Art to cope with mental illness

opening reception of "The Art of Recovery", hosted at Circular Congregational Church on May 25 (Vinny Y. Huang/Special to The Post and Courier)

In the first of two Brent Ashley paintings at Circular Congregational Church, the artist is depicted as an abstract figure trying to balance seven red stars. The second, more realistic piece features bigger stars that are delicately placed to harmonize with Ashley’s more energetic body.

“In the first one, I’m confused and tired,” he said of the two works. “In the second one, I’m part of my present rather than disconnected from it.”

They represent two very distinct periods in Ashley’s life: before and after he began to be treated for Bipolar II disorder. They are among the 92 paintings shown in the “The Art of Recovery” exhibition, part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

The exhibition, which was organized by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, features artwork by people living with mental illness who use painting as a therapeutic tool, often because they were already interested in art.

The Department of Mental Health treats 100,000 patients a year in its 17 state centers, some of which have multiple clinics. Three centers — Greenville Mental Health Center, Coastal Empire Community Mental Health Center and Aiken Barnwell Community Mental Health Center — offer art classes.

Brian Marks was a mental health patient in the late 1990s and now is an art teacher in the Greenville office. Some of his pupils are among those exhibiting their work in “The Art of Recovery.”

“Psychotherapy can help heal the mind, but art takes a step further and helps to heal the soul as well,” Marks said.

The Art of Recovery program, which received the 2006 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts, frequently looks to exhibit these paintings in settings beyond the department’s administration buildings. Sue Perry, director of community resource development at the Department of Mental Health, said being part of Piccolo Spoleto was a dream come true for both staff members and artists.

Perry has been in charge of the program since its beginning in 2001. She believes that when patients show their art in public, their illness becomes secondary and they can see themselves first and foremost as artists.

For the festival, the Art of Recovery committee selected pieces related to recovery and hope. They also tried to include different painting media to show the diversity of artwork produced throughout the state.

All of the artists involved have stories related to their mental health struggles, Ashley said.

“There are a lot of things that people who have the illness don’t understand,” he said. “On this side you are sane, and on the other side you are crazy. You are walking on a tightrope between it.”

In cases like these, Marks said, art becomes an opportunity for people to express themselves when words may fail them.

Ashley believes that art helps him get control of his thoughts. “I went from being a college graduate to sleep as a homeless man in Arizona because I didn’t want to confront who I was,” he said.

But after undergoing therapy and getting back to his art, he began to believe in himself again. His hope is represented by the green hands in both of his current pieces — and especially by the second one, which clearly depicts someone looking toward the future.

Lucía Camargo Rojas is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.