Five years ago, artist and author Jay Quinn joined the Brushes with Life Arts Program after hearing about it from his psychiatrist. He had just moved to Chapel Hill from South Florida and decided to reinvest in his artistic pursuits, including representational acrylic and mixed media works with text incorporation.
“I became a regular member and went each week,” Quinn said. “I rediscovered a lot of my own talent that had been asleep for a long while and was inspired and motivated to reopen that part of my life."
Brushes with Life hosts weekly meetings at the UNC Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation Program (STEP) Community Clinic at the Carr Mill Mall in Carrboro. Members often join after seeing brochures or receiving emails about the program at the STEP Clinic and other hospitals and clinics nearby, said Shreya Gunna, a graduate student at the UNC School of Medicine.
Matt Ballard is the program manager at the UNC Farm at Penny Lane, a property being developed for multiple therapeutic programs. Ballard said Brushes with Life is important because as an nontraditional, non-medical form of therapy, it allows people to communicate what they’re going through in a way that fits them.
"Sometimes speaking about it verbally can be limiting for people,” Ballard said. “This gives them a certain voice that may be more appropriate for them to demonstrate their feelings and emotions."
Grayson Bowen, a certified peer support specialist with a master’s in fine arts, started and taught Brushes with Life when Quinn joined, although he eventually left to pursue another job.
"Grayson had an amazing gift for making the program open and welcoming for everyone that came in,” Quinn said.
Next week Quinn will lead the first Brushes with Life class of the year with co-facilitator Manmohan Sihra. The two took over as art directors about a year ago after a hiatus following Bowen’s departure, Quinn said.
He and Sihra have added more structure and direction to the program, he said, while still maintaining Bowen’s spirit.
“We're really there to spend our time together just being creative and creating a warm atmosphere where people can talk and interact and just sit down together making art,” Quinn said. “That is our legacy from Grayson because Grayson was really all about 'We're here together, we all share similar experiences and we're all here as part of our recovery.’”
Gunna started working with the group last fall and will continue this year. She helps by setting up art supplies at each meeting, leading the group with Quinn and Sihra, and resolving any issues that may come up.
In addition to newcomers, the group is also made up of returning members and any friends they might bring along, Gunna said.
“It's a great way to form a little community for yourself,” Gunna said. “Just to build more relationships because these people don't know each other, at least some of them don't know each other, outside of the program."
Every three to five classes, the group is taught a specific art skill, Quinn said. Last fall, they painted over photographs taken by Sihra, made collages and worked with clay.
Although members are provided with specific instructions, they have the option to work with any medium they want, Ballard said.
“You don't have to be the best artist, you don't have to be the worst artist — you can come and be yourself and express it the way you want to,” Ballard said.
The rules are relaxed in terms of the art, Gunna said. No member is reprimanded for doing the activities in a different way.
"It's not about a competition," Quinn said. "It's not about being graded. It's about being here enjoying each other's company and expressing ourselves with a variety of media that we have on hand."
After each session, group members have a chance to show off and sell their work at an art show and gallery held twice a year, Ballard said. They receive 100 percent of the profits. The group now has a permanent gallery in the N.C. Neurosciences Hospital.
Quinn said a study by Drexel University revealed that levels of the stress hormone cortisol lower after 45 minutes of art creation, but many people are unable to use art as a stress-relieving activity because they compare themselves to others.
Through Brushes with Life, people have the chance to express themselves in a non-threatening, indirect, and spontaneous way free of judgment, surveillance and oppression, Quinn said.
"Self-expression, in terms of art, is a way of getting back to something from childhood,” Quinn said. “A sense of playfulness, a sense of self-expression, without limit, that is stress-reducing and it's genuine."
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