South Beach, Snug Harbor, and Baltic Street Find "Art in Recovery"
Carl Blumenthal
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From August 7th through September 1st, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island hosted an exhibit of crafts called "The Arts of Recovery." Peer advocates from the Baltic Street Mental Health Board and clients of South Beach Psychiatric Center created ceramic plates and a wall tapestry with the help of two Snug Harbor Artists-in-Residence from Japan, Kaoru Motomiya and Manika Nagare.

The peer advocates work at South Beach Psychiatric Center. Other consumers from South Beach joined in the artwork and South Beach's advisory board, the Verrazano Foundation, oversaw the project. Both peer advocates and other consumers are part of a South Beach effort to prevent mental illness called "The Wellness Community."

No wonder the postcard announcing the opening was a photograph of hands, two dozen hands, of different sizes, shapes, and shades, a "laying on of hands," hands "making nice" to each other, a communal effort. This goes against the grain of our commercial art markets that demand a hierarchy of individual achievements (and failures).

For one of these group activities, Manika Nagare asked participants to bring old clothes, the raw material for a tapestry or wall hanging. They cut, tied, pasted, and sewed together pieces of material until they had an unruly tapestry. It looked like a ragtag theater curtain or the contour map of some imaginary country filled with hand imprints, trees, religious symbols, boats, maps, planets, tigers, tourist icons, and rumpled bouquets. Manika painted the portraits of her fiber artists as they worked and pasted the portraits on the wall hanging. If there were any doubt that this work had her "backing," Manika dispelled it.

Said Digna Quinones, one of the artists, "It opened a whole world for me, knowing I could create something by just sewing two pieces of material together. Manika gave me support to become an artist, to feel comfortable. I can take this back to my clients and help them put their own tapestry of recovery together."

Said Janice Jones, "I always created little things at home. I'm proud of myself. Out of the light and cold of the winter, when we first started talking about this project, came the nicest experiences. Our work is good enough to be in a museum and here it is." According to David Jorsling, "Because I'm from Trinidad Tobago, I wanted to make a carnival costume, sailor pants, without even thinking about [the sailors who retired at] Snug Harbor."

In her workshop, Kaoru Motomiya demonstrated the art of kin-tsugi, a technique of mending ceramics using Japanese sumac lacquer and gold powder. Each participant donated a broken, ceramic plate of personal value. The participants wrote about and dated their bad/good day stories on the plates, smashed them, and then glued them back together. Kaoru then engaged in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to return peace of mind to the gathering. Like Manika's portraits, Kaoru's ceremony grounded the "young" artists.

Some of the inscriptions were: Jamie is born. I never expected to be a father. July 7, 1998. (Ken) No fun in the sun, nothing for me. What a bummer. July 4, 2003. (David) Drafted into the army. July 20, 1964 (Marty)

I did not expect to find diary entries "served" on plates. "Food for thought" perhaps. But whether the handwriting was tight or flowing, arranged in straight lines or in circles, the stories fit the plates naturally. The plates reminded me of those samplers people used to hang in their homes, with their comforting slogans, such as "Home Sweet Home."

Only these artists don't take home for granted. Like the plates themselves, these artists may have been "cracked" once, but they are learning through the Wellness Community to put the pieces of their lives back together in a healthier whole.

Kenneth Byalin is president of the Verrazano Foundation, South Beach's community board. The foundation's goal is to improve recovery by reducing stigma through public education. He noted, "Snug Harbor had a grant for audience participation. We thought working with artists would help [patients] people in recovery discover or rediscover talents. Art is inspirational. It helps you see that recovery is possible. Through art they could show their potential as human beings. Snug Harbor turned out to be a safe place for consumers to go without stigma."

Kenneth took pains to distinguish between these art-making exercises and art therapy, no doubt because some hospitals only use art therapy to distract patients. Yet, the best art therapists encourage the artists in all their clients to blossom. (For example, see the article in this issue about the Creative Arts Therapy Committee of the Brooklyn Mental Health Council.)

Art educators and therapists help people in recovery "discover or rediscover talents," in Kenneth's words. The point is not who gets to call their work "art" or is lucky enough to put it in a museum. The point is the process. What makes the process special at Snug Harbor and South Beach is that it's a group process; one that still allows for individual expression. Let's congratulate all the groups involved for nourishing this process.
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