Finding self-acceptance through communal art-making

Members of The Creative Center community participate in an Art Workshop.

By Melissa Aase, CEO of University Settlement


The Creative Center @ University Settlement offers free daily art classes to people living with cancer or chronic illnesses

TCC’s programs build participants’ self-expression, mindfulness, and community engagement, supporting healing processes

Instructors create supportive spaces where neighbors can feel safe to try new things

Purpose and belonging are essential to everyone’s well-being. But for people living with cancer or chronic illness, connection with others and confidence in oneself can sometimes feel particularly elusive.

Last month, we shared how The Creative Center at University Settlement – now celebrating its 30th birthday – partners with more than 3,000 of our neighbors annually to build community and self-knowledge through artistic expression.

Our neighbor Laura has been coming to The Creative Center for almost 15 years. She told me how our program has helped her navigate life with a disability:

Sometimes when you’re sick, you can feel like an outsider.

Since I’ve been part of the community for a long time, the Creative Center team has seen how my artwork has progressed, and they give me good comments for improvement. Even if my technique is not correct, maybe my shading is not that good, or my perspective or proportion could use some work, it’s accepted. No matter what level we’re at, our teachers see each person as an individual and give us useful feedback. Some people have gone to art school and are professionals. Some people have mental illness. We are from all walks of life.

Our teachers are very caring and well prepared for classes, they’re always enthusiastic and helpful. Liz, TCC’s program coordinator, taught me for a couple years. She’s very reliable and responsive, and she recognizes everyone’s contributions to the classroom community.

This community is very accepting and non-judgmental, which gives us space to take risks. Instructors and classmates encourage out-of-the-box thinking. My work has a specific style: it sort of represents my unconscious. I use a lot of colors, patterns, language, and symbols. I make my own interpretations using a lot of different materials at the Creative Center that we can experiment with. Making art pulls me out of myself – I feel like I have a special voice.

The Creative Center is the most accepting place I’ve ever been. When I’m here, I feel safe. If you come to class and are nervous, they will focus on the positive things in your work and try to comfort you.

I’m on disability, and I appreciate the structure this program provides. Making art every day gives me something tangible to focus on and a sense of accomplishment.

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