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North Tonawanda gallery exhibit focuses on art as therapy

Those who created more than 30 artworks for a new exhibit in North Tonawanda have been challenged by depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Some have endured deeply traumatic experiences. Others have been homeless. All find therapy, and greater understanding, when drawing or painting.

"If I did not have art, I don't know what I would do. It keeps me stable in my mind. ... When I finish a piece, I feel as though I have accomplished something," one of the artists shares in notes that will accompany his work in the exhibit, which opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Project 308 Gallery, 308 Oliver St. The work also will be a centerpiece of the fourth annual Oliver Street Art Festival from noon to 5 p.m. Aug. 12 on Oliver Street, between Schenck and Robinson streets.

Natalie Brown, founder and curator of the 1,200-square-foot gallery, put together the exhibit with Sandie Crocker, art therapist with the Niagara Falls-based Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier Mental Health Art Program.

Q. How does the art program fit in with the work of Community Missions?

Art therapist Sandie Crocker has worked at Community Missions in Niagara Falls for three decades.

Crocker: We watch the person doing the art and see how they go about it, and then we have a discussion. The art piece is not a threatening thing to discuss. Talking one on one about feelings and emotions and trauma may be very threatening but an art piece can be revealing. You can ask the artist, "What do you think that means?" "What we're you thinking?" You can go to art piece and it's not as threatening, especially if something really happened to them.

Q. What does an exhibit like this mean to the gallery?

Brown: My very first show about five years ago, the artist's daughter was blind, so the artist created artwork that was very textured and tactile, and all the work was touchable. It was amazing to see how many visibly impaired people came in. People were so excited to experience the art. It helped with their wellbeing and their health. Not every show is like that, but if we can incorporate health – especially mental health – and wellbeing into our shows, it's an added bonus to the wonderful artwork on display.

Q. What sort of art can people expect to see?

Crocker: A lot of abstract art, and quite a bit of scenery. There's oil painting, watercolor, collage work, acrylic painting on canvas, marker, colored pencil. There's quite a variety.

Q. Can you share another story?

Crocker: One of the works is called "A Story Within a Novel." It's a color pencil drawing and the directive was to draw emotions. ... I made sure some were positive, some were not – gray emotions like depression or confusion or anxiety. There was also a happy, excitement, piece. The artist wrote, "What I own inside of me. Oh, those emotions that either bring out the monster in me or the mild-mannered, peace-seeking mother, wife and child of God. We now begin with the art flow of sad and happy emotions. Confusion is settled entirely in the middle, the vortex, or as it's been said, the black hole. As can be seen, every other feeling surrounds it.

"Being diagnosed with bipolar since the age of 15, I have found that emotions can be very fickle, messing with the entire being of a person. I remember earlier days, when I was less stable on medication, rapid cycling. This means a whole flow of emotions happening at once. For a 21-year-old college student, this was very hard to handle. I went on an escapade to Toronto, where I was arrested, put in jail and then a psychiatric facility. Nothing really has been more profound to me than being locked up for what is going through my mind, whether it is a hospital or in my own world.

"Fast track to almost 30 years later. I still struggle but with help from many different supports which I am blessed to have, I see a brighter future for myself and how I can be a help to others that struggle with mental illness."


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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