Gurl’s Story: Rebuilding through art
When Larissa, whose artist name is Gurl23, first discovered the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre ten years ago, she fell in love with (what was then) the art room. “It used to be this crazy area that we’d paint and draw on,” she says. “It was awesome because we all had a common focus.” As well as feeling comfortable with the people around her, she felt a sense of care and sincerity from the staff and peer support workers. “That’s what blows my mind about this place,” she says. “They’re just really genuine people. And I mean it — I’ve never seen that before.”
When the art room was renovated through funding from our generous donors, it transformed the lives of artists like Gurl23. “Your environment is what you are,” she says. “It gave me such pride and dignity. It made me feel important and clean.”
Gurl23, who is an Anishinaabe two-spirit woman, has been living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since she was seventeen years old. She was taken during the sixties-scoop, and her adopted family were often on the move. “We’re living in conditions where we’re constantly being reminded of all the trauma,” she says. “Coast Mental Health is my lifeline and I’ve made great friends and some of my best paintings.”
After attending the Resource Centre on a daily basis, Gurl23 began picking up contract work, producing art for the City of Vancouver. “I needed that structure,” she says. Along with her work came a feeling of professionalism that she was able to build from. “That professional atmosphere I felt from the art room,” she says, “really adds to that confidence.” From there, Gurl23 began growing her portfolio, working with prolific institutions such as the Museum of Anthropology and the National Gallery of Canada.
According to Gurl23, there were moments where she felt overwhelmed by the success she was experiencing. “I’m just a home girl and it was a lot to deal with,” she says. “But I always had it in the back of my head, telling myself it’s okay if things don’t work out, I can always go back to Coast Mental Health.”
Gurl23 has found the stability she needs to maintain her mental health and develop her artist portfolio. She’s also chosen to become a peer support worker. “I think this program is going to really help me with confidence, understanding a new skill and socializing again,” she says. “Because it’s pretty traumatizing staying in your room like that [during the height of the pandemic].”
Gurl23’s goal is to get a smile. “I miss smiles,” she says. She’s grateful that the Peer Support Program Manager Fraser Mackenzie encouraged her to enroll onto the 90-hour course. “And you know, if I develop the skills, maybe I’ll see it in somebody else someday, and say ‘Hey, maybe you should try this?”
Mural created and painted by Gurl23 in the boardroom at the Resource Centre. Gurl23 will continue to paint the boardroom wall mural throughout the summer. Coast Mental Health is forever grateful for her time and talent and looks forward to celebrating with her upon its completion.
Painting the boardroom
When Malindar asked Gurl23 if she wanted to paint the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre boardroom, Gurl23 couldn’t believe her luck. “I was like, yeah! Are you serious?!” she says.
The idea came to her in a dream. ‘It’s heavy,’ she says. ‘Because we’ve lost so much of our animal kingdom and two-spirit women, the piece is asking, “how are we going to get through this time right now?”’ Gurl23’s wall mural prompts viewers to acknowledge the removal and destruction of both land and human rights, while asking the important question: what can we do?
“It’s just a flat surface,” she says. “But it’s everything to me.”
The Peer Support Program and the Art Room are only made available through the generosity of Coast Mental Health Foundation supporters. It is programs like these that help clients imagine a life beyond just their diagnosis. Thank you for your support.