For Johanna Christianson, a free mosaic workshop is more than an art class — it's a refuge.

"It's the only time I can free my mind," said Christianson, 46, of Minneapolis, as she proudly studied her mosaic of a purple-blue sky over a green house. "It helps me stay out of my head and bring it to a peaceful place."

Christianson is one of several people who have participated in a series of free arts workshops this year through Avivo, a Minneapolis-based mental health nonprofit. The Avivo program is part of a new partnership with COMPAS, a St. Paul arts nonprofit with more than 100 teaching artists.

The classes increase access to art and teach new skills to people living with a mental illness, but also help boost their confidence and combat isolation as they socialize with people who can relate to their challenges.

The 24 arts workshops — from poetry to painting — are being held until mid-October, funded by a $25,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

While tapping into art to help improve mental health isn't a new tactic — Avivo has had its own arts program in Minneapolis for 15 years — the new partnership is increasing the number of people who benefit by hosting art workshops at community support programs in Bloomington, Crystal and Minneapolis. They expect to serve nearly 200 Hennepin County residents this year.

The workshops aren't considered art therapy. Rather, they are geared toward teaching people new skills and helping them connect with one another. It's also a way for participants to express themselves through art and be defined by more than a mental illness.

"Art can make change and create community and build skills; it's more than art-making," said Jes Reyes, the program coordinator for Avivo ArtWorks, which supports artists living with mental illness.

One in five Minnesotans face mental illness each year, according to state data.

Other Twin Cities nonprofits are also tapping into the arts more to help people who are struggling with mental health problems. People Inc. has a 25-year-old program called Artability, which offers more than 300 free arts workshops a year to anyone living with mental health challenges. Artists then sell their work each year at an art show. This year's show takes place Oct. 25-27 at the Show Gallery Lowertown in St. Paul.

Guild Incorporated also organizes art workshops as part of its community support program and does an annual art show for clients and staff to show off their work.

And COMPAS works with many organizations that help people living with mental health problems or physical and cognitive disabilities.

"It's just expanding," said Marlaine Cox, the arts program manager at COMPAS, adding that the positive effects creating art can have on mental health are well documented.

"The community was so hungry for arts programming," she said. "It's a simple solution to a complicated problem."

Perhaps that's in part why adult coloring books and community painting classes have taken off in popularity in recent years.

Calming the mind

At Avivo's community support program in Minneapolis, the center offers a variety of health and wellness activities and has an art studio people can use.

Christanson, who said she has a traumatic brain injury, has visited the studio three times a week for the past couple of years because doing art helps slow her rapid thoughts.

"I'm calm and relaxed," she said.

Berta, a Minneapolis woman who declined to use her last name, had been homeless for about two weeks when she got help from Avivo and heard about the free class.

"It keeps my mind off a lot that's happening," she said as she finished creating her mosaic.

Reyes said Avivo plans to continue to partner with COMPAS on workshops after October.

Martha Bird, 55, of Minneapolis, has participated in six of the 24 arts workshops since April. As a professional artist who creates sculptural basketry, she said she wanted to stretch her skills and try other crafts.

Unlike a theater class in the community, which can be intimidating, attending a theater class at Avivo removes that pressure because it's held in an understanding environment, with people who are going through similar challenges and can support one another, she said.

Spending time doing a craft is like letting air out of a tire, releasing stress and tension, said Bird. She is also part of Avivo ArtWorks Collective, composed of 15 artists who create art to fight the stigma of mental illness.

"This is exciting and invigorating," she said of the mosaics class.

"It's really about taking away the barriers to access [art]."