Art is for everybody.
Those are the words you first see in bold white font when you visit The Art Lab website, and it’s a statement that the owner, Samantha Walker, believes wholeheartedly. “Art is a global thing, just like dancing. It’s something within all of us. But somewhere along the way, as we get older, we kind of lose sight of the artist in us,” says Walker. The Art Lab wants to help everybody—regardless of gender, age, background, ability, and lifestyle—fall in love with the process of creating something new.
Walker has had a deep interest in art since childhood. “I’ve been an artist my whole life. My mom had a huge influence on me because she went to fashion school,” reflects Walker. “I studied early childhood education at Ryerson and then worked for the YMCA childcare program.” At the YMCA, she started creating art with the children and found joy in that aspect of her job. Through this experience, Walker decided to bridge her passions for art and working with children—The Art Lab was born.
In July 2018, Walker, along with her husband Matthew Bolton, launched The Art Lab in Walkerville. The place offers a wide variety of workshops and art classes. These activities include slime making, tie-dye art, creating bath bombs, fashion design, drawing lessons, graffiti art, oven-baked clay, collage-making, pre-school art play, and more. There are age guidelines for many of the workshops. For example, the “edible play” activity is available to kids as young as 18 months, whereas the “Bob Ross Paint Night” is designed for adults 19 and over. Along with what is currently available, Walker is making sure she constantly updates future offerings. “Being able to come up with new activities is the most fun to me. And seeing the reaction the kids are having as well as seeing the reaction to the things they make means a lot.”
Art is a language expressed from both our conscious and unconscious minds, and there is an element of self-exploration that comes with focusing on the process of creating something versus focusing on the outcome. The notion that creating art can be a powerful tool for healing has been a part of many cultures around the world for thousands of years. For example, the mandala (a Sanskrit word that literally translates to ‘circle’) is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. In a 2002 study published in the Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, researchers found that creating ‘mandala art’ helped HIV-positive children express aspects of their lives which were difficult to communicate verbally.
There’s also been academic research dedicated to understanding how art works as a form of therapy for adults. In a 2010 literature review published in the American Journal of Public Health entitled “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health”, the authors’ review of literature suggests that creative engagement in activities (such as painting) can decrease feelings of anxiety, stress, and mood disturbance in older adults.
According to the Ontario Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a health service that “can be used to explore issues of relationships, family, loss, life transitions, abuse, and development.” Art therapy is unique as it does not rely only on verbal skills, but offers an accessible form of expression for persons with certain disabilities, and it encourages risk-taking and creative thinking in a safe space. Many also acknowledge that the process of making art is inherently therapeutic—even without the presence of a mental health counsellor or health provider. To Walker, art therapy means focusing on the task at hand, and turning off your brain from distractions to really hone in on a project that doesn’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer. “It’s something you take from within,” says Walker.
The Art Lab is a process-based art studio, meaning that the focus is more on the process of creating art than on the end result. It’s about falling in love with the journey and not getting too caught up in where it leads. Walker was inspired by her time at the YMCA to incorporate aspects of the ‘play to learn’ strategy. It encourages children to actively explore ways to problem solve through play and creativity. It also helps children develop social and cognitive skills and gain self-confidence required to engage in new experiences.
What makes The Art Lab particularly unique is that it offers art lessons for individuals with special needs. These can be one-time lessons or ongoing sessions. And for group sessions, they can even come to your home. There’s also a focus on not isolating individuals with special needs from other children, as social engagement and inclusivity are a big part of The Art Lab culture. “Every person, regardless of ability, who has come to The Art Lab has found joy in some way, especially in the splatter paint room. It’s completely open-ended. It’s chaos. For people with special needs we’ve come up with so many different ways to do art,” says Walker. For example, the art splatter paint room offers easy-grip materials such as plungers. “For people who have different mobile issues or social disorders—we’ve been able to accommodate them too, depending on their need. And it’s brought something new to Windsor that wasn’t available before.”
The Art Lab has been very busy since its launch, leaving all the tasks of setting up, teaching, cleaning, and designing new events to just a handful of staff members. “I do feel tired sometimes because we’re so busy—but that’s awesome. I’m so happy that we’re busy. I remember that I’m doing what I love and because it’s such a positive space and such a joyful space, it’s really hard to feel like it’s daunting at all. There are always new kids coming and there are smiles and laughter every day.”
Though The Art Lab has been around for only 10 months, Walker and Bolton already have a few plans for the company’s future. The eventual goal is to get into more schools and bring more art into education. Walker feels that art is a crucial part of development and it’s too important to be left out of after-school programs and school curriculums. “With every budget cut, art keeps getting weaned out. We’d love to spread this across Canada eventually,” says Walker.
But in the near future, they’re hoping to work on a project called “Art Splash.” Art Splash is a partnership between Ford City Neighbourhood Renewal and The Art Lab that hopes to revitalize the Drouillard alleyways using murals made with the help of children from different age groups in the area. “We have jointly applied for a grant from the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Fund (ACHF) and hope to hear back soon. Depending on the funding amount we hope to produce 6 to 10 different murals in the neighbourhood as well as a painted crosswalk.”
What The Art Lab brings to the Windsor community is a space where you can be your whole self without fear of being judged or excluded or criticized. Perhaps that’s what ‘art is for everybody’ really means.