THE TRIUMPH OF CREATION
Director of the Odyssey House Art Project
I started at Odyssey House as a psychiatric aid, escorting clients to appointments, monitoring their behavior, and overseeing some of the recreational activities. I asked if I might start some art groups, where I could instruct people in simple drawing and painting. I was immediately given the go-ahead. At first, some clients were suspicious and resistant, but as we got to know each other the group became more relaxed. The clients enjoyed the activity and we listened to music and chatted while we worked, and this made for some pleasant use of time. However, I had never taught art. I was primarily a photographer, and although I did have some skills in drawing and painting, I was not highly practiced. The clients and I learned together as we went along.
As a young man, I myself spent a substantial amount of time as a client in rehab facilities. I had experience with the sub-standard materials and cheap craft kits offered in art groups. The end product was always depressing. I knew that we needed good quality materials if we were going to produce art work our clients could take pride in. Starting out, we set up the studio with my own supplies and with donations from friends and family. We started slow, but as we gained momentum more people joined. When the Odyssey House organization saw the works we were creating in our groups, they arranged an official budget for good quality acrylic paint, wood, canvas, paper maché, etc. Odyssey House has been expanding and supporting the art program ever since, and we have been joined by an additional, invaluable staff member, Chad Porter, a skilled artist and wonderful group facilitator.
Our clients can be with us for a year, and sometimes more. Within this span of time, they are able to attain skill and a depth of understanding in the process of art making.
Each year we pick out a theme for the clients to explore. This creates an atmosphere where people can learn and share, have a subject for discussions, and other social bonding experiences. Also, as many with mental illness have difficulty calling up ideas and thinking conceptually, a theme offers a starting point. I am always looking for and developing techniques that will be easy for the artists to replicate and make their own, such as projecting images and tracing, and using raised fabric paint to create an outline and then pouring paint to fill in the image. For many of the sculptural pieces we use wood, clay, found objects and easy-to-carve materials, like foam core. The techniques may be simple to master, but the creations can become wonderfully complex and personal.
I am fascinated by art’s function within the goals, mandates, and efficacy of treatment for the mentally ill, and the possible pitfalls of the influence of values and pressures from the fine art world.
We try to demystify the process of making art, taking as our model the prehistoric artist. Instead of thinking of museums, celebrity and art valued in dollars, we emulate the cave artist, speaking to the spirits to bring luck and harmony to the group.
But what always prevails is the triumph of creation. In our gallery shows, the artists wear buttons that say: “I’m the artist.” They stand with pride by their work, interacting with guests with a newfound ease that would never have happened if art hadn’t opened them up to begin with.