Colouring outside the lines with pandemic art therapy in St. Catharines

art therapy online Photo credit: BigStock

Making art can provide a therapeutic outlet for those in health-care settings,  facing increasing isolation brought on by the pandemic.

But  where art programming was once a group-oriented opportunity to create  and socialize with others, therapists have had to adapt to ever-changing  restrictions and a move to creating art through a computer screen. 


Shara McLaren is an art therapist at Hospice Niagara, where the arts programming has moved online. 

McLaren  says she never imaged spending so much time behind a computer screen as  an art therapist, but she’s taken the adjustment in stride. 

She  prepares art kits which are picked up by participants for weekly  art-making workshops dealing with themes surrounding grief, loss and  bereavement. 

“Pre-COVID,  we would be right up next to each other, and there’s some legacy art  makings where I’m touching the individuals, I’m manipulating their hands  to be able move things around,” she said.

At  times, conversations through a computer screen aren’t as fluid as  in-person, McLaren admits, but she says while the delivery has changed,  it’s taught resilience and provided unexpected insight into the  possibilities of virtual art therapy.

Lenore Walker, an art therapist with a local psychology practice, has also managed to adapt to the shift.

“I  actually have found the pandemic has given me the advantage of working  from my home space which has a small studio integrated,” Walker said. 

Some  of her clients have been pleasantly surprised by their progression over  online sessions and many have expressed wanting to continue virtually  after the pandemic wanes.

One  of her clients comes prepared with a sketch of what they want to  address, and Walker paints it according to the client’s instructions.  The finished work is then mailed.

“This  has been a very dis-regulating, disconnecting experience for the  majority of people, so to be able to do something even virtually  together and collaboratively, visually, online has been a great  support,” she said. 


In  Niagara Health’s adult in-patient mental health units, art programming  has been profuse throughout the pandemic, said Sarah Kerrigan, a  recreational therapist and project co-ordinator working in acute mental  health with Niagara Health. 

“For  quite some time, unfortunately, our department was in an outbreak, so  we were not allowed to have any patients gathering whatsoever, so people  were in their rooms,” Kerrigan said. 

Their daily arts programming has provided a way for people to connect with one another while isolated. 

“Humans need connection,” Kerrigan said. 

“On  the surface, all it looks like we’re doing is painting pictures, but  people have massive breakthroughs with their feelings of shame or guilt  or things like that.” 


At  Pathstone Mental Health, focusing on child mental health, staff  developed the Creative Courage art project; what was supposed to be a  four-instalment art series rolled out across a year.

With  only one instalment completed before pandemic lockdowns, the other  planned instalments — showcasing graffiti, moulding clay, pastels and  charcoal — were put on pause. 

“And  without it, because of (COVID-19), it’s just added an extra layer to  the difficulties of those who are already struggling,” said Kim Rossi,  Pathstone’s director of philanthropy. “It is a big loss for sure.”


At  Hotel Dieu Shaver Health and Rehabilitation Centre and Tabor Manor, a  long-term-care home, patients and residents are no longer participating  in group art sessions which were often guided by volunteer artists.

“Some  people love the social piece of it, as well it was offering a chance to  have a conversation as a group,” said Chris Pollard, Hotel Dieu  Shaver’s director of rehabilitation services. 

Now, people are having one-on-one sessions and art kits are provided to be taken back to rooms. 

But  Norma Restivo, therapeutic recreation supervisor at Tabor Manor, said  they’re coming up with creative ways to keep residents engaged. 

On St. Patrick’s Day, residents participated in making decorations for the colourful occasion.