Sue Cohen and Sketch

The Jewish Tribune – January 8, 2009


Shlomit Kriger

TORONTO – Nothing makes Sue Cohen feel more alive than the arts, particularly painting.

The Toronto artist feels even more inspired when she shares her passion with others as the community arts coordinator for Sketch, a local organization providing homeless, street-involved and at-risk youth aged 15 to 29 opportunities to engage in the arts through a cross-discipline studio environment. Youth can let their imaginations guide them as they move from one end of Sketch’s 6,000-square-foot studio space to another, exploring music, painting, sewing, woodworking, creative writing, dance and more.

Participants can also get involved in arts workshops or community events, as well as get help in   connecting with mentors and apprenticeships in the arts industry.

“The arts are about self-expression and valuing that,” said Cohen in a recent interview. “It’s an  easy way for people to get engaged, have a voice in the community, and come together in a healthy way.

“At Sketch, people are free to play and experiment. It also gives them time to figure out what they want to do [with their lives].”

Cohen knows what these youth are going through, because she once struggled to find her way.

Facing lots of difficulties growing up in her Reform Jewish family in Thornhill, Cohen ran away from home when she was 14. She spent the next several years living on the streets, struggling to make ends meet and battling a drug addiction.

“I tried to go into shelters but found it really difficult to be housed like that,” she said. “There were some organizations that were trying to provide a space that I could be in and there were lots of people that reached out to me even though I wasn’t ready to accept the help.

“I didn’t know what I could do or what I had to offer, but I knew people kept telling me I had lots to offer. I needed to figure out what inspired and fuelled me.”

Things began to turn around in 1994 when Cohen got involved in an initiative run by Phyllis Novak called the Drug project, which brought together women to confront the issues of addiction and homelessness through the use of arts and theatre.

“The project helped me use art-making to process everything I’d been through and to honour those past experiences and move forward,” said Cohen. “Good artwork provides a space where people could dialogue about different issues and figure out how they feel about things.”

A year later, at age 21, Cohen ended up leaving a park she slept in and moving into a small studio space. She went off welfare and decided to pursue a career as a painter.

She exhibited her paintings and met other artists who inspired her.

“My work is pretty provocative, and a lot of it is about making the hard, ugly, awkward moments really beautiful,” she said. “There’s something about paint that is mystifying to me; it’s so magical but simple.

“I love the idea of visual storytelling, because it’s such an accessible art form – you don’t need to speak the same language.”

A short while later, Novak invited Cohen and about a dozen youth to help her coordinate workshops and performances for the Fix Festival, an arts-based weekend-long event for street-involved and homeless youth.

Inspired by the initiative and knowing that Novak wanted to take that further through launching Sketch, Cohen decided to assist her in spearheading the organization. She soon became Sketch’s first artist-in-residence and ended up holding that role for five years.

Cohen then decided to take a break, feeling it was important that she continue to process her own issues and figure out what path felt right for her. She ended up working for a number of other arts organizations before returning to Sketch, recognizing that she’s most inspired when she works with arts programming in the community.

“Working at these organizations has taught me a lot about the nature of communication and how important it is to be recognized for who we are, as well as how healing it can be to just connect with each other,” said Cohen. “The approach at Sketch is to be able to engage through arts expression, and it’s also about valuing people at all spaces and levels of society.”

For more on Sketch, visit