All of the artwork featured in the new Carolina Union art exhibit came from Brushes with Life, a program committed to giving artists with mental illnesses a chance to develop and showcase their skills.
“Brushes with Life is an opportunity to empower our participants to identify as artists and, through that, learn to be proactive about ending stigma about mental health and illness,” said Grayson Bowen, the coordinator of Brushes with Life.
Brushes with Life is a project within the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, an umbrella organization dedicated to the successful recovery of mental health patients in North Carolina.
Bowen came to Brushes with Life as a participant in 2006. After years of showing his own work through the program and attending many exhibitions, he began to teach the art classes himself. This wasn’t his first time instructing — he has worked as a teaching assistant at Western Carolina University.
“Working with the undergrads presented the same amount of difficulties as the artists I work with now,” Bowen said. “When we’re working with art, we’re just people working with art — I don’t notice a difference.”
Harnessing this common connection to art for therapy has become one of the main goals for Brushes with Life. Bowen runs two recovery groups a week that focus on creating art in a group setting and use creativity as a wellness tool.
“It can be a breakthrough for a lot of people, I think, especially for them to identify as artists before identifying as someone with a mental illness,” he said.
While some participants realize their artistic talent through the program, others arrive with experience.
Jeff Newell, a past participant of Brushes with Life, said he began to call himself an artist at age 19, 20 years ago.
His style has certainly changed over the years, he said, but still gravitates toward abstract expressionist themes —“Jeff-art.”
For Newell, art has been less of a therapy and more of an inherent need.
“It’s something I have to do — something I can’t live without,” he said.
The exhibit will be shown until Oct. 19, coinciding with Mental Illness Awareness Week, which is from Oct. 11 until Oct. 17.
Days after the exhibit’s installation, students are already talking about it.
“It’s gorgeous,” said senior Mariah Barksdale, as she walked into the gallery.
After hearing background information on the exhibition, Barksdale glanced back at a couple of her favorites, including one of Newell’s paintings.
“I think that it’s so poignant and relevant — it’s nice to find light and beauty in the issues people have and to portray their thoughts on canvas.”