Tucked away on the second floor of a heritage building in Carling Heights is the City Art Centre. For over 25 years, the City Art Centre has provided a safe place for artmaking to people who self-identify as experiencing mental illness.
We chatted with co-chairs Jeni Peralta and Diana Hodgson and toured the Centre.
“It’s a bit of a hidden gem in the city,” Diana shared. “A lot of people are still not aware that we exist.”
The City Art Centre is a robust space. The studio contains workspaces to accommodate several artists at once, and art pieces line the walls.
Several supply rooms contain supplies from pencil crayons to oil pastels, free for use. There’s a small library stocked with instructional books and reference magazines.
The Centre also has a kitchen with a coffeemaker and fridge. Coffee is free, and members will often stock the fridge with food to share.
A gallery contains several completed pieces by studio members. Natural light floods the room, which contains benches for sitting back and admiring the work.
Diana spoke about the validation the gallery provides for the studio members. “When they see their stuff hanging in here when they first come in, and they can see their own self kind of grow in that…it’s like, wow, what a good feeling.”
Some particularly special places in the Centre are dedicated to previous members. On a wall in the gallery is an In Memoriam space for City Art Centre members who have passed away. Beyond the gallery is the Centre’s permanent collection, which features pieces from longstanding City Art Centre members who have moved on from the centre.
The City Art Centre began the way many such organizations do – with a small group of dedicated and passionate people.
“It started with only a few people in the downtown area, and then it just kind of grew from there,” Diana said. “That’s basically it, people in the community that had seen a need for people with mental health issues that is kind of a stepping stone and somewhere for them to be on a daily basis.”
“It’s not just about producing art though,” Jeni added. “It’s about the camaraderie. We talk sometimes and try to, you know, settle things out, like things that are happening during the day, what’s happened to us during the week. If something’s wrong, we’re there for each other.”
The City Art Centre is a volunteer-run not-for-profit organization. The Centre receives support from several funders, including the City of London and London Community Foundation, and in-kind donations from local businesses such as the Art Bank.
“Getting the affirmation that we actually are worth it, and the validation of having the funds come in is amazing,” Jeni said.
The City Art Centre began as a way to provide a form of self-expression. Members can watch their growth across the pieces they complete in an unstructured, non-judgemental environment.
“It’s not about trying to prove yourself in art, because everybody’s at their own different level, Jeni said. “It’s about therapeutically searching yourself through arts.”
For Jeni, the City Art Centre has made a significant impact on her life since she became a member 15 years ago.
The space provided Jeni, a Bealart graduate, the space to explore her artistic passion. Through her involvement with the City Art Centre, she was able to prepare a successful application for OCAD University. “Thanks to City Arts Centre, I was able to put up a portfolio, and get in there on the strength of my portfolio,” Jeni shared. “If it wasn’t for City Art Centre, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Taking on a leadership position on the board has provided even more opportunities for Jeni. “It’s taught me leadership skills, organization skills, things I’ve never thought I’d be able to do on my own.”
The City Art Centre is open from Monday to Friday, 11:30am to 4:00pm. The Centre website lists several events the Centre has taken part in. If the City Art Centre seems like a place you’d like to check out, Jeni and Diana emphasize that the door is wide open.
“There’s absolutely no pressure here, no pressure at all,” Diana said. “If people want to drop in, even for coffee just to spend an hour – you don’t even have to get into art. Just have a coffee, relax in here or even take your coffee out to our gallery and get a feel for the Centre and take what you want from it.”
Feature photo features pieces from the City Art Centre Permanent Collection. Photo by Sammy Roach.