From the Community to the Classroom

Integrating the Healing Arts and Social Justice

Kelty McKerracher is living proof that a successful and fulfilling career can be built on a combination of seemingly incongruent passions and interests.

Kelty came to VSBM in 2011 for the Spa Therapy program. Her background was in dance and the arts, giving her a unique approach to bodywork and massage. After graduating, she successfully founded her own private practice, Embodywork Holistic Arts and returned to VSBM as a teacher’s assistant for the Body Mind Integration course.

“Starting the business was a creative endeavour for me,” Kelty said. “I wanted to emphasise the artistic and creative aspects of the bodywork practice.”

Kelty’s dual passions for the arts and social justice meant that she found herself pursing several different jobs and passion projects. While building her bodywork practice, Kelty was mentoring with a theatre company specialising in community engagement and working as a mental health worker at the Portland Hotel Society (PHS). PHS provides housing, service and advocacy in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside community and fought for Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site. Kelty also teaches Flamenco classes and produces an annual flamenco show for the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival called Barrio Flamenco.

“On one hand I was working in the SRO hotels doing everything from crisis intervention to cleaning toilets, and then I would go to my beautiful studio and give massages with aromatherapy. There was definitely some cognitive dissonance!”

When Kelty heard about the Expressive Arts Therapy program at the Vancouver school, she had the sense that it would be the right fit for her. 

“I knew all along that I wanted to build on the foundation of bodywork and build a healing practice that incorporated the arts, so the expressive arts program gave me a way to do that. It has really transformed my practice. The Expressive Arts program took these different aspects of my life, like raw materials, and helped me shape them into a career. It has given me a real framework and a language to bring everything together. I am now practicing things in my work that reflect all these different aspects of my life.”

Kelty is always working to find a way to apply her Expressive Arts Therapy training into a broader community context. Her community arts work has transformed into a role as a Program Coordinator at the Community Arts Council of Vancouver where she is working on an Artists in Schools program called Reframing Relations. Kelty says the program brings Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists together in schools and community settings to explore reconciliation through the arts.

“The arts are such an amazing way to enter into those uncomfortable conversations and reveal a shared humanity,” Kelty said. 

Growing from her work with PHS, Kelty has also recently received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to research and develop a large collaborative performance with the Downtown Eastside community, particularly the Drug Users Resource Centre, that would tell the stories of the people in this community and of the harm reduction movement in Vancouver.

“One of the things the Expressive Arts Program helped me to do was to take the skills and trust relationships I built as a front line worker and apply them to a role as a creative innovator. I can now apply my training as an artist-therapist in a way that I hope will be of service the community.”

Kelty has now joined the faculty of Vancouver School of Expressive Arts Therapy teaching Intercultural Community Arts Practice as an application of the work.