The Otter Art Club on healing and finding community through art

The Otter Art Club on healing and finding community through art

Saturday, July 30, 2022

“We always say there’s an art of survival, and being creative helps us survive,” said Ojibway artist Travis Shilling.

The Otter Art Club‘s guiding principles for community programming are rooted in healing, nature and Indigenous ways of knowing.

For Shilling and professional photographer Naomi Woodman, the art club provides a way to give kids the opportunity to try professional projects and give back to the community.

“We also always told the kids, studio is everywhere,” said Shilling.

In 2018, the duo founded the Otter Art Club with the hope of providing local youth with studio experience, professional art materials and instruction. Since its founding, the Orillia club has grown into much more than a studio — it is a safe space for expression, creativity and healing for people of all ages.

“This isn’t necessarily just about art. This is about you creating something. Art comes second. It’s having these great materials and space with the light, your peers and in a safe space, just making things,” said Shilling.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the art club shifted their programming online, reaching a greater number of people than before.

“When we first started, we just started having local kids coming in a couple of times a week, and it quickly grew,” said Woodman. “Now, we’re working with people of all ages all over Ontario, and we started an adult program working with people in recovery or if they’ve been in a domestic abuse situation. So, despite COVID, we were able to reach many people.”

For Shilling, creating and teaching art through the COVID-19 pandemic gave him time for inspiration and reflection.

“We always say there’s an art of survival, and being creative helps us survive. We always told the kids that studio is everywhere. You can be at your kitchen table, in your basement at the card table, outside on your back porch, in the woods by the river. That’s your studio.”

The “art of survival” is not a recent phenomenon for Shilling. His father, acclaimed Indigenous artist Arthur Shilling, attended residential school and used art to survive.

“During his time there, he would find a piece of charcoal in the yard or anything that would make a mark. At night, he would go under his bed, even though you weren’t allowed to move, and would draw. He drew food like milkshakes, cakes and sandwiches; one by one, the other kids would go under his bed and look at these drawings.”

Shilling further said, “He needed to make art. It wasn’t just for himself, but all of them. It was for all of them to survive. After he escaped that place, he just started painting the kids and Elders from his community as though he was trying to preserve them. As if he was trying to protect them, protect their souls and heal together.”

Now, Shilling and Woodman are continuing Arthur’s legacy through their creatives and the Otter Art Club as they teach groups such as the Red Road to Recovery, Big Brothers Big Sisters and local schools.

In the next few months, the primary focus of their programming will be the club’s collaboration with Big Brothers Big Sisters and running studio time for local children. Woodman and Shilling have hopeful dreams for the future direction of Otter Art Club.

“We’re hoping to run more programs in schools, set up a dark room and film camera for the students and set up a kiln. A dream would be to buy a travelling trailer with easels and tents and go up to northern communities. And not just drop off art supplies but get to spend the week with them and leave things behind for them to work on.”

The club recently collaborated on a mural with the students at Regent Park Public School, where it was not only the students’ first time creating a mural but the first time for Shilling and Woodman too. The mural, inspired by pictographs and hieroglyphs as public communication, now hangs in the front of the school. Students said they are excited to send their own kids to the school one day and see the collaborative project.

To learn more about Otter Art Club or to get involved, visit or call 705-345-6874.

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