Jennifer Sassani suffers from depression and schizoaffective disorder, a condition that causes her to have hallucinations and hear voices that aren’t there. At 43, she has lived with these illnesses more than half her life. During high school. Through her time at Barnard College. While on a solo trip to Europe. Yesterday. Today.
“It wasn’t diagnosed until 1999,” Sassani said. “I would go through depressions in college and high school. I would come home from school and go right to bed, but I did well in high school as far as my studies went. It was hard for me to deal with the stress of being there all day.”
Almost six years ago, Sassani’s counselor, Pat Banks, encouraged her to explore art through therapy and a program called “The Art of Recovery,” sponsored by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. The program aims to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness by allowing patients to showcase their artwork.
For Sassani, art was a passion that had fallen by the wayside during a particularly hard period, and while painting and drawing doesn’t cure her illnesses, it helps. “When I’m doing it, it’s very calming, it takes me out of the world,” she said. “It’s like a fantasy world when I’m painting.”
One in four adults is diagnosed with a mental disorder each year, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. David Diana, a licensed counselor who helped bring “The Art of Recovery” to the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, described the project as a 130-piece gallery created by 50 artists that aims to bring a face to those being treated for mental illness.
“The stories you see in these works are universal,” Diana said. “They’re human stories; There’s struggle, there’s triumph, there’s challenges. It allows people to see and empathize and relate to what people might be going through.”
Tracy LaPointe, public information director for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, is in charge of “The Art of Recovery” and coordinated with Diana to bring the gallery to Charleston. She has worked with Sassani over the last five years and has seen a change in the way she carries herself.
“Jennifer is a wonderful, delightful person, but when I first met her, she was very reserved, didn’t have a lot of confidence in her artwork and was very, very shy,” LaPointe said. “And now she’s really outgoing. She’s a lot more confident.”
Sassani still has a hard time around large groups of people and goes through bouts of depression, but in addition to art, her love for animals helps.
“I do a lot of animal work — most of my artwork is animals,” she said. “I have an affinity with animals, and they just speak to me.”
At this year’s event, Sassani had nine pieces accepted into the gallery — four paintings of cats, one owl, one flying fox and three orchids. She has also started doing commissions.
Dianna Bell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.