Art therapy studio mounts a comeback
When Drew Smith opened her art studio Render, the goal was to provide a convenient place for paying customers (10 at a time) to relieve stress by making art in a supervised setting.
This was in mid-February 2020. It lasted three weeks in that form before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and she had to close up shop. In May she started a service where people could order a box of art supplies and work at home from a video lesson.
Although Smith reopened Render in July 2020 with eight seats, then soon six seats, she was faced with a paradox. The pandemic meant people wanted places to get out of their homes and relieve stress. But the pandemic also made doing it in person uneconomic.
Render is a for-profit business. "The model is a blend of studio and a community-based mental health base," she explained to the Business Tribune in March 2021, just as the green shoots of recovery were popping up.
Render currently operates as a blend of in-person and remote activity. The light-filled space is on the first floor of a new apartment building in Slabtown called Maestro. Customers — usually corporate teams, family, social and religious groups — can order a box of art supplies and use them in the studio, or follow a video online and use them at home.
For the few who want to come in, Smith limits them to their pods so they are less likely to pass
around the virus.
It's not the kind of place where you drink some wine, have a laugh and paint a plate. As a trained art therapist, Smith's position is that people are looking for a place to create art in a semi-therapeutic setting. Rather than just be about artistic technique, classes begin with mindfulness and end with reflection and discussion.
To foster creativity, cell phones must be put away. There are no clocks in the studio, and light instrumental music plays in the background. What little artwork there is on display is discrete — some collages put together by Smith's friends graced the opening. She said a lack of imagery helps people use their imaginations. To that end, there are white canvases on the walls with blue edges, with textured white brushstrokes. Smith compares them to thoughts dancing around in people's heads as they meditate.
"I have a blended, direct-to-consumer type option, and then an on-demand option. Once I shut down, I was trying to think about how (I could) get a very similar service that tapped into all the same things that guided why I started. That was a little bit more doable at home."
'How does that make you feel?'
Smith stresses that Render is not pure art therapy: this is not a confidential space. "This is a community, mental health and wellness service; it's not therapy."
Even so, therapeutic art-making is not an easy field to commercialize.
For example, in a tissue paper printmaking class, Smith will demonstrate the technique and then people working at home can pause the video and try it out. Being able to stop the clock means there is less time pressure when remote. This is one benefit of the whole "flip the classroom" movement, whereby students watch the lecture in their own time then show up to class to discuss their methods.
She says the discussion might be around "How did it make you feel that the materials were so unstable and unpredictable, even messy?" She doesn't use prompts like "draw this bowl of fruit." It's more that people freely respond to the art materials.
"I create space for people to make that metaphor for themselves. It's really about setting people up to notice things and be very observant. That's the mindfulness component that happens in studio and in virtual."
A single drop-in class that might last two hours costs $50 to $75, depending on the materials. There's a four-week series made up of four 75-minute classes for $135.
When people do come in, their materials are sanitized and already laid out on their table. The corner where the lockers and coat rack were has been changed to a decorative area, since Smith doesn't want people huddling and breaking social distance.
"Even as restrictions are lifted, we'll still be distancing. We'll still be doing math. Part of it is people's comfort. I imagine I'll be hovering at six to eight people for some time."
After the pandemic
If COVID-19 went away and Render could reopen to maximum capacity, the studio would still only hold 10 people, but Smith is banking on volume: more classes per day. The calendar would have to be brimming. Her number one expense is rent, followed by art supplies, which buys retail from Blick a few blocks away.
Aside from one small grant from Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO), Render is dependent on income from paying customers. Although Smith has some individual art therapy clients from her previous position, she has had to rely on her savings to keep going. She missed out on Payroll Protection Program loans and grants because Render did not have a full year of financial records and tax returns.
Sending out art kits and links to Zoom classes is not what she had hoped to be doing. The consensus: in-person is better.
"The live human is a component that people really, really miss. So much of why I wanted to open the studio is that a lot of people really have a hard time being creative. At home, there's distractions, so having another space that's really set up for that is better. I think we're all doing the best we can, and that's a good approximation."
When working from home, artists will tilt their camera down at their work to give Smith an idea of what they are doing. She does not ask them to share their final work. Process is more important than product.
"One thing that really kind of separates the approach and process here is that we're actually not so focused on the final art product. It's more about the experience of art-making. It's the things that you kind of learn from the experience, how it helps you relax, and what you notice about your own internal dialogue."
That end of class discussion and guided meditation part has transferred quite well to the virtual platform.
"That's been a nice surprise."
Render Creative Space
"A creative space for health and wellness"
ADDRESS: 1705 N.W. Kearney Street, Portland
PHONE: 971 339 9155
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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