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Beyond Art: SCYAP's Urban Canvas changes young lives, local landscape

Tonia Bird is comfortable surrounded by the paint-splattered, art-covered walls of Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming’s (SCYAP) downtown space. It’s a big contrast from how she felt inside her former high school. Anxiety forced her to drop out in Grade 9.

“I felt like I had failed,” she said.

OCT. 3, 2016

Bird joins SCYAP’s Urban Canvas alongside 11 other participants. The 34-week program aims to give youth with barriers to employment and education the skills to succeed in art and life. Each participant has a unique set of challenges, from mental health to legal issues.

A week in, Bird is shy but smiles easily, eyes crinkling behind her dark-rimmed glasses. She admits


Tonia Bird works on a charcoal self-portrait during her first week in SCYAP’s Urban Canvas program.

Michelle Berg /

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

she still gets nervous every morning before going to the art space on Third Avenue. Inside the old building is colourful, organized chaos. A melodic doorbell rings every time someone enters or leaves. 

It’s a challenge for Bird to get up five mornings a week for a full day of lessons and workshops, but she hopes the art program can get her back on track. Going back to school is her main goal.

“Getting into this program has helped me to think I can do it. I can go back to school and get another job. I’ll be OK,” she said.

Before she was accepted as part of Urban Canvas, Bird, 18, often visited the space for drop-in art making. In that time, she learned to trust the staff, which built confidence. 

SCYAP founder Darrell Lechman founded SCYAP in 2001. Urban Canvas has a 90 per cent success rate, which means grads gain employment or return to school. 

The program has also changed the visual aesthetic of Saskatoon. Art can be seen on 50 local power boxes, murals at public libraries and hospitals, the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre and the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan trailer.

AUG. 31, 2016


SCYAP founder Darrell Lechman

Greg Pender

Lechman’s inspiration for SCYAP started in the corrections field. The Winnipeg native worked at Stony Mountain Institution, a federal prison in Manitoba, in the 1980s. Interacting with inmates taught him how to earn their trust, be tolerant and suspend judgement.

Later, he worked as a personal development coach with Boys and Girls Club Edmonton.

In both cases, Lechman noticed most people were able to connect to art. 

Urban Canvas 12, which started in late September, marked a transition year for SCYAP. After 16 years, Lechman stepped out of his role as executive director. He finally found the right people to take on the rather large responsibility.

Local businessman Brian Storey is now CEO, responsible for keeping the organization financially sustainable. Clay Shaw took over as operations manager. Lechman and Shaw bonded over a shared background in corrections. 

Shaw, who spent 15 years working at the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, said he was intimidated by the idea of taking on the job because he saw how much work Lechman put in.

“It’s more than a job, it really touches people,” he said.

He said yes because he thought it was a healthy place to work. He considers working there a privilege.

It wasn’t easy for Lechman to let go. He knows how crucial it is for the support and trust to continue even after people have left SCYAP.

Though he stepped down in the fall, Lechman maintains a strong relationship with SCYAP in the unpaid role of president. He’ll still answer his phone if students or staff need to chat.


Tonia Bird speaks during the introduction of the Urban Canvas To Be Continued . . . exhibition in November at SCYAP.

Greg Pender

NOV. 16, 2016

When Bird left high school, it was difficult for her to talk to others. Just over a month into Urban Canvas, she’s speaking in front of friends, family and the media at the program’s first art show.

Bird and her sister Elizabeth Fisher, 22, will be the second and third members of the family to complete Urban Canvas. Their sister took part in the previous session and went on to get two part-time jobs and started working on her GED.

After the speakers finish, Bird’s mother Mirna Fisher, admires both of her daughters’ work. She says their talent is in their blood, thanks to their late grandfather, Cree artist Sanford Fisher.

“That’s probably where they get it from. They don’t get it from me,” she said.

Bird’s piece is a colourful and playful work inspired by the Taylor Swift song Eloise. 


Urban Canvas participants including Tonia Bird (right) work on mini murals for SCYAP’s Urban Canvas program.

Michelle Berg

JAN. 25, 2017

Bird sits cross-legged on the floor of SCYAP, quietly applying green paint to a large piece inspired by Emily Carr. She mixes colours, trying to get just the right shade, but admits she wants the result to be brighter.

As is so often the case with this Urban Canvas group, the concentration is intense. The participants are there to work and the mini murals mark a big step in the artistic journey. The young people are learning how to paint on a large scale, a crucial skill needed as they work toward their final project, a new mural for the White Buffalo Youth Lodge, measuring 12 by 60 feet.

Bird said the experience is going by very quickly. She missed several days earlier in the month after her grandpa died. It was a difficult experience but she was happy to return to Urban Canvas when she was ready.

The program’s art coordinator, Jordan Schwab, says it can be hard for the participants to come back after Christmas break, especially when it’s extremely cold, but he’s proud of the work they are doing.

“Everybody this week has been back and working hard,” he said. “They’re a good group. They all seem to want to be here.”

Schwab asks the Urban Canvas participants to speak to a group touring SCYAP about what they’re up to. It’s a small moment, but another step in building confidence.


One of three murals painted by SCYAP’s Urban Canvas students that were unveiled at the Calder Centre in April in Saskatoon.

Stephanie McKay /

Saskatoon

APRIL 12, 2017

Urban Canvas unveils three murals at the Calder Centre, a facility that offers in-patient care to people with addictions. The staff members are thrilled with the outcome. The pieces feature an eagle and patterns inspired by traditional star blankets. The colours are bold and cheerful, adding warmth to windowless hallways lit by fluorescent lights.

The participants have also started working on pieces for their graduation exhibition at Art Placement, a professional gallery just across the street. They will get to see their own work on the same walls as established artists.

At this stage of the program, Bird says she’s nervous and excited for it to be over. Her post-graduation plans are still forming.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to be doing and I don’t want to leave SCYAP,” she said.

It’s not quite spring, but it’s one of those sunny days warm enough to roast the inside of a car. Seven weeks to go. 


Tonia Bird works on an Urban Canvas project for the PotashCorp Children’s Festival of Saskatchewan in May. The mural behind her was installed at the White Buffalo Youth Centre later that month.

Liam Richards

MAY 3, 2017

The White Buffalo mural takes shape inside an empty store in Market Mall. Plastic on the floor catches errant blobs of paint as the group applies broad, bright strokes to the piece, which features pow wow dancers, a medicine wheel and other scenes related to indigenous culture.

Bird and her sister are working on a separate piece, a series of cubes covered with painterly interpretations of Saskatoon bridges. It will be a puzzle for the PotashCorp Children’s Festival of Saskatchewan.

Later in May, Urban Canvas finishes its 12th iteration with a mural unveiling at White Buffalo. Looking ahead, staff are tasked with keeping the program going.

The non-profit can’t always bank on funding.The federal government funded Urban Canvas until 2010. After that was cut, the program went on hiatus until 2015. The Government of Saskatchewan funded the last two Urban Canvas Projects, including the most recent.

Shaw said the program costs about $220,000, most of which goes to pay participant allowances. The money, around minimum wage, is meant to ensure participants treat the experience like a job. If they don’t show up, they don’t get the money. 

Staff will reapply for funding, but won’t know what they have to work with until later this year. SCYAP gets $160,000 from the province for core expenses.

Meanwhile, Shaw and Storey want to make SCYAP more self-sustainable, including expanding the organization’s small graphic arts department to generate revenue. They also hope it leads to internships or future employment for some of the youth involved in Urban Canvas.


SCYAP staff, Urban Canvas participants and White Buffalo Youth Lodge staff attend the unveiling of the centre’s new mural, designed by Urban Canvas member Asini Duquette.

Michelle Berg /

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

MAY 26, 2017

Hustle & Show, the Urban Canvas finale, is a bustling affair. Dozens of people have come to Art Placement to celebrate their loved ones as they showcase their growing talents.

All 12 participants have completed the program. The exhibition is a unique assemblage of their different styles and inspirations. Many of the pieces feature inspiring celebrities. Others are abstracts or landscapes.

Shaw said his first year with Urban Canvas was a wonderful experience.

“I met 12 gifted individuals that all came from different backgrounds who were all really unique,” he said. “To see them build self-confidence and have some opportunities with employment and personal development was really exciting.”

Shaw learned quickly that the job is all-encompassing. He travelled with one Urban Canvas student to Prince Albert to help him clear up charges in court. When another group member landed in the emergency room as a result of mental health issues, Shaw was the first person he called. He took some time away to seek treatment but was welcomed back and able to complete Urban Canvas.

“These personal connections are real,” Shaw said. “My role is to not judge but listen.”

Several of the Urban Canvas grads have already been hired by the organization to assist with drop-ins or to work on upcoming projects. Another has firm plans to return to school. For one graduate, the focus is simply to work on mental health.

“We really want to make SCYAP a healthy place, whether it’s future employment or a place to come do art or just come and visit staff,” Shaw said.

Bird used the exhibition to showcase her love of music by Taylor Swift and Joni Mitchell. She painted


Tonia Bird’s final pieces for Urban Canvas included a portrait of her grandparents.

another piece for her mother, a portrait of her grandparents, including her late grandfather.

Looking back, Bird is proud of how far her artwork has come. She admitted she didn’t really like her art in the beginning. Though she says she gets “mostly frustrated” during the art-making process, the result always feels amazing.

But Urban Canvas is about more than art for Bird. She’ll likely always have to work on her anxiety, but has new coping strategies and a newfound belief in her abilities.

“I’ve never done anything where I’m super proud of it as I am with this,” she said.

She plans to start working on her GED soon with help from SCYAP staff. She has no plans to say goodbye to the organization. She’ll still attend drop-in art sessions and do face painting with the group this summer at local festivals.

She knows she can count on her friendships with the staff.

“I trust them all completely. That’s the biggest thing,” she said. “I know if I have anything I need help with in the future it will always be that way. I’m always going to have this as a support.”

Bird’s long-term plan is to pay the kindness of SCYAP forward by pursuing a career in social work, with the goal of working with children.

“I’m just looking forward to my future because it’s going to get a lot better from here,” she said.

smckay@postmedia.com

twitter.com/spstephmckay

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