For Jeff Nachtigall, art is everywhere and can be all encompassing. For the last three years Nachtigall has been serving as the artist in residence at the Sherbrooke Community Centre, helping the residents there discover their art.
When Nachtigall came across Sherbrooke he said he was at a crossroads in his life but there was something about Sherbrooke that he instantly felt a connection with.
Â Â Â Â “I’ve never been interested in residencies before but this was different. Long-term care was something that was always interesting to me. I had a gut feeling that I had to do this.”
Â Â Â Â Sherbrooke Community Centre, located in the College Park area on the east side of Saskatoon, has gone through many transformations but has kept its name since 1972. It is open to long-term care residents who require help with their daily lives. Some of the programs available include physiotherapy, occupational therapy and the art program that Nachtigall coordinates.
Â Â Â Â Nachtigall fondly remembers and laughs about all the bumps along the way.
Â Â Â Â “When I got here there was no studio. They were like, ”˜What’s a studio?’ The beginning was hard becauseÂ the first part was really forging relationships before we could get to any art. The studio I eventually set upÂ is the same studio I would set up anywhere. We aren’t going to dumb it down into the lowest common dominator.Â We are going to get some great art made — let’s push this as far as we can.”Â
Â Â Â Â Nachtigall’s self-described luck helped out. In his first nine months there was already a show at the Mendel Art Gallery, a dozen new artists exploring and expressing their talents and a National Film Board documentary about the institution.
Â Â Â Â “Let’s treat these people like professional artists and get something first class and top notch,” he said. “Let them proclaim their voice and express themselves.”
Â Â Â Â Nachtigall credits the real success to the residents.
“Let’s treat these people like professional artists and get something first class and top notch.”
“My job is to dig down and uncover that hidden potential. I’m not a therapist; I have no training. My job is really a ditch digger. I’m mining for your creativity and what you do with that is up to you,” said Nachtigall.
Â Â Â Â It was while at Sherbrooke that Nachtigall realized some of the residents in wheelchairs were restricted in what they could do. This led him to design a mobile painting device which he described as a crude device that allows for a different way of painting. Nachtigall’s mobile painting device is a modified wheelchair that allows the less mobile residents to paint more freely in Nachtigall’s studio space. Nachtigall describes the device as an arm that attaches to the wheelchair which in turn allows paint to be delivered and the user to make massive paintings.
Â Â Â “What amazed me was how everyone was able to manoeuvre in our original space, which was small. I assumed that many of the people would be old and that I’d be dealing with cognitive issues such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. I changed my thinking; some of these are mobility issues.”
Â Â Nachtigall has had great success with this device and his techniques. Residents have not only creatively flourished but have found new ways to be creative without feeling stifled.
Â Â Â Â “It just opened my eyes to how mobile and independent they are because my stereotype before was that you are confined to this chair and now this paradigm shift occurred: this chair is what let’s you be mobile and it is an extension of you.”Â
The man behind the artists
Â Â Â Â Ever since he was young, Nachtigall has felt connected with art. Nachtigall thought of himself as “the kid that drew” but it wasn’t until university that he started to take art seriously.
Â Â Â Â “It wasn’t something that was really promoted,” Nachtigall said. “Art class was always the same as gym. It was a reward and a punishment. “Â
Â Â Â Â Originally, Nachtigall went to university thinking of subjects such as law and marine biology but gravitated towards art again because he was “horrible at maths and science” and art just seemed to fall into place.
Â Â Â Â “The biggest turning point for me was after my first or second art class. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to be just a student and hold myself to those standards.Â I decided to be open to learning and always be in the learning process, regardless of what point of my career I’m at.Â I decided at 18 that I’m now a professional artist.”
Nachtigall mentioned his luck many times when describing his career. He was able to find success relatively quickly and in the seven years he lived in Calgary he was already showing work in galleries. But he said he still felt empty and wondered where it was going.
Â Â Â Â “There was a point where I was doing five solo shows a year but I started noticing that they were hollow, empty victories. What was I getting out of this? The art world is a very fickle place. It’s a tough business”
This mindset eventually led Nachtigall to take a break from painting for a few years. He settled in Saskatoon, a move which at the time was supposed to be temporary.
The artists within Sherbrooke
Â Â Â Â It is not only Nachtigall’s spirit and passion that are alive and flourishing at SherbrookeÂ but also the many people who live there.
In the three years that he has been there, Nachtigall has not only helped some of the residents rediscover their passion for artÂ but also inspire others who had no previous inclination for it. Nachtigall has now helped assemble an eclectic group of people to branch out through art. This ongoing process has not only helped inspire them but also now inspire others who are viewing the finished pieces as works of art. Â Â
Â Â Â Â Kathleen Robertson, an artist living at Sherbrooke, is originally from England where she studied classical art before coming to Canada. Robertson came to Sherbrooke five years ago when she needed assistance and became enamoured with the idea of painting again. Robertson credits Nachtigall for not only inspiring her but also getting her to paint again.
Â Â Â Â “Here at Sherbrooke everyone needs something to do. Before I watched the idiot box a lot but now I always have something to do.”
Â Â Â Â Long time resident Stuart Sherin had never painted before but also credits Nachtigall for bringing out a creative drive he had never realized.
Â Â Â “He just told me to find some paint, do some art and I did that and now I love it.”
Â Â Â Â Jack Coggins, a former U of S history professor, came to Sherbrooke after aÂ cycling accident left him a quadriplegic. Coggins was cycling down the Meewasin trail when he collided with another group of cyclists. The accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.Â Â
Â Â Â Â CogginsÂ describes this time in his life as very depressing, and said he even toyed with the idea of going to Switzerland to end his life through an assisted suicide program. It was during this time that Nachtigall gave Coggins a “mouth stick,” which is a paintbrush attached to a stick that Coggins uses with his mouth.
Â Â Â Â Since then Coggins has relished in becoming an artist and has also amassed an impressive portfolio of work in three years. With the use of his mouth stick, Coggins has painted pictures of pyramids, scenes from Incan culture and is currently working on images of famous people of the 20th century, such as Jimi Hendrix and Martin Luther King Jr.Â It takes Coggins about a week to finish a project. Much to his surprise and delight, Coggins has also become a inspiration to younger children who have come to Sherbrooke on tours.Â Â
Â Â Â Â “The art program here has given me a lifeline. Jeff has been a motivator and a mentor to me.”
Â Â Â Â Nachtigall and the Sherbrooke residents are enjoying their success and the fruit of their creativity.
Their catalogue The Insiders was released in late January and is currently available in the gift shop at Sherbrooke. The catalogue both highlights and showcases the positive work that is going on at Sherbrooke. Nachtigall is also prepping for a show in September called Accessibility City, which will address how accessible Saskatoon is for people with limited mobility. Nachtigall and the staff at Sherbrooke would love more support and encourage people to come by or volunteer.
Â Â Â Â “We’ve just barely scratched the surface of what we can accomplish here,” said Nachtigall.
< The NFB documentary A Year at Sherbrooke plays at STM Auditorium Feb. 25 at 3:30. >
photo: Robby Davis