December 04, 2002 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Rejoicing in visibility 

Artists affected by mental illness mount a high-profile exhibit

It's safe to say most folks familiar with Rochester's art scene have never heard of The Impressions Gallery.

            Or, if they have, they've never dared to go there.

            Located in a building on the grounds of the Rochester Psychiatric Center on Elmwood Avenue, the gallery exhibits work by artists afflicted by mental illness. It's run by the Mental Health Coalition, a consumer-directed non-profit that advocates on behalf of mentally ill individuals and provides them with educational programs.

            For the last several years, the coalition has been sponsoring and organizing juried shows of work by artists who've struggled with various mental problems. But despite the strength of the work and its relatively low cost, the general public has all but ignored the gallery and its artists.

            "People don't want to go over to the RPC campus and walk into a building over there," says artist Victoria Porter, who contributed a piece to this year's show. "They're freaked out. I wish that weren't true."

            Coalition director Jody Szczech (pronounced "check") says, "We've sold quite a bit of artwork out of the RPC," but she says most of that work has been bought by workers in the psychiatric field who attend training sessions there, or as retirement gifts for employees at the center.

            This year, however, the show's going public --- big time.

            Rejoice in Creativity, the coalition's 2002 juried show, opened at the Center at High Falls' first-floor museum space on November 22, and will be up until January 5. It's the first time many of the artists chosen to participate in the exhibit have shown their work to the outside world. And for most of this year's artists, it's also the first time they've shown their work in a context that tells the world they've been affected by mental illness.

            For those artists, and for the mental health community as a whole, there's more at stake than just showing and selling artwork. The exhibit is also a statement about mentally ill individuals' place in our society, and a strike back against the stigma that too often keeps them in the shadows.

The High Falls exhibit became a reality, in part, by pure chance. The Center's upstairs galley is booked well into the future, and the downstairs space is also tightly scheduled. But as luck would have it, there was a two-month window this year that had yet to be filled when the Coalition went searching for a gallery beyond the psych center's grounds.

            The fact they even embarked on that search is the key to understanding the show's importance. "I think [the show] is significant because of where it is," says Tom O'Rourke, an artist with three works in this year's exhibit. O'Rourke, who's shown his paintings and watercolors in other shows at High Falls and elsewhere, was the one who suggested the Coalition look into mounting this year's show in High Falls' high-profile space.

            "It's great, because people are able to see that people in the system aren't just people in the system," he says. "They don't just lay around and do nothing."

            O'Rourke's experience participating in shows at other galleries and his work as a portrait artist have given him insight into the tastes of the art-buying public. "No matter how good you are, there's still a stigma attached to mental health," he says. "So the fact that [previous Coalition shows] were at The Impressions Gallery turned off art buyers."

            It can also turn off some artists. "A lot of times, we've had artists drop out of the gallery, because they were starting to make a name for themselves separately and they didn't want that stigma to be there," Szczech says.

            When considering whether to submit a piece to this year's show, Porter says, "I was fearing, like, 'Oh my God, everybody's going to know I was sick.'" But eventually she decided, "'Fine, let everybody know I was sick, but I do this first.' Being part of the gallery is about doing something about that stigma. My hope is that the other artists came to the project with that same goal."

            Ultimately, for this year's artists, "the advantages of being out and possibly selling their art outweighed the fact that they'd be identified that way," Szczech says.

            While trying to fund and market its annual juried exhibitions, Szczech says the Coalition always struggles with the wording. Funding for the shows is available from some sources if the Coalition characterizes The Impressions Gallery as part of a rehab or therapeutic program. But when applying to other funding sources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, calling the gallery a "rehab program" can automatically disqualify the application.

            (The Coalition applied for an NEA grant this year, but was turned down. It did not characterize the juried show as rehabilitative in its application. The Coalition funded this year's show itself, thanks in part to a generous donation from St. Mary's Church.)

            Szczech says High Falls' fine art director Sally Wood Winslow initially misunderstood the purpose of the exhibit, thinking it was a fundraiser. "Her big concern was, 'What is the quality of the art?'" Szczech says. "She didn't want to say, 'We'll do it because you're a cute program.' She said, 'This is an art gallery, first of all,' and I said, 'Well, these are artists, first of all.'"

            Winslow, who Szczech says was a big help in making the show a reality and a success, says she doesn't recall thinking the exhibit was a fundraiser. She herself has a piece in the show, though she does not identify herself as suffering from a mental illness.

            "My take was always that those eligible to exhibit where those who have benefited from mental health counseling," Winslow says, pointing out that such a definition could include family counseling, grief counseling, and other less-intensive therapies.

Whether the Coalition officially characterizes the exhibits as rehabilitative or not, it's clear that the experience of creating and displaying artwork helps people dealing with mental problems overcome them and reintegrate into society.

            "A lot of my art has been a way of healing," says Porter. "It's therapy to me." Her polymer clay and mixed-media work Wild Beautiful Woman is "almost a self-portrait," she says, "but I think more in the way of how I'd like to be able to see myself."

            Jeffery Greeno's oil and encaustic (wax) work The Sorrow (pictured on this week's cover) is one of the most emotionally striking pieces in the show. "I've felt that before," Greeno says of The Sorrow. "I'm happier than that now. It's a feeling from the past.

            "I feel pretty serene when I'm painting," he continues. "It's pretty emotionally stabilizing. It's challenging physically. It keeps me emotionally active with imagination and perception and coordination."

            Participating in the High Falls show is "a normalizing experience," Szczech says. "It's showing good artwork in a public art space, which is a whole lot different than having it at a psychiatric center. That's what the exciting part of this is, that we're doing something the rest of the world does --- artists are showing in a gallery like other artists do."

            Programs that help people hospitalized and otherwise isolated by mental illness reintegrate into society are woefully underfunded, Szczech says. When budget considerations arise, the needs of those who require the most care supercede those of people who are on the mend, but who nevertheless are in danger of slipping back into sickness.

            "That's where all the money's going to, to try to find the people who are out on the streets and who aren't connected to services," Szczech says. "That's where the priorities are. I really feel that's a shame, because it takes away from people who have gotten out of the hospital, had some level of recovery, and then can't continue on because of the support services being cut, the preventive-type things."

            The Coalition's been lucky. Szczech says its budget has tripled in the last two years, and recent county funding cuts have been relatively small. Next year's county budget restores some funding for mental health programs previously slated for cuts by County Executive Jack Doyle, but it has yet to be determined which programs will actually have their funding restored. Non-mandated programs, those not addressing the immediate health and safety needs of the mentally ill, are still in jeopardy.

            The Impressions Gallery was one of several galleries established in New York psychiatric centers by a state initiative in the early 1990s. Then-Governor Mario Cuomo also provided funding to develop self-help "clearinghouses" for people suffering from a wide variety of conditions. Szczech got her start as a mental health service provider working for one of those clearinghouses.

            "Those are the things that I saw that helped people, because it taught people how to fish, rather than just threw money at a problem," she says, referring to the Biblical aphorism. "When we changed governors, Governor Pataki took all the money away from self-help groups, the clearinghouses. All that money just was gone, and all the work that we had done up to that point, we just couldn't do it anymore."

            Indeed, the Pataki administration's record of dealing with the state's mentally ill population has gone from short-sighted to scandalous. A series of investigative pieces in the New York Times this year documented corruption and abuse in state-funded adult homes of a severity often reminiscent of the conditions Dorothea Dix worked to reform 150 years ago.

            Public pressure compelled the Pataki administration to announce new initiatives intended to improve treatment and oversight of mentally ill adult home residents on November 26. But the long-term needs of those who require less intensive preventative and support programs still seem far from being met.

This year's juried show includes over twice as many works by over twice as many artists as last year's exhibit at The Impressions Gallery --- 55 pieces by 30 artists. Only a few pieces seem amateurish; the bulk would fit in at almost any Rochester gallery. (In fact, Greeno's The Sorrow, for example,is headed to the Elizabeth Gallery after the High Falls show.)

            Standouts include O'Rourke's Proud Man, a watercolor portrait painted from memory; two watercolors by Sonia M. W. Gutowski, who also teaches art at the RPC; Sue McMahon's richly textured acrylic and ink landscapes; and Andrew Fisher's surreal acrylic-and-pencil compositions, such as Nerve Ending Surprise.

            The November 22 reception was well attended by both artists and patrons alike. It was a decidedly unpretentious affair as such events go --- the artists I met displayed an inspiring mix of pride, honesty, and humility.

            "Mental illness is something that you're never ready for," Greeno told me that night as we stood before The Sorrow. "It's crushing, and it takes a long time to recover from. So this piece isn't just my work. This is the work of probably 50 or 75 other people who have helped me along the way. It's not just me, it's all the doctors and the nurses and the residential staff and therapists and my friends in the community.

            "I think the amazing thing is that this art is even here," he continued, "because, without the help of all of the hospitals in the city, basically, I would have died when I was 19. These people are lifesavers. That's the glory of it."

            "Mental illness, if it does anything, it just destroys your self-esteem," Szczech says, "because somebody tells you that your mind is not working and you don't believe anything that happens to you. You don't trust your own feelings. You don't trust your own thoughts. You don't trust your ability to do anything."

            The High Falls exhibit, she says, "is like giving people a present and saying, 'You are good. You are a good person. You're creative. You know what you're doing. Your mind is working. No matter what anybody tells you, here's living proof that you can do something valuable, and beautiful, and creative.'"

            "That you are an asset to your community," Porter adds. "I think a lot of people don't feel that way."

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