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Ōtautahi Creative Spaces – A Creative Community that’s Thriving Through the Power of Creativity 


When Kim Morton founded Ōtautahi Creative Spaces, she knew creativity had the power to change lives – and her passion for seeing artists find their own expression has only become stronger over the years. She spoke to us about Ōtautahi Creative Spaces and the positive impact it’s had on the community.

Tell us about Ōtautahi Creative Spaces – What’s it all about?

We’re a creative community that uses the power of creativity to thrive.  That’s the motto, really. The idea is about getting creative with mental health. We support people who have experienced mental distress and trauma – we know that medication and counselling is not enough for many people to thrive and live an engaged life, and we believe that creativity can help shift thinking and create new pathways for people. Plus you get the chance to create incredible artwork. We have studios at the Phillipstown Hub and online meeting spaces.

Is Ōtautahi Creative Spaces open to everybody?

The way our work has evolved is to work with people who have experienced mental distress and trauma. We are quite specialised in understanding what makes people feel safe and providing them the support they need to be creative. Once they’re here we can see them blossom – it’s all about people having agency and self-determination. We give them the space they need, and gentle support to help people express themselves through creativity.

How many artists do you support?

We have around 110 artists in our community, and their whānau – people choose how they take part, with most artists coming along each week to a creativity group. This means they get to know other artists and feel a sense of belonging. There’s no time limit on how long they can be with us – so people can merge in or out as they need to. Some people have been with us for five years, others move on to other things when they’re ready.

Who do you support?

We have limited resources, and we want to use them for people who really need it. So mostly we support people who have experience in the mental health system. We’re really thinking hard about inequity in health outcomes for all the people in our communities – and given that, we have a focus on Māori, Pasifika, Muslim and Rainbow communities. We’re looking for where the greatest needs are, and working with the Muslim community is an example of that – after 15 March we recognised the responsibility to work with the Muslim community and we are now doing that – and that’s been a rich and rewarding journey for us all.

When people come here, there’s no focus on their mental health challenges –  it’s a strength-based approach – We believe that the experience of distress is part of the tapestry of someone’s life but it’s not the defining piece. People have often been disadvantaged whether it be through stigma, racism, or poverty. We try to create a launching pad for them to live a life as an artist and have opportunities to show their work, exhibit and also to be around other artists.


You’re really providing a wraparound experience for the artists…

That’s exactly what we are aiming for. We have people at different places on the creative spectrum- some people have training, and some are self-taught – others just have a real drive to explore their creative world, and they may not have any actual experience. It’s very much about revelation, having fun and being playful.

How did Ōtautahi Creative Spaces come to be?

The impetus for establishing this was the earthquakes and the widespread mental distress experienced at that time, so it really grew out of that – but even without the earthquakes there would have been a need for it. I believe it’s a human right for people to have access to creativity – and we want to see art, culture and creativity become an integral part of the support that’s available for mental health.

What do you see with the artists who come to you? 

Transformation. Often people have been very isolated, and can feel really anxious when they join. Coming along is massive – it might feel like climbing a mountain. Over time we see incredible changes in people, that they’ve chosen. It could be the confidence to talk to other artists, motivation to be more healthy, kindness they show to others, the bravery in having their artwork on our website, and sharing what they’ve done with whānau. People feel more well, more appreciated, more connected with others, more capable, and more hopeful for the future. There’s so many skills that we develop through being an artist – as well as thinking creatively, problem solving and taking creative risks, we’re communicating, planning, organising and overcoming challenges. At the heart of it all is a shift from seeing ourselves as people with mental distress, to thinking of ourselves as artists. People mentor each other, step into leadership roles, and go on to volunteering, paid work, study and independent art practice.

Over time we see big shifts in confidence in the way someone can participate – they might start talking with others, and showing interest in other people’s work. People will tell us their families see them differently because they’re beginning to participate in a positive way. We see shifts in wellbeing happen all the time, it’s very much tied in with self identity. We start to see people feel better about themselves and express themselves.

Because mental wellness has so many stigmas attached to it – it can be very complex for a person to find confidence, can’t it? 

There are lots of layers to it – and we often see moments where we see the shift – it might just be someone saying goodbye as they leave. It doesn’t take long really for people to get that shift. Showing work is a very vulnerable experience, selling their work, telling their story, all these things  – help people find their confidence. This is a place where people can try things and it’s safe because they’re going to get support and encouragement, not just from our team but from the other artists as well.

It sounds like a wonderful space – there must be a huge demand for it? 

There’s a really high demand, and we have to spend a lot of time responding to new approaches. It’s not a drop-in situation – we meet each new person to find out what they’re looking for, what will make them feel safe, and what their aspirations are. We try and go the extra mile to make it possible for someone to join – often people are really anxious and can feel overwhelmed about new places.  We tailor our support to each person. Because of the demand, it’s a delicate balancing act, making sure we’re able to support the artists already here, as well as new people. So we have a process that prioritises people. We have great relationships with other agencies – we rely on them to identify who will be a great fit.

Do you supply all the materials?

Yes. It’s totally free to come here and we pride ourselves on having good quality art supplies. We dream about a world where we’re not meeting our expenses through a patchwork of funders – it would be great to have long-term secure government funding as we believe these programmes have really important outcomes for the health sector.

Is there anything people can do to support your work?

Yes! We need a groundswell of community behind us backing calls for art and creativity to be recognised and funded for people with mental distress. The biggest challenge for us is securing costs for our incredible staff team, so that we have enough time to spend with the artists. We get wonderful donations of materials, and we welcome people with open arms if there are ways they can support us. We have really strong allies in the health system who see the difference we make – but we can always do with more.

Is it important for people to understand that mental health struggles can happen to anyone.

Most families have some interaction with the mental health system at some point – the more we think about it as something we all experience rather than something that other people go through, the better. The work we do here reduces the call on clinical mental health treatment, so it’s a valuable part of the whole picture of mental health. We strongly think that for all of us – engaging in creativity is a positive way of staying well.

You have a Boosted campaign coming up – tell us about that.

Boosted Ōtautahi launched1st of June and we’re fundraising for a book that will celebrate the artwork and stories of our artists from our first ten years. It will propel us into the next 10 years, hopefully bigger and stronger, and build momentum for the changes that are needed to help creative communities like ours flourish. We’re so grateful for all the support for our last Boosted campaign, which funded our new website, online gallery and shop – this has been a gamechanger, connecting the artists’ work and stories with the wider community.

For more information on Ōtautahi Creative Spaces go to the website at: https://otautahicreativespaces.org.nz




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