Spotlight Series


Interview with Maria Parrella-ilaria, AOCA, BFA, MA;, the founder of ArtSpeaks and ArtHives

By Sadaf Kazi, Enterprise Development and Research Assistant

What inspired you to start the ArtSpeaks Project.
The inspiration came from 20+years of community work I’ve been doing since returning to Sault Ste. Marie after graduate school in the ’90s. I trained as an art therapist and saw a great need to make art part of everyday life and not just for the privileged or elite. I believe that making art a part of everyday life will lead to healthier individuals and healthier communities.

What is the motivation behind your social enterprise?
I think my main motivation was a desire to see art become a key part of a healthy community and be a part of everyday life. I think this was one of the main reasons why I even went into art psychotherapy in the beginning. So when I returned from grad school at Concordia, I opened a cafe here in the Sault—The Fireball Coffee’n Arts House/Café—and made it a creative art space. So that was probably my first endeavour in terms of social entrepreneurship, to use the cafe as a vehicle to encourage people to embrace the arts as part of everyday wellness, leading to a healthier community overall.

Who do you hope to impact or reach through the work of a social enterprise and why?
Speaking specifically about the ArtSpeaks Project, I would think that it would be predominantly women, especially women often forgotten by society. There are a lot of programs for children and youth having difficulties and struggles, and seniors are getting attention, but women in a certain age group–mainly between the mid-20s to mid-50s–seem to be quite forgotten. It could be because often they are impacted by psycho-social or socio-economic factors, or are seen solely as caretakers and not seen as socially/culturally relevant, and as a result, there aren’t a lot of programs that are created for them or are inaccessible because of either timing and/or cost. Thus the ArtSpeaks Project was created with a specific focus to help address the issues these women are going through. Most of the women I work with are dealing with trauma due to some sort of challenge in their lives—addictions, violence, mental health challenges.  In the 20+ years I’ve been in the Sault, I’ve worked with women in recovery in corrections as well as at Breton House (residential addictions treatment center for women), as well as the  Sault Hospital’s Sexual Assault Care Centre and as a result I’ve come to know this population really well, and this is why I decided back in 2016 to write grants and develop programs specifically for this demographic.

Are there more programs for males who have been incarcerated? I am assuming that there are more males in the prison system than females.
Yes, the incarcerated population is male-dominated but more and more women are finding themselves behind bars. When I started working at the Algoma Treatment and Remand Center back in the 90s, we had 80 beds for men and 8 for women, reflecting the ratio of incarceration rates at that time. Presently our treatment beds for women have remained at 8 but our treatment beds for men have been reduced to perhaps 32 to make way for more specialized units and an expansion into remand beds. The programming for the male prison population focuses on domestic violence. Our program for women is different in that it focuses more on recovery from addictions and the challenges arising from poor mental health/ relationships/ parenting. Many of our female residents have been victims of violence and often find themselves in dysfunctional relationships, many are parents and have lost their children to the system/ foster care, most turn to criminal behaviour as a way to make a living/please an abusive partner.  Because of these factors (and so many others) these women have gone through so much trauma and have hurt themselves in so many different ways that there are great wounds that need to be taken care of. Often times you will find that our incarcerated female population is emotionally/psychologically beaten down and very depressed. Most have a difficult time figuring out how they are ever going to escape the cycle of self-abuse/addictions//criminal behaviour.

Would you consider yourself as a social entrepreneur. Why and why not?
I guess, I am because of the fact that I decided to go into a fairly non-traditional profession of art psychotherapy which even today is new—but back in the early 90s it had only been offered in a very few schools here in Canada. It was an unorthodox avenue for my interest in the arts. I came back from graduate school and opened the Fireball Café in Sault Ste. Marie, which embraced the arts—offering art-as-therapy workshops, art exhibits, as well as, poetry slams, local music, and other community events. It was much more of a social enterprise than a business. It was very different from this current project.  So I would think that probably I was always a social entrepreneur, but I never actually referred to myself as such until you phrase it as such now.

Does this social enterprise branding resonate with you?
I think it does now. I think maybe just because I’ve come to understand what that means more so than when I first returned to the Sault and started doing the work that I did I and also because I think the profession of art psychotherapy has changed to the point where we’ve sort of moved from private practice to public practice now. Right. And so that’s what the ArtSpeaks Project is about—it’s a public practice in art-as-therapy. So it kind of allows the whole idea of social entrepreneurship to be embraced by the field as well.

Are there any words or phrases you can connect with more than a social entrepreneur?
A term that always resonated with me is a community-engaged artist.

What barriers/challenges have you encountered?
Funding is probably the biggest challenge. It is an ongoing struggle, especially for this kind of project. Apart from that, one of the other big challenges is for people to understand that art doesn’t always have to be passive. It doesn’t always have to be about looking at art, nor does it always have to be about taking a special class from a certain person to learn a very specific skill. We need to approach art from a creative point of view. There is a lot of emphasis on sports for team building and general physical health, which is good. But we need to think about creativity and inviting creativity into our lives, especially in this, an industrial town. It is interesting that currently the city is looking at creativity as a means of jumpstarting the economy, of making our ‘city’ more of a ‘community’. Creative people problem-solve differently and contribute to the economy and society in novel ways such as starting a ‘pay-what-you-can’ eatery (Gore St. Café) or opening a yarn shop that is a café/bakery and at times a workshop space/entertainment venue (Shabby Motley Handcraft). This is where art/creativity helps. It doesn’t have to be just about painting or sculpting, but it can be about enjoying and exploring other creative avenues such as baking, or gardening, or even rebuilding a vintage auto. Engaging with the arts unlocks the creative part of the mind. It aids in de-stressing, promotes greater self-expression/self-reflection and leads to better mental health outcomes.

How did you confront those challenges and barriers?
To overcome these obstacles, I involve myself with different community groups/agencies. I was always connected to the arts, either through teaching visual arts courses at Sault College, Algoma U or the Art Gallery of Algoma, through my work as an art therapist with local agencies—so I covered all the bases so to speak.  In this way, spanning a 20+ year career in the arts, I’ve been able to make connections and foster relationships which have helped greatly in the creation of the ArtSpeaks Project.

What resources did you need and what resources do you project needing as you move forward with the ArtSpeaks and ArtHives projects?
I would think the greatest resource that we need right now is funding, not just a bigger grant, but to have more community buy-in so that we have long-term funding from agencies that are interested – so long-term funding would be the greatest gift that we could get. And with that, you know, being able to hire other artists who could work with different folks. Right? And to come up with new partnerships so that we’re not just working with women who are dealing with trauma but we are also working with youth and we’re working with newcomers and all kinds of folks who are interested in building community through the arts.

Who is your community of support?
I would say Breton House, which is a recovery home for women, have been very supportive over the years. They themselves are a not-for-profit, so they also suffer from difficulties with funding, but they are always eager to help and they were able to drum up a little bit of funding to help us at least have a program for 2019. Then there is the Sexual Assault Care Center from the Sault Area Hospital. They too are wonderful, wonderful partners, and  are committed to the project as well. And, then we have the Sault Ste. Marie Museum which is actually run by the SSM Forty-Ninth Field Regiment. The Museum has been a great ally in this whole project by offering us workshop space as well as storage space for the life of the project. I would have to say that the ArtSpeaks Project would not have happened had it not been for the Ontario Trillium Foundation funding the initial project in 2017, otherwise the project would still be in theory.

What would have made this process easier for you?
I suppose if our initial grant had been for a longer time frame, instead of just one year, then we could have seen what kind of change could have happened and sort of suss out our project a bit more, and then follow up with grants.

What do you hope to see your social enterprise become in future?
I would like to see the ArtSpeaks Project and specifically it’s ArtHives program become a mainstay of life in the Sault. I would like to see greater access to the arts as a means of supporting mental health services in our community. I would also like to see more arts-based learning in the community. I would like to see more funding for public engagement in the arts.

What other community initiatives are you involved in?
As this project takes up a lot of my time I’m not overly involved in too much else except when time allows I do volunteer at Days of Girls—we create fabric menstrual pad kits for girls and women in countries (and circumstances) where access to feminine menstrual products is prohibitive.

Are you aware of other social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?
I’m a big fan of our local Soup Kitchen and the Food Bank Farm ( which is always looking for volunteers; Connect the Dots—Community Harvest is another great one, collecting surplus food and sharing with various groups locally (find them on Facebook); and I’m looking forward to the community grocery store in the Gore St block, Grocer 4 Good, to be started by Lisa Vezeau-Allen. Additionally, check out Days for Girls (Sault Chapter) who meet at the Zion Lutheran Church on Upton Road one Saturday a month starting Sept 21—new volunteers always welcome to help cut, sew and assemble menstrual pad kits for girls and women around the world.