Eyes Into the Soul 

UC art show highlights work of artists with mental-health issues.

Cal fine arts grad Arline Rodini obtained a master's degree in counseling based on the memory of how her mother once used art to comfort shell-shocked World War II veterans at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. "They were in these sort of locked-up wards," she said. "She would go in with these finger paints and work with psychiatrists to really help them get to the bottom of what had happened during the war, and what kind of trauma they were dealing with."

Rodini's interest in the therapeutic benefits of art is visible in the resonant new exhibit on display at UC Berkeley's ASUC Art Studio. Titled From Isolation to Connection and curated by Rodini, the show consists of artwork made by adults living with psychiatric disabilities. The show is presented by the city of Berkeley's Division of Mental Health and the Creative Living Center. The center's art program is a compassionate, somewhat unorthodox approach to therapy at Bonita House, a residential psychiatric treatment facility.

The artists involved in the show and program struggle with a variety of mental-health issues including schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, long-term substance abuse, paranoia, and dual diagnosis, which is substance abuse plus a psychiatric illness. Through techniques such as scribbling -- an artistic spontaneous writing session -- they can probe deep memories in a way that eventually allows the artists to begin dealing with their problems.

"Art brings the spirit to life," Rodini said. "You come alive inside. Once you start working with the materials, something happens that connects what's going on inside you to the paper. That puts it outside them, through imagery, so they don't have to hold it inside. It really releases something and calms them. ... It can become a kind of healing experience for them."

Franna Lusson, one of the most striking talents in the exhibit, explained in the show catalogue how this has worked for her. "As I am forced into a stable box by a series of medications due to my mental illness, I have become conflicted about my own work," she wrote. "Due to the mental and medical treatment, I at times do not feel that I have full access to my whole creative self. My work is dark, yet most of it contains a spirit of hope. It is a transformation of the broken past."

Visitors to the exhibit can be challenged to see such work as serious art, knowing as they do that psychiatric problems were part of its creation. "A lot of people just stumble in and they're not aware of what they're looking at," said ASUC Art Studio manager Erica Terman. "When they find out, they're kind of surprised and say, 'Wow, this is really good.' The fact of the matter is a good portion of these artists went to art school. They're trained and it shows. There may an expectation that work won't be as good as your average gallery show because of the population producing it, but I think people are generally surprised and impressed."

Part of the art's impact is the primordial, archetypal things going on in these works, which frequently hum with a scarred violence and bruised heart that are immediately affecting. "Some are coming to the show specifically because of the subject matter," Terman said. "They're interested in issues pertaining to both art and mental illness and ways people can express themselves. So the qualifier is the attraction."

The artists themselves have been involved in the show in every way, from creating the works to hanging the show and appearing at the opening. All of the proceeds from any sales will go directly to them; the gallery isn't taking a penny. "These people are not able to work, and it's validating to have someone buy your work," Terman said. "A couple of the artists have aspirations to build themselves a studio to do more work, full- or part-time. The talent is there to do it."

The subject of money hovers on the edge of this artwork, which some lump in with the increasingly collectable "outsider art" scene associated with people like the Reverend Howard Finster and Henry Darger, the subject of In the Realms of the Unreal, a well-received documentary released this year.

"There's a danger of exploitation when you get the galleries and museums involved and it's being sensationalized," Terman said. "I don't feel that's what Arline is doing with this show at all. This population is isolated. They are outside the mainstream, but the whole point of this show is to create a bridge, which sort of flies in the face of the whole concept of outsider art."

Rodini dreams of starting an art center for artists with and without disabilities. "I have found artists who love to work side by side with the artists at Bonita House's Creative Living Center because they are very inspiring and do amazing work," she said. "I find them very special. They don't have many defenses at all. They're just real and who they are, and they can pick up in you if you're really on the level or not. They've gotten into so many situations through their medications, through their hospitalizations, where the treatment of them is less than kind and people treat them like an object rather than a real human being. I think maybe that's the bottom line, sort of just being really human with them."

The artist Elizabeth Guergah concurs: "I live an artist's life now. Before, I felt I was just like an ant marching around from place to place. It has given me insight, an identity, and a role."

There's perhaps no better testament to the power art can have in someone's life -- especially challenged individuals like those in this show -- than Stephen J. Ternullo's catalogue statement. "I made a contract with God: 'If you get me out of this psychotic mess, I will do art for the rest of my life,'" he wrote. "My art makes me feel at peace and my mind feels stable when I'm doing it. I feel filled up, like someone is smiling down on me."

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