educators often succeed in eliciting a sense of inquiry and belonging among their students.
Not far from Toronto’s downtown theatre district lies Sketch, a busy art studio filled with paintings, photographs, and sculptures created by homeless youth. Founder Phyllis Novak, a former actor, created Sketch because she believed that providing young disconnected people with an opportunity to join Toronto’s cultural conversation addresses a need beyond food or shelter, the goal of traditional outreach. Her vision is that, as more displaced young people participate in the community through the arts, not only will society’s perception of them change, but they will come to see themselves differently as well.
Dowser: Sketch is a vibrant, stimulating place; but wouldn’t these young people rather have a dependable place to crash than a spot to paint?
Novak: There are all kinds of initiatives to eliminate homelessness. We have a different mission. I created Sketch because I’m not sure it will be possible to end homelessness as long as we define the problem as the lack of a bed. Living homeless isn’t necessarily the problem.
Fair enough. What problem are you trying to solve?
We want to raise the quality of the personal and spiritual health of young people who live on the streets. If we can, they’ll have a better shot at thriving and becoming invested in the community.
How did you come up with that approach?
When I started to work with homeless people, years ago, I was coming from a very needs-based perspective. I saw a need—people were homeless—and I bought into a social norm that it was my responsibility to fix it. I quickly realized, however, that that work was more about serving my own needs and those of a larger corporate agenda.
So you found that work condescending?
Yeah, and patronizing. I wanted to work amongst people not for people. I recognized that people become incredibly creative when they go through really tough situations, and that’s what catalyzes them to make changes.
How does making art lift a person’s quality of life?
Poverty and living on the street can alienate people. Especially young people. Working in the arts strengthens resilience, and invigorates a desire to learn more. When you make art, you tell a story. Once you put your story out there, in song or on canvas, it elicits a response, and right there, that reduces isolation.
Why a studio? Why not offer art classes at drop-in centers and shelters?
Homeless people need relief from the pressures of the street. Yet they are disenchanted with the systems and structures we’ve set up. Sketch is different. It’s a place where youth can express opinions and ideas, process experiences, and even regain a little privacy. A studio environment is fairly easy to step into. Plus it doesn’t scream, ‘You are broken and need to be fixed.’
But something’s broken, isn’t it?
What’s broken, or flawed, is how society looks at street-involved people. We want to change that because the way we view people on the margins affects our approach to bringing the margins in. Do we want to get kids off the street? Or do we want all of Toronto’s youth to be healthy, safe, and positively engaged in the community? Different questions get different answers.
How is Sketch reframing those questions?
When homeless youth are visible contributors to the city’s culture, they are less likely to be viewed solely as objects of charity or problems to be solved. Art is central to humanity. It’s one of the things that make us different from other species. We can connect through it regardless of where or how we live. When you feel a connection to another human being, you’re less likely to try to sweep them under the rug.
Aren’t there a lot of people who want to help the homeless?
Unfortunately many of those people tend to be overly sympathetic to the point of feeling sorry for homeless people. When you pity someone, you don’t see them as a whole person. If you’ve never spent any time with homeless people or street youth, you may jump to some false assumptions. You may think they are always depressed and forlorn. Street youth aren’t sad and miserable every minute of the day. They’re also joyful, happy and excited.
You were an actor; did that shape your ideas about art and social change?
It did. In the theater you learn how drama uses tension and conflict to move the plot forward. It’s not something you try to get rid of, you need it.
After working at a drop-in center for homeless youth for five years, I started thinking, why are we trying to get homeless youth off the street? Let’s invite them into the community instead. It might create some tension, but maybe that will generate some new solutions.
Did you think a lot of people would show up?
No, but I’m so glad they did. The fact that hundreds of young people participate every year tells me there is still a void out there. We still haven’t made enough room in our community for these fellow citizens.
Was there a moment when you saw the community start to make room?
There was. It was in the middle of a big feast at Sketch. A somewhat concerned volunteer took me aside. In a low voice she told me that the homeless people weren’t getting very much of the food. She said, ‘Everyone is just digging in.’ And I said, ‘I know, isn’t it great!’ There we were, all together in this art-filled space, eating and talking. And except for a few us, no one knew who was homeless and who wasn’t.
I see—rather than feeding the homeless, you were tearing down alienating social stigmas. That’s not a typical approach. Do funders want you to do things more traditionally?
It’s a challenge. Many funders look for quick results. It just doesn’t work that way. It takes time. We have wonderful funding partners and we encourage them to be as open to learning from Sketch as we are.
This article was edited and condensed.
Photo: Alison Herr for Dowser