Virtual art exhibition Being Scene explores mental health, addiction and global trauma


Mustafa Khan Eating Grass. Workman Arts virtual experience.
Mustafa Khan Eating Grass

 (This story is sponsored by Workman Arts.)

The pandemic has heavily burdened Canadians, leaving many people struggling with their mental health. If one thing has become apparent over the last year, it’s that the world can be a tough place for those living with mental health challenges.

Through arts education, public presentations and supporting vulnerable artists, Workman Arts promotes a greater understanding of mental health and addiction issues. Each year, the multidisciplinary arts organization hosts Being Scene, a free exhibition that showcases work by artists who have lived experience of these challenges.

Being Scene 2021 is comprised of three exhibitions and an eight-part event series that looks at works and themes, trends in the sector and professional development for artists. Additionally, many artworks featured in the exhibition are for sale, providing income for artists during a very trying year.

To keep audiences and artists safe, the exhibition has been turned into an immersive and adventurous online experience. It will be accessible to the public through the Being Scene website from March 4 to 28.

This year’s exhibition will also be celebrating its 20th anniversary through a retrospective of the past two decades of Being Scene.

“Twenty years ago, Being Scene began as a way to introduce ourselves to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) community,” says Kelly Straughan, executive artistic director at Workman Arts. “We displayed art in CAMH hallways and waiting rooms as a way for our artists to be seen by our neighbours. It’s fitting that the 20th anniversary happens as we return home to CAMH after a 10-year absence while the new buildings were under construction. We won’t be able to gather in-person but the spirit of Being Scene remains the same – a celebration of talented artists examining all facets of neurodiversity.”

To elevate the online experiential exhibition, the organization hired an external curator to select works that communicate to this year’s specific theme.

“I thought of the term ‘global trauma,’ which summarizes the overwhelming year of 2020 that we all experienced,” says Jacqueline Kok, Being Scene’s inaugural guest curator. “There are no words to accurately describe what the last year was and that’s how To Speak Without Speaking came about. If we don’t have the words to describe 2020, then maybe we can turn to art for reflection.”

Curated by Kok,To Speak Without Speakingencourages viewers to think about the ways in which we respond to the deep-rooted scars that have resurfaced as a result of the pandemic. This impactful exhibition features artwork by 11 commissioned artists, accompanied by a video component. Each artist was given a camera to record their behind-the-scenes journey, allowing viewers to gain an intimate look at their creative process. Many of the pieces explore the impact of the pandemic on mental health and addiction while others reflect the creator’s mood or motivation.

“For artists, this past year has been a struggle,” says Kok. “Artists rely on gaining inspiration from outside sources like interactions and the environment but without this engagement, it’s really hard to create something that isn’t solely speaking about isolation.”

The virtual Being Scene 2021 experience also includes a juried exhibition presenting 80 artworks by 60 artists that live with mental health or addiction issues.

“These artists are amazing and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be showing in galleries all over Canada,” says Straughan. “For some, the nature of their illness hasn’t allowed them to access the same education options as others or their careers have been put on hold for different reasons but the quality is there.”

Stigma is an unfortunate reality for those dealing with mental health and addiction issues, which often leads to feelings of shame and social alienation. But since the pandemic began, more and more people are realizing the negative impacts that uncertainty and isolation can have on their emotional well-being.

“I think that the pandemic has exacerbated the subject of mental health across the board,” says Kok. “You no longer see it happening in a certain groups or to specific individuals. This is allowing us to look at and address mental health in a different way.”  

Year after year, Being Scene changes the attitudes and destroys incorrect assumptions that people have toward artists with diverse lived experiences.

“We see people approach the exhibition with preconceived notions that are shattered once they see the artists’ work,” says Straughan. “Workman Arts is here to reduce stigma and discrimination and that’s actually what the art is doing.”

The exhibition’s opening reception will be hosted over Zoom at 7 pm on March 4. Art enthusiasts can virtually meet Straughan, Kok, and founder Workman Arts Lisa Brown. To register for the free event, click here.

For more information on the online exhibition, visit



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