Creating, Connecting: Studio Without Walls Program

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Senior men sitting around an outdoor table in a collective activity.

Who doesn’t like to get mail—the good kind—not bills and flyers, but something surprising or even inspiring? That notion guided artist Carey Rigby-Wilcox, who lives in Pike Lake, when she was designing what became the Happy Mail Kits—art and craft supplies sent out and used by about 270 seniors in communities around Saskatchewan in 2022.

“I remembered,” Carey recalls, “when I was young, that I had pen pals. The joy of getting mail from them was amazing. It made me happy.”

This Mail Kit initiative grew from a conversation between Rigby-Wilcox and Shannon Wright, coordinator for the Saskatchewan Seniors Association Inc.—SSAI—the organization supporting 105 seniors’ groups around the province. The kits were designed to generate artistic and social projects for seniors, mostly rural and isolated, as most seniors’ programming was interrupted by the 2020 lockdowns at the onset of Covid.

The kits contained materials—paper, fabric, thread, and instructions for cutting and assembly—a complete package for craft making at home or in groups. Also, as part of the mail-outs Regina writer Judith Silverthorne prepared creative writing packets with prompts and instructions. In all, the kits contained seven varieties of craft and three concepts in writing. These were sent to 105 rural seniors clubs and 40 individuals. Rigby-Wilcox assembled the kits at her own desk—one at a time. She says, “I set the intention of being happy and joyful when I was making them, and then I was putting my love in each envelope.”

Red phoneAn earlier—2021—iteration of the Studio Without Walls grew out of research undertaken in 2019 by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance (SAA) in partnership with the Organization of Saskatchewan Arts Councils. They initiated a series of community conversations in Saskatchewan communities—Weyburn, Shaunavon, and Humboldt—to determine the value of arts for social cohesion in rural Saskatchewan. Working with the SSAI and the Seniors Centre without Walls Saskatchewan, the research team developed and delivered a prototype, a phone-based arts program that connected professional artist-leaders with older rural adults, ages 55+. Each workshop consisted of six free hour-long sessions held over six weeks and involved painting and collage or writing activities. Supplies were delivered by mail. Workshop leaders included: Visual artists Shon Profit, Jamie Reynolds, Berny Hi, and Marilyn Nelson, and writers Judith Silverthorne and Lynda Monahan.

In early 2022 the government of Saskatchewan came forward with a grant to develop this concept. SSAI took charge of the program delivery in partnership with SAA—who offered connection to artists who could lead programs. The enrichment activities rolled out through Shannon Wright’s consultations and contacts with SSAI’s membership. The programs varied, community to community and, besides the Mail Kits, included in-person, or teleconference-enabled sessions in painting, writing, dancing, quilting, songwriting, and planter-making.

Rigby-Wilcox left her kit-making desk to go to Kenaston where she led a painting group making images using alcohol ink. They were inspired by painting on tiles and made holiday ornaments and greeting cards with this apparently unpredictable kind of paint.

Shannon Wright says: “I opened the program up to all of our rural seniors’ groups and let them decide on whether they wanted to participate or not.” Six groups said yes and many other far-flung individuals participated, enabled by the telephone.

The initial expectation was that the programs would be delivered, and the funds used by June of 2022, but as Wright notes: “It takes time to put the word out to some of the rural seniors’ communities and then to allow them to do some of the legwork and planning involved. What made it successful was that it was the seniors themselves that took on the lead and decided what they needed in their own communities. They took that pride of ownership.” In some cases, the communities looked to their own local artistic experts as workshop facilitators. All the programs were delivered by fall.

Quilting tutorial - seniors gathered around instructor showing them a quilting technique

Edam seniors hosted a series of quilting classes with local instructor Colleen Cole.

In Edam, local quilter Coleen Cole led a group of about ten, in March and April—designing, sewing and so on. Ilene Foulds, the local co-coordinator, organized for the group and participated in the workshops. SAAI supplied the funds for cutting and sewing tools; participants supplied the fabrics. Evelyn Cooper describes materials she and her sisters brought—clothing of their deceased parents, Francis and Georgette—for example “dresses that mom wore to [our] weddings, ties that dad wore…even the snap pockets from his shirts.” She and her sisters made six quilts, one for each sibling. “They’re great memory quilts that hold a lot of treasures. The experience was wonderful.”

The quilting tools remain in the community and the makers have continued at their own initiatives. “It’s not only the quilting,” says Foulds. “It’s the getting out one night a week and visiting and accomplishing something. There was a lot of nice work done, fabulous colours; some didn’t want to make a whole big quilt, so they made table runners, like one for fall and one for Christmas. Beautiful.”

Telephone Workshop Series: “Music and Songwriting with Eliza Doyle” on Wednesdays from 1-2pm starting April 13 through to May 18th, 2022.

Telephone Workshop Series: “Music and Songwriting with Eliza Doyle.”

The telephone doesn’t seem like it would be the easiest technology to use to lead a songwriting group. But its notable value is that most seniors have a phone, often a stable landline, and it is a familiar form of communication. Eliza Mary Doyle, Juno Award-Winning musician in the alt-country/folk genre, led six participants in her workshop and made the phone work, through group and individual sessions. They created songs in various genres, over six weeks in April and May in 2022.

Evangeline Godron, of Regina, who was thirty-five years of age when rap music made its debut in 1973, didn’t listen to it then. Now at 85+, she may have become the oldest rapper on the planet. In the song writing workshop, Evangeline was inspired to write her first rap song. She’s not quite as healthy now, but she remembers that her song is about “people and love,” and she said that the experience was “positive and fun.” Shirley Koob of Saskatoon created a notable and much-publicized song “Cries of the Ukraine”. The musical and visual collaboration with Doyle enabled the song and its video to be released on streaming platforms. It can be found at:

In addition to contributing to the mail kits, Judith Silverthorne led telephone writing sessions. Participants joined from all over the province for six weekly workshops, in a variety of writing genres. Silverthorne notes: “It’s difficult to teach when you can’t see facial expressions and body language as cues for whether or not what you say is resonating.” Nonetheless along with developing their writing skills, Judith notes that: “Connecting with other people was huge for the participants and by the end of the program they felt quite bonded, way less isolated, and felt valued as individuals and they had been productive. I sensed that they had fun and took away some valuable insights.”

Maria Palmer is treasurer for the Allen New Horizons and she’s also on the board of directors for SSAI. Her Allen group was able to stretch their grant to provide three different sessions, painting representational and abstract images, planter making, and even a couple of evenings of line dancing.  The painting workshop was led by local resident, designer Gloria Stefanson, and planter making was led by Anne Chorneyko, florist at Allan’s local flower shop.

Palmer sums up the benefits of these programs well: “The value is the introduction to art, using your imagination, learning new techniques, and the fine motor movement; socializing decreases feelings of isolation, and the dancing gets you moving, it’s good for everything, heart, lungs, and it is fun. When your community is active, when people are doing things, it keeps your seniors in the community.”

Along with the communities mentioned, painting and quilting programs took place in Blaine Lake, Naicam, and Vonda.

Rap music, painting, quilting, planter making, dancing—arts and crafts contributing to a buzz all over Saskatchewan, a buzz of vitality, lifting citizens through pandemic, winter, isolation, loneliness. A terrific investment by the provincial Government, and SSAI and SAA—for the benefit of Saskatchewan seniors.

The artist-program leaders enjoyed sharing knowledge and interactions—creative and personal—with fellow citizens. Participants benefitted mentally, emotionally, and physically. The arts proving their value, not just as entertainment, but as engagement, hands-on—with mind and body. A painting brightens a wall, a runner enhances a table, a dance is stepped in a kitchen, a tune is hummed during a task—enduring evidence of connection and creativity.


Steven Ross Smith, Banff Poet Laureate, 2019-21, loves music, practices yoga, and is fascinated by moss. He is known for poetic seven-book series fluttertongue. He’s been effective as a literary activist, on behalf of writers—speaking, teaching, organizing, collaborating, editing, and presenting. He recently published two chapbooks with Jackpine Press. His fourteenth book is Glimmer: Short Fictions, from Regina’s Radiant Press, 2022. He lives and writes in Victoria, BC.