Here. This is what I feel. A Photography Exhibition at the Gladstone


Please join me for the public open hours at the Gladstone Ballroom, 1214 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario, June 4th and 5th from 12 – 5 pm

Toronto’s west-end community has one of the highest concentrations of people suffering from mental illness in Canada.

St. Joseph’s Health Centre is the place that many of these men, women and children turn to in distress. The Mental Health Emergency Services Unit (MHESU) in our Emergency Department is often their introduction to the outstanding mental health services at St. Joe’s.  An expansion and renovation are needed for this area to make it a more secure, calming and comforting space.  With the help of the community, St. Joseph’s Health Centre Foundation is initiating a campaign to renovate this space. To raise awareness of this project and to bring the patient perspective into the design of the new space, photographer and former healthcare architectural designer Joanna Johnston is opening the doors to new ideas of how physical space can encourage healing through this exhibit.

Excerpt from the Artist Statement:

“We all physically react to architecture. We see. Or we don’t. We hear. We hear too much. We feel temperature.  Too cold or too hot. We smell bad things. Not enough good. Windows, doors, walls, floors, ceilings, lights, furniture, heating, cooling. With these considerations in mind, I began the project by listening to former and current patients about what they felt when they were in the unit. After these conversations, I took my camera into the unit to try and document what I had heard.

After establishing how the unit had made them feel, I asked my patient volunteers a critical question – where do you feel your best? Can you show me where you feel most grounded? What is that place like? Each place was different. Some were rooms, some furniture, some outside. What seemed to be common was the ability of each person to clearly articulate the way in which that place provided an internal equilibrium of spirit. A restfulness. A peace. My final step was to bring these places back into the hospital, and photograph them together.”

This exhibit is the result of that work.  There are 14 contrasting photographs that show the ‘calm’, ‘comforting’ space (unique to each person) hanging in the MHESU in particular locations. Each image was printed on foam core and then brought back into the unit to be photographed while the unit was fully operational.

Beside each contrasting photograph there is a written ‘story’ that explains the ‘picture in the picture’. Joanna based these short stories on her notes and recollections from meeting with each patient. Without naming our volunteers they offer some insight into why each person chose the place they chose, and some recollections of their time in the unit. Below are a few examples of the work that will be on display as well as the accompanying story.


She didn’t hesitate. 

My bed.”

I built it myself. It is the place I feel most safe. I have my blankets and sheets; it is warm and soft and clean.”

It reminded me of a nest. Tucked into a corner of her room it was a place from which to contemplate the world. The flannel pillow cases and micro fibre sheets looked soft. It was a bed to be warm in. Her flowers on the underside of her comforter were a vibrant display in the otherwise neutral space.

She was direct. As she spoke about her experience in the unit, she kept referring to needing to find a place to put her back up against, to create a space for herself, away from others. 

Corners are good. I know now the good spot to go. I take extra sheets from the linen cart to keep warm. I couldn’t seem to get warm enough.


Beyond the glass door of her terrace door, the patio furniture sat empty in the cold air.
In the summer, there is a splash pad that has a water feature. I sit out there and listen to the sound of water and it makes me feel calm. I spend a lot of time out there just listening to the water.” It was November, we decided to wait until spring to photograph her place.When I returned 6 months later, we sat out on the patio furniture. Sun streamed down onto where we sat and the young leaves of the birch tree nearby were iridescent green. It was lush and private there. We could sit amid the greenery, protected by stacked stone that cast textured shadows along the retaining wall. The sounds of children floated over the air from the park beyond her terrace.

When I was there, (in the MESU) the windows didn’t open, there was no fresh air, I couldn’t trust the environment. When you are uncomfortable it is hard to tell your story, sort your feelings out in a coherent way for someone else to understand.

Seeing this place I understood why.







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