Arts center exhibit gives voices to Pueblo’s mentally ill

25 Aug

Arts center exhibit gives voices to Pueblo’s mentally ill
BY LUKE LYONS THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN LLYONS@CHIEFTAIN.COM APR 5, 2018 COMMENTS

Arts center exhibit gives voices to Pueblo’s mentally ill
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‘The Bipolar Ocean’ by Brent Dewell

Waves of blue, red, dark and light green, pink and purple swirl around two eye-shaped forms in the midsts of a large oil painting hanging in the Hoag Gallery at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center.

The painting is mesmerizing.

The colors are fluid and eye-catching in an abstract, Picasso-esque manner.

There’s a calm but frenetic energy in Brent Dewell’s work titled “Bipolar Ocean.”

The painting is one of three by Dewell — who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as kid and was housed at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo — and is a part of the “Courage and Hope: Portraits of Mental Health and Substance Use” exhibit at the arts center, 210 N. Santa Fe Ave.

The show, which runs until April 30, comprises paintings, sculptures, collages, poetry, music and other mixed medias created by those who suffer from mental illness and substance use.

The exhibit is a moving, soul-bearing experience that was birthed by Friendly Harbor Community Center and the arts center a little over a year ago.

Its aim was to help the artists communicate how their diseases and struggles affected them, and to give others a sense of understanding of the problems they’ve battled for years.

“Mental illness and substance use issues really are sort of this thing that takes over a human being’s being,” said Elissa Ball, board member at Friendly Harbor and the arts center, as well as retired forensic psychologist. “People with these problems tend to feel very isolated and sort of disenfranchised or alienated from the rest of the community.

“Art is a way that people often find they can communicate that sort of inner pain, generally speaking, in a way that communicates with other people.”

Beyond self-expression

Throughout the gallery you’ll find a myriad of representations of how mental illness and substance abuse has affected the lives of those in the community.

As part of the juried-show, each entrant had to write a statement explaining his or her art, and how it connects to the struggles he or she has been through.

There are works such as an ink-and-pencil drawing by the Poet Spiel, aka Tom Taylor, titled “Elephant in the Room.” In it, an eyeball dangles on a tendon. The eye dangles past an out-stretched hand, an elephant trunk and falling pills among other objects.

On another wall hangs a watercolor painting of a face with black and orange and blue and yellow stroked across it.

The piece is titled “Confusion” and was done by Thomas B. It was painted to represent how his illness makes him feel.

Across the room is a self-portrait showing just a fourth of a man’s face and appropriately titled, “A Fourth of My Face.”

Morgan C.’s message is that mental illness is only what some see, but that the artist is much more.

Each piece has a story, and shares the pain struggle and, most of all, hope each artist has experienced and continues to.

“Some (of the pieces) are expressive and tell you something that is rather moving,” Ball said. “Communication in and of itself is therapeutic . . . just being able to capture what you’re experiencing.”

Ball has two paintings chronicling her own struggles with depression.

As a child she began painting, and rediscovered her desire for art while working at the state hospital.

“I went back to (painting) as a way to express depression and anger and being very unhappy with the direction the hospital was going,” she said. “I found it extremely therapeutic. Really, I think that’s what kept me working through all those years. It kept me feeling I could still manage the tension and the stress.”

Dewell’s paintings also seem to have a therapeutic effect on the now 35-year-old.

Under one of his paintings, titled “Schizophrenic Rainbow” a card reads: “Oil paintings give me a voice, their vividness helps me communicate what I see and feel within.”

It’s a sentiment expressed on many of the artists’ statements in the gallery.

Erasing the stigma

For Ball and other patients, the stigma of mental illness and substance use is a difficult barrier to cross.

The exhibit — as well as the work Friendly Harbor does — is meant to help others understand that these stigmas are unfounded.

“Things get discounted and people are discounted a lot,” Ball said. “All these things are aimed at educating and lowering the stigma and increasing awareness of (mental illness and substance use.)”

The stigma can be isolating, preventing those suffering from speaking up about his or her problem.

Seeking treatment is imperative, and a life-long trek. Without proper help, an individual with some mental illnesses can become dangerous.

“I don’t think people know that almost 50 percent of those with mental illness — that are definitely treatable — don’t get treatment,” Ball said. “That means 50 percent of those people are potentially twice as dangerous (as) you and I are. Those in treatment are probably no more dangerous.”

Part of the treatment is feeling a part of the community — and not like outcasts.

The exhibit, and the work of those at Friendly Harbor, is designed to help include patients into society.

“Lots of suicides come from (that feeling of) ‘I’m alone, nobody understands, it’s hopeless,’ and I think that this place helps create community,” Ball said. “Feeling a part (of) and not alone is kind of the human condition.

“Just watching the news, it looks like a lot of the hateful stuff that happens is from that isolation and not feeling understood and feeling not cared for or listened to.”

A Friendly Harbor

Friendly Harbor, the nonprofit organization located at 2713/15 N. Grand Ave., is a place for the mentally ill, dealing with substance problems, the homeless and the families and friends of those dealing with such difficulties to connect and help with recovery.

Treatment for such diseases are lifelong, and Friendly Harbor works tirelessly to help people continue such treatment.

“That’s been the place for Friendly Harbor,” Ball said. “It started out as providing a place, a community for mostly significantly disabled individuals. We’ve expanded more and more, and that has helped everyone.”

A key component to the center’s work is offering people access to peer-recovery coaching by a peer specialist.

A peer specialist is a trained individual who has experienced the same things as the clients. Whether it’s an addiction or mental illness, a peer specialist can use his or her own lived experience to help others — without judgement.

“You end up with much-improved outcomes over what (just) professionals provide,” Ball said. “You need the whole thing, they’re not substitutes, but there’s something about being able to talk with someone or be with someone that accepts whatever the disorder is, and has experienced it, that is much better than (just talking) to a professional.”

Understanding through art

Keeping in Friendly Harbor’s mission, Ball and arts center curator Liz Szabo created the “Courage and Hope” exhibit.

Employing the aid of Health Solutions, Pueblo Community Health Center and CMHIP, more than 150 people entered art for the show.

When the EXHIBIT opened at the arts center, Ball and Ken Locke — a local psychologist — performed “The Twofers Look at Mental Illness.” The skit was written by Locke and was aimed at educating the audience.

“It was a real success,” Ball said. “The purpose was to sort of educate the public in a fun way about mental illness, and Pueblo and Colorado in terms of its needs.”

Ultimately, Ball said she hopes that the exhibit will give a better sense of understanding and acceptance within the community.

“It’s all this continuum, whether we’re talking about gays, transgender, mentally ill, veterans, homeless and then bankers and presidents and all that,” Ball said. “There’s a communality and a core that has meaning.

“I hope people leave the exhibit feeling like they understand what these people go through more and their hearts open to them a bit.”

llyons@chieftain.com

What: “Courage and Hope: Portraits of Mental Health and Substance Use.”

When: Now through April 30

Where: Hoag Gallery, Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, 210 N. Santa Fe Ave.

Information: sdc-arts.org, or friendlyharborpueblo.org.
llyons

Luke Lyons
Reporter Luke Lyons grew up in Pueblo, graduating from Pueblo County High School. He attended Colorado State University-Pueblo where he earned his Bachelor’s of Science in Mass Communication with an emphasis in electronic media.

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