Artstra takes “Creative Relief” to Larch Corrections Center.

Last year when board member Karin Chase took on Artstra’s “Creative Relief Clark County” program, she could not have anticipated where her passion to help others through art would take her.

Creative Relief began in 2012 as a way to provide donated arts supplies during the cold winter months to the Winter Hospitality Overflow (WHO) shelters in Vancouver. Bins filled with the tools of creative activity, including bright colored markers, crayons, colored paper, glue sticks, rubber stamps, and stickers were delivered to several shelters offering a creative outlet primarily for the children who were staying at the shelters with their families. Laurel Whitehurst and other Arts of Clark County (now Artstra) board members also provided weekly workshops to help engage the children and often their parents in art making.

As Karin looked into locations where communities may not have access to tools for creative expression, she soon realized that the need extends in unexpected directions — beyond children in shelters — to adults who want and need the exploratory and rewarding aspects of personal creativity.

Earlier this year Karin met with Chaplain Zilvinas Jakstas at Larch Corrections Center to devise a plan for making a Creative Relief bin and workshops available for inmates — not an easy task with the levels of security checks required! All materials must be prescreened and anyone doing a workshop would need a background check. Karin was undaunted and plowed ahead with a plan and a date to do art on the inside. She recruited me as her partner to conduct the workshop.

The good news was that a small art group had already been formed in the prison and Chaplain Jakstas was a proponent of the idea. When asked what might be a simple first project for Creative Relief, and with Mother’s Day approaching, the unanimous response from the group was that they wanted to make greeting cards.

So in preparation for the workshop, several Artstra board members gathered over wine to make examples of greeting cards so we could show the inmates different style options including simple pop-up cards. With these samples in hand we were ready to make art!

On our long April 3 drive, Karin and I could see there were still patches of snow on the mountains east of Hockinson where Larch is located. Finally we checked in, and after security screening, our first bin was whittled down to a few stickers, markers, and glue. No colored paper allowed …who knew? Not to worry. Art knows no limits.

We joined the regular art group and started with a shared meal where everyone had contributed money to make “prison burritos,” followed by a meditation. It was such a kind gesture. And as we sat around a long table in the chapel, each of us shared how food is a comfort and fills our memories.

Then the art making started. I showed the examples of the cards that we had made, explaining that not all of us are familiar with making greeting cards, nor are all of us artists. I also said with the supplies at hand this will truly be magic. And it was.

There was a bit of hesitation and caution in the air but soon everyone was engaged in making a card for someone special, mostly for their moms for Mother’s Day. Each card was so unique and creative and, most of all, everyone started having fun as they shared their work and asked for help when they needed it. For 90 minutes we were all in the flow of creating. We all were open to each other’s feelings as we shared our card’s sentiment. I know that many of those moms’ Mother’s Day will be special.

Upon leaving, Chaplain Jakstas told Karin and I how special the workshop was and that everyone liked that we gave them permission and encouraged their own take on art making — that there were no right or wrong ways to express their ideas. He said he had witnessed how truly happy the room felt.

That’s the wonder of art making. No wrong way of doing. No one way fits all. Given the freedom to express a feeling or idea is best when given permission to use a little magic and a whole lot of trial and error. Keeping within the lines and copying the instructor were surely not a part of this day.

Finding a reliable source for donated art supplies has sometimes been challenging. Karin approached Craft Warehouse last year to discuss the importance of Creative Relief offering art supplies year round to the many diverse communities who could benefit. They generously agreed to fill the gap, and for the past year, they have been a wonderful partner in providing arts supplies for many bins. The Children’s Center was the first organization to receive a bin and Artstra continues to resupply them.

Creative Relief will continue working with various underserved populations to make available arts supplies and workshops. If you would like to learn more or volunteer to facilitate a workshop, please email info@artstra.org.

Everyone on that cold April afternoon asked when we would be back again. Both Karin and I answered soon… and maybe crochet is next!

— Karen Madsen