Slaying the dragon of mental illness through painting

Teaching helps woman battle depression

By: Elizabeth Fraser | Winnipeg Free Press  |  02/18/2014

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Michelle Hermary finds satisfaction helping others cope with mental illness through art.

As Michelle Hermary flipped through her sketchbook, paintings of dragons filled each page.

“My default is always dragons, they’re fun to do,” she said. “When I was six, my teacher read Danny and the Dinosaur. I’ve been crazy about dinosaurs and dragons ever since.”

As a child, Hermary was also crazy about drawing, but her passion for artistry began in middle school, when the Winnipeg resident had nowhere to turn but a blank canvas.

Hermary was bullied throughout middle school and can still remember moments that triggered her depression.

“I remember once, a student took a broken bandsaw blade and tried cutting me with it,” she said. “In gym class, somebody was handing out party invitations. She went to every single person in the room, skipped me and continued on.”

Hermary used paintbrushes as a tool to cope with bullying and her depression. Her favourite place to paint was alone in her bedroom.

Sometimes, even her artwork was criticized.

“I was bullied so much in school I feared for my sanity,” she said. “In one of my classes I was doing a dragon and someone took a silver marker and disfigured it. Middle school was a living nightmare.”

Today, Hermary’s favourite place to paint is at Studio Central, where she volunteers as an art instructor and uses her paintbrushes as tools to help others struggling with mental illness. Hermary teaches watercolour classes to a group of three to nine students each week.

Their watercolour paintings hang on the walls of the studio.

“I want my students to enjoy themselves,” she said. “I want them to enjoy the atmosphere here and do their creative thing.”

Studio Central is a local program affiliated with Artbeat Studio Inc. Both programs aim to help people overcome mental illness with art.

Hermary’s role is to expose artists to watercolour paintings and help enhance their artistic techniques.

“I can set an example with my own work and show them what they themselves can do,” she said, painting her latest dragon on a white piece of paper.

The 38-year-old first heard about Studio Central while painting at Artbeat in 2012.

After completing her six-month term at Artbeat, an employee at Studio Central suggested she start teaching her own class.

“It snowballed from there,” she said. “Teaching art just felt right and it’s a social thing. I get to sit and talk about stuff that other people have a similar interest in.”

Hermary enjoys giving back to the community, but her favourite part about teaching at Studio Central is the students.

“I love to see what they’re cooking up. It doesn’t matter what their ability is, everybody is good in my eyes,” she said, dabbing her paintbrush into a pool of red paint. “It’s really fun to see the different things they’re going to be doing each class.”

Although, Hermary enjoys working and encouraging each of her students, she admits her depression returns from time to time.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle to make sure you’re fed and washed,” she said. “Really simple things can be a challenge. Even getting up in the morning can be huge.”

Hermary doesn’t know what her life would be like if she wasn’t painting or volunteering with Studio Central.

“Volunteering feeds the soul,” she said. “If I wasn’t doing this I would be watching YouTube videos at home. I feel pretty good that I’m here.”

Hermary has been volunteering at Studio Central for the past few months and doesn’t plan to put down her paintbrush any time soon.

Her goal is to continue painting dragons and eventually sell them.

More importantly, she wants to help others overcome their mental illness.

“I want my students to enjoy their creative expression,” she said. “It’s a chance to let their emotions out on paper or canvas.”

If you know a special volunteer in Winnipeg, please contact Elizabeth Fraser at fraser.a.liz@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2014 B2