Everything is shape and form and perspective. The simplest elements can be put together to create beauty, even when all you have in front of you appears to be waste. I think that’s why I strive to create beauty and to see beauty every day. Otherwise, the
ou’ve seen cave paintings?” Nick Timbrell asked Pasatiempo during an art class at the Santa Fe Clubhouse. “I always ask myself, Why? Why did we do that? Why did we go down into a cave underground, underwater, crawl up here, crawl down there, get all our paints ready, and paint that? It’s because we have to.” Timbrell, a participant in the art program at the Clubhouse, also assists in teaching the classes. He has a masters from the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning at Cornell. Most of the other participants in Inside Out, an art program for people that suffer from mental illness, have no art training at all. The Clubhouse is part of The Life Link, a nonprofit organization for the homeless, the mentally ill, and those with substance-abuse issues. Participants in the class, taught by Michele Altenberg, have been preparing for a year for their annual exhibit Inside Out: The Art of Mental Illness. “This is a group of people that’s stigmatized,” Timbrell said. “This is a group of people who do not have the same economic opportunities in life. This provides them with a little bit of an outlet.”
The class meets regularly on Fridays at the Clubhouse and on Tuesdays at Warehouse 21. Students are taught principles of making art, they make trips to galleries and museums, and their work is selected for the curated exhibition, which takes place this year in the Railyard, at the site of James Kelly Contemporary, which closed in early September. The show runs from Thursday, July 29, to Oct. 1, and 50 percent of the artwork sales go to the artists; the rest benefits Compassionate Touch, which pays for art supplies, framing, advertising, and related expenses.
Most of the art students in the Inside Out program suffer from one or more mental illnesses such as clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia,
and schizoaffective disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, close to 44 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year — a staggering number that makes erasing the stigma surrounding mental illness imperative.
Inside Out is sponsored by the Compassionate Touch Network, which gives a voice to the mentally ill through a series of creative programs. “I came to the services at the clubhouse about four weeks after I got to Santa Fe, and I met Michele Altenberg and started this class,” said Cassandra Kirkman. “I have always been good at art. My family has always been telling me to do it. I have one in the show of the mayor.” (Several people painted Santa Fe mayor Javier Gonzales’ portrait while he sat for the class. In addition to Kirkman’s portrait of Gonzales, four others are included in the exhibit.) Kirkman showed Pasatiempo paintings — some of them works in progress — that included colorful Merkaba stars, variants on the Star of David that are associated with Jewish mysticism and sacred geometry; an intricate thunderbird design; and numerous depictions of the archangel St. Michael. “I did all that in the last five or six days,” she said. “St. Michael is my favorite angel. I call on him all the time.”
Because the show is curated, there is no guarantee that an individual participant’s work will be selected. Unlike last year, when classes were asked to do self-portraits, this year’s exhibition has a more open-ended theme. “There’s a strong emphasis that [the work] reflects the personalities of the people involved,” said curator Bruce Velick. “My primary interest is not in a well-done painting; it’s in what the painting says. The artists are primarily coming from the Clubhouse at Life Link; Casa Milagro, which is a residential facility; ArtStreet, which is in Albuquerque; and Warehouse 21. The people at Casa Milagro are at the more extreme end in that they’ve got around-the-clock supervision. The Clubhouse is more of a drop-in center. Warehouse 21 has the most independent people who are able to function somewhat normally.”
The participants are supportive and encouraging of one another. They critique each other’s work and get to learn some of the nuts and bolts of what goes into mounting a full-scale art show at a professional venue. “By having the work framed, hanging it in an environment that is professional as any gallery in New York, they can be very proud of it,” Velick said, “and they get the feedback from the community and their peers.”
“It’s pretty fun,” said Valerie Webster, who has bipolar disorder. She has been filling her sketchbook with images of zombie fairies. “You never know what’s going to get picked. Last year I didn’t make it. I was in the psych ward and was so depressed.” This year, she’s including Hopeless,
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a simple painting of a figure sitting in a plain gray setting. “I drew this sea of dark gray. It’s about how you’re just stripped down and you’re nothing and you’re hopeless and you’re getting ready to dissolve away somewhere. Being bipolar kind of sucks sometimes.”
Fifty-five artists are included in the Inside Out exhibition this year, a testament to how far the program, which was started with little backing or support and a handful of participants, has come in four years. “We’re reaching out to more and more people in drop-in centers, residential centers, as well as individuals that find out about us through our website,” said Michele Herling, executive director of Compassionate Touch. The organization operates three programs: Breaking the Silence New Mexico, a middle-school and high-school program that combats stigmas around mental illness and suicide; Minds Interrupted, where participants develop monologues based on their experiences with mental illness and share them in front of a live audience; and Inside Out. “I’ve sat in on a lot of art classes this year and I’m blown away by the building of community I see among people because they critique one another’s art and they’re taught how to do that,” Herling said. “It gives them a venue to express themselves.”
Carmen Contreras has been in the Inside Out program for three years. Her still-life Una Consuela de
Azul y Rojo Maez is featured in the exhibit. “It’s an oil painting,” she said. “This is my first time doing oil.” One of Contreras’ paintings depicts a mummified figure in an abstracted background, bound tight by her wrappings. “It’s about being tied up, caught up. You feel like sometimes you can’t breathe because you’re bound by certain things in life. This particular one was not selected, which is upsetting to me, because I feel like it really says something.” But Contreras admits that the class has been a positive experience overall. Herling, Velick, and Altenberg stress that Inside Out is not art therapy, although it can be therapeutic for those involved. “It’s not analyzing their dreams or forcing them to get something out that they don’t want to get out,” Velick said.
Contreras said art helps her with depression and anxiety. The Clubhouse is a place where she can come and find some release by getting it all out. “I have a lot of depression and grief issues that I have not dealt with after all these years. When I put it on paper, I can look at it and reevaluate what’s really going on there.” Alex Sullivan, an artist in the show who works with found objects, adds his own perspective on the value of art. “Everything is shape and form and perspective. The simplest elements can be put together to create beauty, even when all you have in front of you appears to be waste. I think that’s why I strive to create beauty and to see beauty every day. Otherwise, the darkness can take over. Art saves lives.”
The participants are supportive and encouraging of one another. They critique each other’s work and get to learn some of the nuts and bolts of what goes into mounting a full-scale art show at a professional venue. “By having the work framed, hanging it in an environment that is as professional as any gallery in New York, they can be very proud of it,” curator Bruce Velick said.