Canadian Program Provides Studio Space for Youth

Learn about a program in Toronto that provides youth experiencing homelessness a space for therapeutic expression and creativity.

Sketch is a little bit like the movie Fame. The program started 16 years ago in a small drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness, with a card table and a pool table. It is now a 7,500-square-foot creative enterprise. More than 8,000 youth have engaged with Sketch across disciplines: music jamming, screen printing, textiles, painting, industrial carpentry, ceramic arts, music recording, movement and dance, digital new media, and culinary arts. Leadership emerged and there are three community gardens and a mentorship program. Studios created jobs for youth. Sketch is changing the landscape of Canada both literally and figuratively.

Thanks to the support of Artscape, a provider of multi-tenant spaces for artists, and its artistic director Phyllis Novak, Sketch is stretching its way out of the factory space where it resides. They now find themselves in a repurposed school. The vast space seems to beckoning the program to continue growing their emerging artist center in collaboration with other community arts groups. The youth artists described it as “a cool underground space.”

Sketch's Beginning

The pace and the movement of this space for youth experiencing homelessness did not simply spring from the cracks in the Toronto streets of Ontario. It had a beginning, a starting point from one woman’s passion for arts and the creative process. She had a vision, imagining “how it could merge to give youth a voice and a space to let their imaginations live in spaces where they themselves had never had a chance to live” said Novack. Sketch began with a drop-in center and a young actor.

Before she arrived at the Yonge Street Mission, a youth drop-in center in Toronto also known as “The Center,” there was no evidence of the creative life. Novack had been living as an emerging professional actor with a graduate degree in theater. Initially she split her time between her love of acting and what would quickly become her love of sparking the imaginations of youth struggling on the streets. Novack explained, “I tried to hold the space to make it about the artist and creative discovery, for youth to find a voice inside their stories. I walked a thin line making sure it wasn’t therapy, because art therapy is an intentional practice, but youth are so raw and they will naturally go to that place in their stories.”

They began with weekly workshops to role-play and cut loose, to simply have a good time. Youth wrote their stories, which provided a therapeutic element and ignited their own imaginations and built confidence. After one year, the youth had written a full-scale play of their experiences on the streets. They took the play to organizations, churches, and performed it at The Center.

“The impact on the youth was amazing … it built confidence, community, and was quite liberating. It brought education about who they were into the world. Sparked by that construct, I was invited by The Center to completely give up my acting career and work full time at The Center,” Novack said.

Novack took some time off in England to contemplate the decision and realized that the work with the youth moved her. She was struck by the potential the imagination has when it is ignited. She recognized the youth’s capacity to become agents of change in their own lives and the community.

In her first weeks full-time at The Center, Phyllis realized the importance of keeping youth safe and teaching them how they could make better use of their time. “Once the imagination is ignited you build this desire to develop more capacity for taking up space, a creative enterprise space for youth who have had no space in the world,” said Novack.

Sketch Today

Eventually, The Center could no longer support an arts-based program, so Phyllis and eight young people left The Center to find a space that would become what Sketch is today, a place for creative gifts to really thrive. They planned an arts festival that turned into a parade, and a three-day rave to celebrate the artistic talents of youth experiencing homelessness and life on the margins. They hosted workshops and engaged community members. Their goal was to change perceptions of youth experiencing homelessness.

This was the jumping off point for holding court in studio spaces. Gradually, Sketch evolved from their first storefront studio to their home in the repurposed school. Young people are actively creating art, exercising their gifts, selling their works, and becoming cultural leaders and entrepreneurs. Many still navigate life without homes, poverty, discrimination, and all that goes along with that. Some are in shelter systems; others have first-time housing, transitional or social housing, or perhaps their own room in a house.

The most important aspect of Sketch is that it is a space for connection and community building that creates space and voice for the previously unheard. It is also a radical proposition to how we in society view homeless young people. Sketch suggests creativity and imagination as key resources in reducing poverty and youth homelessness. The program urges us to recognize these young people as creative strategists to make the world a better place.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources, including resources on youth and homelessness.

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Wendy Grace Evans-Dittmer
Last Updated: 04/19/2016