Prisoner’s girlfriend finds support through shared experiences

What do you do when your spouse is in prison? You reach out to people who can relate to your situation.

By Sarah MacMillan

Vanessa Cormier's group for those with a loved one in prison meets in Halifax every month, often over coffee. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)
Vanessa Cormier’s group for those with a loved one in prison meets in Halifax every month, often over coffee. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

When Vanessa Cormier’s boyfriend was sentenced to four years in prison for a white-collar crime, she didn’t feel like she had any support. She had to move back home to New Brunswick from Houston, TX, where she and her boyfriend, Stephen, had been living.

“Coming back home and having to tell my friends and family what happened and what he did was just horrible,” says Cormier. “It was very hard for the first couple of months. I was completely by myself. It took a lot for my friends and family to talk to me again.”

Two years later, Cormier is now on good terms with them. Yet, she says that they don’t understand what she’s going through and they’re not always sympathetic when she’s upset.

“I can’t really talk to my friends about it. They’re not really supportive because I am waiting, and they don’t like that,” says Cormier. “They put the blame on me if I say I’m feeling lonely or I’m feeling sad today. They’re kind of like, ‘well, it’s kind of your fault, you know, you’re sticking by him.’”

Cormier is committed to staying by Stephen’s side throughout his four-year sentence. He is incarcerated at FCI Beaumont Medium, a medium security prison located in Beaumont, TX.

Finding support

Nearly two years ago, while working in a call centre, Cormier overheard a co-worker saying she was writing a letter to her husband. Cormier, who regularly writes to Stephen, was intrigued. She explains that since not many people send letters anymore, she was interested as to why this woman, like her, was communicating by paper and pen.

Cormier discovered that they were in a similar situation. Her co-worker was writing to her incarcerated husband.

Her co-worker knew someone else whose partner was in prison. Pretty soon, the three women were meeting weekly to discuss their shared experiences and find support.

What started as three women bonding over shared experiences has grown to a group of 15 people, mostly women, from New Brunswick, Ontario and the Halifax area.

Cormier says the group is welcoming to newcomers. However she says that some members are concerned about privacy, and are hesitant about creating a group in an online forum like Facebook. The group has grown by word of mouth.

Cormier stresses the benefit of having people to talk to “who understand exactly what you’re going through.”

She travels to Halifax monthly to meet up with the group members from the Halifax area. Meetings are informal, and often held in a coffee shop or even a park, and centre on a main topic.

“It can be, somebody’s been moved to another prison, or is going to another prison, and they want to know the rules, or if somebody else is able to visit so they can carpool and stuff. And sometimes we’ll talk about what to write in letters because we’re running out of ideas.”

Cormier says the group has offered her the support her friends and family are not able to.

If somebody else has been or has gone through the same thing, it’s nice to know these things. It makes us feel better,” says Cormier.

The biggest struggles

Cormier says that for her, the greatest struggle that she faces daily is experiencing judgment from others.

Cormier has not seen Stephen since he was incarcerated. She says she was recently granted approval to visit, but says the approval process took a long time as she is Canadian, and they aren’t married.

Cormier, a preschool teacher, has not yet been able to take time off work to make the trip to Texas.

Cormier talks to Stephen on the phone about once a week and they send frequent letters. However, Cormier says Stephen lost his phone privileges for a year as a result of fighting.

She says he was finally able to call her in January.

“The first time that he called again, that took me like a week to stop crying,” says Cormier.

Cormier says some of the women she has talked to have said that they experience intense emotion after visiting their partner, and that the emotional highs and lows can be very disruptive to their lives.

She says for some members of her group, having a partner in prison can be especially difficult if they have children together.

“A lot of times it’s what to say to (the) kids because he did something wrong, but then you don’t want them to think that he’s a bad guy. So it’s kind of like, they don’t know what to say or what not to say,” says Cormier.

Moving forward

Cormier says her experiences over the past two years have taught her to be more compassionate with others and appreciative for what she has.

“I appreciate every little thing in life, whether it be hanging out with a friend that I haven’t seen in a while, or you know, a clean house, or a home to come to, just anything.”

Cormier says Stephen will stay with his brother in Seattle once he is released in 2016. She hopes that he will join her in Canada as soon as he is legally permitted to do so.

Khyber arts eviction prompts call for affordable rent

The recent termination of the lease of the Khyber Centre for the Arts by HRM has caused members of the Halifax arts community to speak out about the need for affordable rent.

By Sarah MacMillan

The Khyber Centre for the arts was recently evicted from their Barrington St. location by the HRM. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)
The Khyber Centre for the arts was recently evicted from their Barrington St. location by the HRM. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

The recent termination of the lease of the Khyber Centre for the Arts by the Halifax Regional Municipality has caused members of the Halifax arts community to speak out about the need for affordable rent.

The Arts and Activism group at NSCAD University (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), in collaboration with the Radical Imagination Project hosted a panel discussion Tuesday evening at the Bloomfield centre in Halifax’s north end. The discussion, “Art Evicted? (community roundtable): Property, Policy, Politics and Potential in Halifax,” drew a crowd of upwards of 80 people. The event featured panellists from the Khyber, the Roberts Street Social Centre, Eyelevel Gallery, Platform Halifax and the Anna Leonowens Gallery.

There are “all sorts of questions about what we’re going to do about space and art in Halifax,” said Max Haiven, who organized the event.

Haiven, assistant professor in the division of art history and critical studies at NSCAD University, said that the primary influence for hosting the discussion was the Khyber’s recent eviction.

The Khyber Arts Society was evicted in February from the Khyber Centre for the Arts, a registered heritage building located on Barrington Street which it has occupied since 1995.

The HRM cited hazardous materials including asbestos and lead paint as reason to terminate the lease. The society must be out by April 1st.

Daniel Joyce, the Khyber’s artistic director, said that according to the HRM, the society will have to relocate for about 18 months while the building undergoes between $2 million and $4 million in renovations. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if it takes longer.

The trouble with finding space

Melanie Colosimo, Eleanor King, Emily Davidson, Daniel Joyce and Katie Belcher participate in a panel discussion about arts in Halifax.
Melanie Colosimo, Eleanor King, Emily Davidson, Daniel Joyce and Katie Belcher participate in a panel discussion about arts in Halifax. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

Joyce discussed the difficulty of finding a suitable temporary space. He wasn’t alone.

All members of the panel brought up the issue of finding and keeping space when discussing the problems facing the Halifax art community.

Emily Davidson, a member of the recently dissolved Roberts Street Social Centre, said that after facing eviction in 2012 due to changes in the landlord’s housing arrangement, the centre has been unable to find a comparable space at a reasonable cost. Several of the projects previously run through the Roberts Street Social Centre are now run out of the Plan B Merchant’s Co-op on Gottingen Street.

Davidson sited empty units downtown being marketed at high prices as a key issue contributing to the problem of a lack of available and accessible space for art organizations.

“We’ve looked at so many spaces and they’re all terrible and they’re all expensive,” said Davidson.

Davidson verged on yelling as she spoke passionately about the need for the HRM to establish regulations to ensure affordable prices for empty units.

“We live in a city where there are vacant spaces and developers that won’t rent to people,” said Davidson. “What we need is to pressure our publicly elected bodies to put in place policy that says you can’t have that space that is empty that you don’t rent to anybody.”

Haiven agreed, and said that in many ways, Halifax has failed the art community.

“I think the onus is on the city to reach out and say okay if we do want a thriving cultural sector, if we do want to make sure that these autonomous art spaces survive and continue to enrich our community, how can we support their activities, rather than trying to slot the art community into a particular place,” said Haiven.

However, despite the many criticisms brought forward against the HRM throughout the discussion, Joyce did acknowledge that city officials have so far stuck to their promise to work with the Khyber, rather than against it.

In a recent online update, Halifax city councillor Waye Mason reaffirmed his commitment to the Khyber, saying that he hopes “the Khyber will come back better than before.”

Broadening the discussion 

Michael Murphy, a local resident who attended the event, was surprised to hear of the Khyber’s eviction. He said that people outside of the arts community need to hear about the issues facing it.

“People who had like-minded thinking about this are the people who came out to this meeting tonight,” said Murphy. “But for things to be different or better, certainly in a fiscal or in an institutional way, it would have to get out from beyond the people who are here tonight.”

Haiven agreed that broadening the discussion is difficult, but noted the large turnout for the event, which included many community members.

“I think that the process is ongoing,” said Haiven.

Student finds success painting pets

Animal lovers looking to have their pet immortalized on canvas are in luck. Third-year University of King’s College student Haley MacLean has started a business called Paw Paints where she paints people’s pets on commission.

By Sarah MacMillan

Haley MacLean paints portraits of pets on commission.
Haley MacLean paints portraits of pets on commission. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

Animal lovers looking to have their pet immortalized on canvas are in luck. Third-year University of King’s College student Haley MacLean has started a business called Paw Paints where she paints people’s pets on commission.

“People and their pets,” says MacLean, “you know, they’ll pay money for just a little keepsake of them.”

MacLean officially launched the Paw Paints website last month, but has been commissioning paintings since January.

She painted throughout her adolescence and took IB art while attending Citadel High School. After attending Nocturne in October, she was inspired to start painting again, so she painted a dalmatian “just kind of for fun.” When her aunt, Emily Haynes, saw the painting, she asked MacLean if she could paint a portrait of her dog.

“I’ve seen a lot of paintings of people’s pets and I always thought they were really wonderful, and it was just the right timing when I saw that Haley was doing them,” says Haynes. “She really captures the personality of the dogs in her paintings, which is what makes them really special.”

Pretty soon, MacLean’s business was taking off.

“All of a sudden like, my mom had a couple friends who wanted their dogs done. And then after that it just kind of grew,” says MacLean.

Her process

MacLean begins her portraits by painting the background. She has several paintings that she has done for her own collection.
MacLean begins her portraits by painting the background. She has several paintings that she has done for her own collection. (Sarah MacMillan/Peninsula News)

MacLean works on her paintings in the evenings, usually devoting an hour or two after finishing her classes for the day. She says that she is generally able to complete one commission per week.

“Usually dogs that are long haired dogs take a little bit more time just because there’s more layers that you have to do. But each painting takes somewhere between five and eight hours.”

She says that the eyes are both the most important and most difficult part of a painting.

“I leave it till very last but you know if you mess up the eyes it doesn’t even look like a dog anymore, let alone the dog that I’m trying to paint in the picture. So, sometimes I’ll have to play around with the eyes after I’m done if it doesn’t look quite right, but usually, once I get the eyes right then the whole painting seems to come together.”

MacLean has always loved animals but says that she has begun to look at them in a different way.

“Now I’ll look at a dog and I’ll look at the different colours in its face and stuff like that so it’s pretty funny cause I’m just so used to staring at a picture of a dog for so long and having to paint it onto a canvas, so now it’s like dogs have this fun new way that they catch my eye now, if they have like a nice colouring or something like that.”

MacLean describes the trouble with eyes: (runs: 26 seconds) 

MacLean has completed over a dozen commissions so far. Her portraits, which she does with acrylic paints, are available on 8×10, 10×10 or 9×12 canvases, with prices ranging from $100 to $140.

While she says she’s open to painting other animals, her commissions have included two cats and the rest have been of dogs.

The power of social media

MacLean put up posters on and around the King’s campus, but says that she has gotten the most attention through Instagram, the popular image sharing app, where she posts progression photos of her paintings and images of her final products.

MacLean has accumulated over 600 Instagram followers.

“It grows a bit each day. I probably get about 10 or 20 a day,” says MacLean. “It’s been really fun and getting followers like that is always really exciting just for your work.”

Through Instagram, MacLean has connected with other artists who do similar work in different cities.

“A few of them, I’ll post a picture and they’ll comment underneath something they really like, or they’ll even direct message me giving me a tip about something,” says MacLean. “For instance, now I paint the background first because a fellow artist told me that’s the best way to be able to go outside the lines a bit.”

MacLean has completed over a dozen commissions so far. (Photo courtesy of Haley MacLean)
MacLean has completed over a dozen commissions so far. (Photo courtesy of Haley MacLean)

MacLean explains what Instagram means for her business: (runs: 43 seconds) 

Her inspiration

Much of MacLean’s inspiration has come from family members. Her grandmother is a painter and taught MacLean many of the technical aspects of painting.

Her brother is the founder of East Coast Lifestyle, a popular local clothing company.

“I got a lot of inspiration from my brother just for business starting,” says MacLean. “After seeing him do so well with that, and he’s just so excited about it, I kind of wanted to start something of my own. I didn’t plan on this being it, but it just kind of formed into that after a while.”

Though she is just getting started with her business, MacLean has already arranged to have her portraits exhibited. Seven of her paintings will be on display at Coburg Coffee by the end of next week.