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Artbeat brings pop-up gallery to Portage Place

Upbeat Artworks offers artists venue to market therapeutic creations

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Although a picture might be worth a thousand words, the work of Artbeat Studio's alumni can encompass many more.

For the first time, Artbeat artists' work will be on sale in a retail environment as a new branch of the studio, Upbeat Artworks, opens today on the second floor of Portage Place.

Artbeat caters exclusively to artists who have dealt with mental-health issues, such as depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, and has helped about 200 artists since it opened its doors on Albert Street in 2005. The studio provides six-month residency programs for artists coping with mental illness. The trying times often translate into inspiration for therapeutic works of art, be they paintings, poems, sculptures or other creations.

"Mental illness is just something that I struggled with and obviously it's not a good thing or a pleasant thing to go through, so art has always been something I coped with," said Julian Kirchmann, a former Artbeat resident who is now a fine arts student at the University of Manitoba.

Kirchmann will work at Upbeat as a volunteer associate, prepping and selling artwork. He said the practical and social skills he learned through Artbeat and Upbeat are essential to where he is at today.

"It was more than just personal success in my mental health, it was more than just finding healthy ways of dealing with things... Once again, Artbeat is giving me more than just what I need at that time. I feel like it's helping me in the moment as well as in the future."

Kirchmann got into the U of M's fine arts program by submitting works he'd completed at Artbeat. Nigel Bart, the studio's facilitator, helped out too, providing pointers on the successful application. Bart created Artbeat to help break down the stigma associated with mental illness.

"A lot of people with mental illness don't get the opportunity to engage in meaningful work and Upbeat will provide a solution for a lot of that population," Bart said. "Having people engaged in this way is really going to make a positive impact on a lot of people's lives, not only the artists, but their families and caregivers."

Kaitlyn Evinger is also an alumni artist from Artbeat who will showcase her graphic-design work by creating promotional materials for Upbeat.

"It's a good way to get out socialize and have a responsibility," said Evinger. "Especially if you're dealing with depression or anxiety, not leaving your house is really bad for that."

For those who are plagued with serious mental-health issues and are unable to work consistently, Upbeat can provide a much-needed revenue stream. Artists can make an extra $200 in two weeks while still collecting unemployment insurance, which might be a small, but very helpful financial cushion.

"Essentially, a lot of our alumni are unable to have full-time employment, so this is giving them a role in selling their own artwork... they havesomething to do and be proud of. It lends a lot of legitimacy towards their actual skill," Evinger said.

Upbeat will charge a 20 per cent commission to artists to cover studio costs, which is a small margin compared with usual 40 per cent commission costs at other galleries. The pop-up studio will operate in a vacant space at Portage Place for as long as the mall will allow, thanks to funds donated by the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and the Winnipeg Foundation and furniture donated by the Hudson's Bay Company on Portage Avenue.

Kirchmann sees an interesting parallel between the growth of Upbeat and the evolution of Portage Place.

"I guess we're doing what the Downtown BIZ is doing on a smaller scale. We're trying to break down the negative areas surrounding mental illness... What I hope will come out of this is removing the negativity surrounding Portage Place and the downtown area in general," he said.

Upbeat is also contributing to the beautification of downtown, another one of the BIZ's mandates. Kirchmann hopes that interested art buyers will choose to frequent Portage Place for Upbeat's original artworks rather than go to big-box chains to buy artists' prints.

"I'd much rather bring home something that has a story to it," said Kirchmann. "I'd much rather know that somebody really put themselves into it in some way or another and that it's also directly supporting economic growth."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2014 C6

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