NEW GLASGOW – Art is important. Bob Bennett, executive director at Summer Street Industries, knows this. But it wasn't until a few years ago that he realized just how much difference it could make in the lives of those with mental disabilities he works with every day.
For him the reality sank in during one of Summer Street's annual wine and cheeses. For that particular event, they decided to set up a gallery of some of the best paintings the clients there had done from the year. As Bennett expected, people were impressed.
Then something happened that he never dreamed of.
"How much is this one?" someone asked.
"Oh they're not for sale," he responded.
More and more people started querying about how they could purchase particular paintings. A bit taken aback, because they had never thought of that possibility, Bennett and others at Summer Street came up with a way to mark pieces that were sold.
The extra money was, sure, a nice bonus, but what really made the significance of it all real for Bennett was when he saw the reaction of the artists.
Cathy Napier came running up to him as he said goodbye to some of the guests.
"They want my paintings," she told him in hushed excitement. "My paintings."
"She felt so valuable, so important," Bennett said, getting the chills he always does when he relates the story.
He told about the experience once to an artist friend, Chris Morrison. Morrison was not surprised.
"Do you know how many artists wait a long time for that moment when someone finally buys a piece of art from them?" he said.
If you talk to Cathy, she will admit there are many things in life she cannot do. Drawing is one of them. Yet, she is one of Summer Street's best selling painters.
"I'll tell you one thing, mine are a little out of the norm," she says. "It's really hard to explain, but if I see a picture and I try to paint it (exactly as is), forget it."
But what she's able to do is choose patterns and colours that people like and her work, which she describes as abstract, has attracted the gaze of plenty of eyes. Art instructor Krista Schnare is a major fan of Cathy's work and loved one in particular so much that she bought a copy to hang in her home.
"What I like about Cathy's are her vibrant colours," she said. "That's what I like about it."
Schnare has worked at Summer Street for about 12 years and started teaching the art program a year ago. A painter herself, she said she enjoys teaching techniques to the students.
Some, like Cathy and Shannah Spears, who specializes in drawing dragons, come up with their own designs. Others need more help.
"For the other ones usually I will trace something for them," Schnare said. "I'm actually trying to teach them the techniques. So we start with some basic ones and just do the different watercolour techniques. Eventually I like for them to use their own imagination and the techniques that they've learned to create something that's theirs."
She teaches about a dozen artists in two separate classes that are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"I only do it so often since we don't really have the time," she said. "If we had it every day I’m sure all the classes would be full."
Loretta Levangie said she finds it relaxing to paint and enjoys the class.
"You never know what you're going to find in pictures," she said. "I like the different pictures."
In particular she said she likes to do flowers, sailboats, a lighthouse or ocean scenes.
"It's fun," she said.
Like Bennett, Schnare said she loves seeing the pride on their faces as they display their artwork.
"When we have presentations and stuff at work they're standing there as proud as can be of what they created. It's a sense of accomplishment."
The art has also become a way for the clients to make a little money, as they receive a portion of the money from their work that's sold. In addition to the original paintings and copies that are made of them, Summer Street has also started making all-occasion cards out of them. An annual pre-Christmas viewing will be held on Dec.13 where some of the work will be on display and for sale.
“It is really very nice to see how the artists and program has grown in such a short time," Bennett said.