By Matt Semansky
Stereotypically, artists are seen as lonely, misunderstood geniuses who go mad; social recluses who reflect society while condemned to its margins.
From van Gogh to Picasso, the stories of creative brilliance coupled with fragile egos are all too familiar. And then there’s Devon Ostrom. Ostrom doesn’t rail against the world-he investigates and invests in it.
At 25, he is already a veteran of Ontario’s arts community, having spearheaded and contributed to numerous projects, including exhibits for the World Electronic Music Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
He is the curator at THEM, an organization that provides resources for Canadian artists. Ostrom has also received certificates in non-profit management and human resources management from Ryerson, where he is currently in his first year of the Art and Contemporary Studies program. It’s a resume that could intimidate people twice his age, but Ostrom is bluntly modest.
“I don’t even consider myself an artist most of the time,” Ostrom says. Those who’ve seen Ostrom’s work may call this statement into question, but the lanky Ottawa native can at least lay claim to being an innovative project co-ordinator.
Perhaps the most impressive example is the striking mural that Ostrom and five other artists designed and painted at the maximum security unit at Kingston Penitentiary. Not only did he contribute creatively, but he also oversaw the financing of the project and worked for more than a year with staff and inmates, incorporating their input into the final painting, which was completed in the spring of 2003.
“Working with the inmates was fairly troubling at first because of some of my obvious perceptions, but in time you start to understand the tragedy in some of these people’s lives.”
Ostrom was drawn to the Penitentiary project out of a desire to test the ability of art to inspire social and psychological change. Indeed, the gymnasium mural already seems to have made a difference in the lives of the inmates.
Jean Folsom, a clinical psychologist at the Penitentiary, collaborated with Ostrom on the initiative and says the results speak for themselves.
“The inmates have greatly benefited from having the dull, drab walls of the gym turned into a beautiful mural. Some inmates were reluctant to send pictures home before, because the background looked so much like a prison. Now they have a nice background to use,” says Folsom.
She credits Ostrom for both his organizational skills and his insistence on letting inmates contribute to the project.
Ironically, Ostrom says the finished mural doesn’t appeal to him on an aesthetic level.”I personally didn’t find the final product to be something that I’d want in my house. But for the audience we were doing it for, it’s exactly what they wanted. My sense of artistic aesthetic probably wouldn’t turn them on at all,” he says.
All of which goes back to Ostrom’s team-player personality. Although he still finds time for his own art, he doesn’t intend to pursue a career as a professional artist. Instead, he will continue to add to his education and his experience as an arts coordinator.
“Coordinating is something I find satisfaction and a sense of purpose in,” he says.
The staff and inmates at Kingston’s prison are thankful for his sense of purpose, and they clearly won’t be the last to benefit from Ostrom’s belief in the healing value of art.