Calgarian Joseph Hnatuk wants to bring awareness to his disability through the beauty of his art
It has been said that art is not complete until it has been heard, felt, or seen; that the work cannot truly be finished until it is experienced. This fact goes beyond simply the gratification of the artist or enjoyment of the patron, but rather, combines the two.
The truth is, communication shouted into the void has the potential to feel rather meaningless, and art is just that — a form of communication.
Never has this idea been truer than for budding Calgary artist Joseph Hnatuk. Diagnosed with object schizophrenia early on in his life, 56-year-old Hnatuk has been working on his craft for the past 15 years, as both a form of therapy and a way to enrich his life with meaning.
“It brings out all the things that I see, and I can put it into words that way,” he says of his artwork. “What inspires me is releasing all of the ideas that I have in my head so that I can bring up more ideas.”
Hnatuk is able to pursue his passion of becoming an artist thanks to the innovative programming offered by such non-profit institutions as In-Definite Arts and the Vecova Centre. Both are located in Calgary and Hnatuk has attended both of them. These organizations operate with the goal of providing helpful and exciting ways for disabled persons to explore and reach their full potential.
For Hnatuk, that meant chasing his dream of becoming an artist.
It was one of the instructors at In-Definite Arts who first approached art consultant Vandy Midha about the possibility of furthering Hnatuk’s endeavours in the arts. Midha, creator of online gallery Art Match, has devoted her business to helping local artists gain recognition for their work by making art more accessible to local buyers, especially in a market that is becoming increasingly unkind.
“People don’t have security when they go to a local show,” says Midha of patrons’ typical hesitancy to buy local. “I wanted to make it easy for people to own original art. I don’t want them to shy away from it, because there is just so much talent out there in this city, but people are intimidated by galleries, by the pricing, by the culture.”
From her previous work as an interior designer, Midha knows professionals in that field often have difficulty finding pieces that work with their designs. As an artist, she knows the struggles that creative minds face to support themselves, even in the local community.
So when she heard of Hnatuk’s talent and enthusiasm for the arts, Midha knew she needed to find a way to help.
“I put two and two together and I thought, you know, this is a great opportunity for me to help Joseph out, to help him promote his art. He’s not had an art show before, in this way, and I also get to support two really great causes in the city by doing it — the arts, and disability services.”
Midha was already planning the art show, A Splash of Colour, when she heard about Hnatuk, but his presence was a welcomed addition to the event. The show, in which Hnatuk will be a featured artist, will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 29, at In-Definite Arts, in the Optimist Gallery. Ten per cent of all sales will be donated to the Vecova Centre.
Twenty-five other local artists will be also be featured, many of whom are already established members of the arts community. The experience of working alongside them promises to be enriching for Hnatuk, according to Midha.
“If he sells anything or makes any money from this, that will just be a huge boost for him,” she says. “It’ll be huge for confidence building, and make him feel like what’s he’s doing is something that someone else can appreciate, something meaningful.”
Although Hnatuk is still developing his skills, and does not yet have the acclaim or experience typical of her usual clients, Midha says there is something unique about his art that sets it apart from that of any artist she has worked with previously.
“I appreciated his art very much when I first saw it, but I appreciated it even more once I met him, because he spoke about how he felt when he was doing each painting, and that just really put it all into perspective for me. It really added a dimension to it.”
The emotional pull of each painting is palpable when you examine Hnatuk’s creations. As you speculate over the images, he explains how each generous stroke of colour represents a new thought, a new feeling, a new animal. Splashes of red could all at once be a particularly colourful rabbit, or an ominous blood spatter on the wall of his church.
To the average eye, the variety is breathtakingly refreshing. To Hnatuk, it is simply his perception of reality, a reminder of a curious power that his audience would otherwise not have the chance to experience.
Hnatuk’s brother James, whom he stays with frequently when not in the care of his supportive roommate (a living arrangement set up through Persons with Developmental Disabilities), believes there is great benefit to be had for the broader public in experiencing Hnatuk’s art. Growing up learning to support and aid his brother in his endeavours, James says he has already seen the benefits of these lessons firsthand.
“It’s very rewarding to have a person like Joe close to us in our life. There is a lot that you can learn from helping a person like Joe, and so I’m very grateful to be his brother,” he says.
James is also grateful for the innovative thinkers at Vecova and In-Definite Arts, because he has observed a “tremendous vacuum” for the opportunities that disabled adults usually have in terms of what they can accomplish in our society. Sometimes traditional employment opportunities are not feasible for people living with schizophrenia, he says, which can severely diminish the possibility of finding productive activities to partake in to enliven their days.
The arts programs these organizations offer have allowed Hnatuk to become a more productive member of society by chasing his dreams, says his brother, instead of whiling away his days with less productive pursuits.
“It’s brought Joe a lot of happiness,” he says, “and a lot of familiarity with the people who are his peers, instead of sitting in a food court every day, which really wouldn’t be very rewarding.”
Although the process of painting for Hnatuk can be, at times, gruelling due to the nature of the images that he paints, he and his brother agree that the meticulous planning of each piece and the ability to physically capture Hnatuk’s reality within society’s has helped him cope with the trials of his disability.
“Joe’s a pretty quiet person, and I think I would’ve more noticed a change [in behaviour] if the paintings hadn’t happened,” James says of the effect Hnatuk’s art has had on his mental health. “I think this is very therapeutic for Joseph — it’s a way for him to release that inner energy.”
Indeed, Hnatuk’s art has helped him immensely on his journey to understand his own circumstances. Venturing further into the local arts community now gives him the opportunity to spread awareness of not just his own experience, but the healing abilities of art.
When asked what he was most looking forward to at the upcoming art show, and how he felt about having his work displayed along with other local artists, Hnatuk referred back to the community that his work has already allowed him to build.
“I like to see how many artists there’s going to be there. It makes me a little bit nervous,” he adds. “I don’t really know how I rate against different artists... I bring my hands, and I paint, and whatever comes out, sometimes it doesn’t come out that great, but I made it.”
- By Michaela Ritchie