By Claudine Nduwimana

“Art is my talent and I came to CCI to give the most valuable treasure I have — art skills, my talent.”

Jennifer Macklem is an art professor at the University of Ottawa. She joined the Catholic Centre for Immigrants (CCI) in March as an art volunteer.

Since then, Jennifer has embarked on an art project with the CCI youth. They are working towards creating a beautiful mural to showcase this summer.

As a youth worker at CCI, my first impressions of Jennifer was of the ideal image of the artists we see on TV, down-to-earth but cultured and deep in thought. At first, I wondered how will our youth match with her artistic sophistication. After all, we are all interested in different kinds of art with some of us even wanting to read more about how we can become Fine Artists, which is a very complex type of art.

But as we started working together, I discovered Jennifer is an unassuming person with a big heart. She is still the typical artist but when she is around our youth, she easily adopts their attitude and acts as a friend more than an art director.

In an interview with Jennifer, she shared her experience of working with the newcomer youth community in Ottawa.

Q. What do you do with the youth group?

A. We meet every Monday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. with newcomer youth aged 14 years to 29 years old for an art session. Basicaly we (me and two staff from CCI) create a relaxing environment for the youth to assure them they are safe and make them feel welcomed. We feed them to see that they are not hungry and are fully energised for artistic activities. Currently, we are working with a structured but improvised structured geometry art.

Q. Where did you first hear about CCI?

A. I was considering doing a public community-based art project when my fellow public art group at the City of Ottawa told me about CCI. It was a bonus choosing CCI as I have worked on newcomer-related projects in the past. I have done art programs with refugees and newcomer families before I knew about CCI.

Q. What is your goal with the youth group?

A. The goal is to successfully achieve a creative project, like a mural or something along that line of thinking. Art is fluid; with this in mind we can change direction over time and be an ongoing project after project. Currently, we have started structured geometry wall art. The idea is to create stars that will be pinned on a painted blue wall so as to create a night sky image in one of the meeting rooms at CCI. I believe the youth were inspired by “cool wallpapers” of a similar nature and they are spearheading the project. I am here to help them achieve their goal of reimagining the walls of the meeting room. In the future, I hope we can create a permanent art studio where newcomers to Canada could come and make art on regular basis as a creative drop in Centre, with workshops and display area.

Q. What were your first impressions of the youth group?

A. Fun, delightful, engaged and joyful.

Q. What do you like about the artistic program?

A. I love the aura among the group, the music and the laughter among the youth. There is a variety among the age range. There is a lot of room for collaboration, shared responsibility. I like the energy and everyone leaves happy. There is a natural aura of joy among the group members.

Q. How long are you planning to stay with the CCI family?

A. I will stay as long they want me. (laughs)

Q. What motivated you to be a volunteer at CCI?

A. Art is therapeutic and is a natural remedy to increasing joy and happiness. Art is the only thing I can offer to the world, it’s the only thing I am extremely good at and it is the best gift I can afford to share with so many people around me.

Q. What advice would do you have to promote more art programs for newcomers to Ottawa?

A. The advice I would give to CCI management would be to be aware of the value of how the CCI programs contribute to the well being of our newcomers. It’s important people feel positive, happy and energized. These kind of activities are a shortcut to that. This is extremely valuable and you cannot put a price tag on people’s well being, especially to new immigrates with a difficult history and somewhat difficult new path to embark on to starting a new life in a new environment. So I hope there is an awareness about the impact programs like these have on newcomers and how it builds their confidence and communication among each other and the people around them.

Q. Summarize your experience with the youth art program in one word and why?

A. To my summarize my experience in one word with the youth program I would say joy. Joy because when people are creating something together, it brings the element of discovery and beauty. Sharing that journey with other people brings in the element of profound joy.

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. I do not want to make it sound utopia because it’s not but I know there are certain people with problems, challenges and situations, but it really is a lovely moment in time, every week, when people get together and really spend some time just having fun.