Sketch is a little bit like “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 construction of alternative learning, a creative enterprise. Over 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 the studios have created jobs for youth. There are three community gardens and a mentorship program; they are changing the landscape of Canada both literally and figuratively.
Thanks to the support of Artscape (multi-tenant space development for artists) and Phyllis Novak, Artistic Director, Sketch is stretching its way out of the factory space where it resides. They now find themselves in the vast arms of a 7,500 square foot repurposed school that is beckoning the program to continue growing their emerging artist center in collaboration with other community arts groups. The youth artists describe it as “a cool underground space.”
The pace and the movement of this space for youth experiencing homelessness did not simply spring from the cracks in Toronto’s streets. It had a beginning, a starting point that began with one woman’s passion for arts and the creative process. She had a vision for seeing “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” recalls Phyllis. Sketch began with a drop-in Center and a young actor.
Before she arrived at the Yonge Street Mission (The Center), a youth drop-in center in Toronto, there was no evidence of the creative life. Phyllis had been living her life as an emergent 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. Phyllis explains: “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 in that this 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,” says Phyllis.
Phyllis 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 in terms of 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 there was an importance to keeping youth safe and to teaching youth 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,” ponders Phyllis.
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, 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 homeless youth.
This was the jumping off point for holding court in studio spaces evolving from their first storefront studio to their new home in the old school building (under construction). 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, stigma, and all that goes along with that. Some are in shelter systems; others have first-time housing, transitional or social housing, or perhaps have 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.
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