Artist HelpLine

By Sandra Alland

ejection making you blue? Worried about the rent? Losing your mind at your temp job and drinking to get it back? In a culture lacking sufficient funding and respect for the arts, artists often suffer extreme mental stress, and poverty can prevent us from getting help.

Enter artist Stephanie Rogerson with the Artist HelpLine, an interactive piece tuned into artists’ concerns.

“The HelpLine is an installation with a telephone, chair, desk, and support material for artists. They literally pick up the phone and call me on my cell phone,” says Rogerson. “The calls I got were an array of playfulness and profound desperation.”

The HelpLine ran for two weeks last fall at Propeller Centre for the Arts, where 38 calls were made by both new and established artists. With the assistance of harm reduction worker, Rui Pries, Rogerson compiled a resource guide for artists to reference before calling. Participants access information on addiction, support lines, doctors, lawyers, and low income assistance. Rogerson also recommends arts organizations such as Visual Arts Ontario.

Although some calls were professional, Rogerson notes that many were from people “who had nowhere else to turn, hadn’t eaten in days, had no idea what to do and who felt tremendous shame.” She adds, “The adversity in being an artist is very real, and the lack of emotional support to those in a profession where ‘being emotional’ is a pre-requisite compounds isolation and pain.”

Despite the intensity of the project, Rogerson is prepared. A distraught caller who had always lived off his painting suddenly found himself unable to buy groceries. Rogerson explained that through Ontario Works he could obtain emergency welfare, plus additional money if he volunteered to paint at a theatre. Besides practical advice, she guided him to transfer skills and look at his artwork in a larger scope.

For artists going stir crazy in their studios, Rogerson suggests a solution with a rich artistic history: “Kafka was a huge walker. The physical body helps the mind.”

Rogerson’s installation challenges the assumption that artists don’t have specific requirements for their well-being. Although it has artistic intent and value, its other purpose is to give space and voice to those in need. Revolution à la Rogerson? “Artists’ mental health is as valuable as the work they create.”

Artist HelpLine is ongoing and nomadic. It occurs in a unique in-person format February 17-19 at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library.