The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday March 30th

Exhibit Spotlights Art as Therapy for Patients

Through a departmental initiative to encourage self-expression, patients in the Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation Program (STEP) on the third floor of UNC's Neurosciences Hospital are exploring their inner selves using the arts as their outlet. The initiative has culminated in "Brushes With Life," STEP patients' exhibit of their own mixed media art work.

Subject matter and style in "Brushes With Life" is as varied as that in any traditional art museum. The exhibit includes everything from birds without wings and pumpkins to verses about snow and abstract art in the form of collages, needlework, charcoal sketches, paintings and poems.

"Brushes With Life" was originally conceived by Wren Crenshaw, a senior recreational therapist at UNC Hospitals. "We were recognizing that in the past (patients) had created what we considered to be really good artwork," he said.

In connection with the hospital's Facility Enhancement Committee, Crenshaw organized a group of doctors, nurses, therapists and designers who were interested in turning the patients' self-expressions into something more.

After several months of collecting, matting and framing STEP patients' artwork, "Brushes With Life" was born, shedding new light on what is commonly viewed as a debilitating and frightening mental disease.

"A lot of people think that schizophrenia is split personalities or multiple personalities and really have no idea what people with schizophrenia really suffer from," said Dr. Nancy Clayton, a psychiatrist with the STEP program. "An overwhelming majority of schizophrenics are not violent," she said.

In truth, people with schizophrenia are prone to many of the same symptoms associated with depression, including difficulty socializing and motivation problems. Patients often become withdrawn out of fear of their symptoms occurring in social situations.

Crenshaw believes that the positive attention drawn by "Brushes With Life" has improved several patients' self-esteem and self-concept. "Patients are learning more about themselves and what they can and can not do," he said.

The exhibit, located on the third floor of the Neurosciences Hospital, drew a crowd of almost 200 to its opening Jan. 9. Attendees included hospital staff, members of the surrounding community and several STEP patients who had contributed their work.

The opening allowed patients to socially interact with those interested in their projects and perhaps be recognized for their artistic accomplishments, rather than their disease, for the first time. Consequently, "Brushes With Life" is helping to destigmatize mental illness.

"If you've ever lived with a mental disease, a lot of the time you feel that within your society your dignity has been stripped," said Karen Dunn, director of Club Nova, a club designed to help members cope with mental illness. "(The exhibit) gave (the artists) a very meaningful, dignified setting for their art to be displayed," she added.

STEP patient Robert Longmire, whose subject matter focuses predominantly on landscapes and environmental issues, says that his artwork is an extension of himself. "The artwork is just an expression of how I view the world," he said. "I'm real thankful for UNC Healthcare, and I'm glad they've given me the opportunity to show my art to the community and to people who can relate to me."

While several patients appear to be developing a higher sense of self-worth, it may not be necessarily what patients in the STEP program are creating, but rather that they are developing time management skills and a sense of purpose.

"The improvement that I've seen is that (the patients are) pro-active now and doing something with their time," Crenshaw said.

Ken Sellett, a former STEP patient and contributing artist, echoes this sentiment. "It gives you something positive to do, keeps you busy. It helps you to be doing things and to be functioning in a positive way, as someone would in a craft shop or maybe their home," he said.

Ultimately, "Brush With Life" has been deemed a success by its organizers, contributors and visitors. The exhibit has already garnered attention from the Independent Weekly, UNC-TV and National Public Radio. Naturally, the hospital plans to continue the exhibit for as long as possible.

Currently, organizers are hoping to receive enough artwork to entirely change out the exhibit every six months. In the future, organizers hope to link up with other hospitals who are also using art therapy as part of their treatment programs and possibly research connections between mental illness and creativity.

In the words of psychologist Carl Jung, "To paint what we see before us is a different art from painting what we see within."

Several pieces in the "Brushes With Life" exhibit are available for purchase. For more information, call 962-9798.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

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