The ArtSpeaks Project: Re-Purposing Trauma


Sustainability can be defined as maintaining any system at a particular level. For ArtSpeaks of Sault Ste Marie, sustainability involves a social approach to building resiliency post-trauma and creating art on a personal scale.

ArtSpeaks involves Maria Parrella-ilaria, the project developer and coordinator, and three local organizations: Breton House, Sault Area Hospital’s Sexual Assault Care Centre and the Sault Ste Marie Museum, current home to ArtSpeaks. This project began when Parrella-ilaria realized,


“Things in the North were getting pretty dire and there wasn’t a lot of provincial funding to help these agencies.”

In collaboration with the now-retired director of Breton House, they were able to secure a Trillium Foundation Grant. ArtSpeaks became embedded within agencies and their budgets, then focused on securing grants from the city to ensure the project’s longevity.

ArtSpeaks helps individuals with trauma from substance abuse or sexual assault. The main focus had been on female-identifying individuals, but they have opened up to all adults dealing with trauma and to children aged 16 and up. Parrella-ilaria notes, “We have folks from their 20s up to 70s.” ArtSpeaks helps individuals normalize their mental state, as art calms the brain and allows individuals to be present.


Parrella-ilaria says “to have other people witness what you’ve gone through helps you realize that you have value and that you’re a contributing member to society. You’re real.”

During outdoor sessions in Jamestown, Sault Ste Marie, the ArtSpeaks team met a family who lost one of their own, a man who passed away due to mental health and addictions. Due to pandemic guidelines, the family wasn’t able to have a funeral after his body was shipped home.


“They were eager to do a memorial, a commemorative piece and we helped them figure out how to work it so it had a ‘lasting quality’ and fit in; but it was also very much something they needed to do,” Parrella-ilaria says.

ArtSpeaks is meeting several UN Sustainable Development Goals:Good Health and Well-Being, Gender Equality, and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. ArtSpeaks is exploring ‘social prescriptions’. “Counsellors and doctors, in addition to prescribing medication, there’s also this movement towards ‘well, it isn’t always about a pill.’” Doctors may look at prescribing exercise at a gym, or ecotherapy and nature walks. This could involve being ‘prescribed’ to attend non-clinical art-as-therapy. “It’s a mental health intervention but we’re using things that help round out the individual. We’re hoping within the next year or so we’ll have programs for the Sault area.” Parrella-ilaria says, “We’re experimenting, which is kind of nice with this pandemic.”

At the end of the interview, I left with a feeling of hope. Hope that the virus will be old news, that our society has the capacity to change in a meaningful way, hope that this project, and all others like it, will continue to make lasting, sustainable change on all levels. With the ArtSpeaks team, I’m confident that social sustainability will improve and allow everybody to live peacefully.