MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. — For Penny Saylor (pictured), art has never been one-dimensional.
It’s always been more than pen and ink, pastels or oils, a picture frame hung on the wall.
Art has given the 44-year-old Saylor — diagnosed at an early age with clinical depression — a voice when she couldn’t say what was in her heart, when she couldn’t summon the words on the tip of her tongue.
“What I couldn’t express verbally,” she says, “I expressed on paper.”
For years, Saylor painted and drew on her own — one woman, alone, creating a visual journal, a history of where she’d been, a destination in pen and ink of where she wanted to end up.
“There were some dark times, some tough periods,” the Muskegon woman says, “but when I was drawing or painting, I was at peace ... the pain was gone.”
In other words, art was therapy on canvas, even if no one saw it but Saylor, who tucked her art away in a corner at home.
“It’s intense,” Saylor says. “Art is very personal.”
Today Saylor’s work, some of which is on display through mid-March in the Feature Gallery at Community Mental Health of Muskegon County, 376 E. Apple, is shot through with yet another dimension.
As part of the Great Lakes Creative Arts Project, an initiative started by Community Mental Health of Muskegon County in 2008, Saylor’s art is helping to dispel the stigma of mental illness — both for the artist and the community-at-large.
“You know, a lot of people with a mental illness don’t think they have anything to give,” Saylor says.
Conversely, there are those in the community who think the same thing — that people with mental illnesses or disabilities have nothing to offer, says Christine K. Wyns, a Community Mental Health training and community resource specialist in Muskegon County.
“And a lot of people with a mental illness are stigmatized,” Saylor says. “We’re treated as if we are ‘less than’ just because of our illness.”
As the Great Lakes Creative Arts Project mission statement reads in part: “Artistic expression is the medium, but community integration and reduction of stigma toward individuals with disabilities are the goals.”
To that end, Community Mental Health now offers classes in everything from painting to knitting, jewelry making to creative movement for its clients — and also for staff members, the families of staff and clients and members of the community. Classes are taught by volunteer artists or staff members.
“We relate to one another through the art, not as those receiving services and those giving services,” Wyns says.
Wyns, who has been part of the Great Lakes Creative Arts Project since it got off the ground, calls the project more a “philosophy” than program. In communities across the nation, similar projects — going by different names — follow the same values.
“We know that art is a recovery tool,” Wyns says, “but there’s so much more to it than that.”
The classes give participants “a safe venue” to talk about mental health issues as consumers and family members, she says.
Some of the classes are taught at the Recovery Cooperative of Muskegon, a member-owned and operated organization created within the mental health community by those who have significant disabilities. Among other things, the Cooperative, located at 1855 Peck, allows its members to sell their artwork.
“This really turns the stigma that people with disabilities can’t do anything ... it turns it right on its head,” says Darma Canter, who is in customer service at Community Mental Health.
One of the unexpected benefits of the arts project is that there are no dividing lines in the classes. Staff members sit alongside clients, learning a new skill, exploring a forgotten talent, trying out the unimaginable. Staff members and clients work together “from the ground up,” Canter says. “This wasn’t an idea from the outside.”
The classes are funded by individual donations, partnerships with organizations like the Recovery Cooperative, plus a grant from the Holland Arts Council.
Saylor recently took a painting class, unsure at first that she had the skills.
“But it was wonderful,” she says. “It was so nonjudgmental. You get to see what you can do.”
And sometimes, it lets you see how far you’ve come.
Saylor’s early work is full of revealing details: battles with addiction, times of anger, a yearning to break free. One, which she’s titled “Identity Change,” takes on different perspectives depending if it’s looked at upside down or right side up.
But her most recent offering, drawn in a class offered through the Great Lakes Creative Arts Project, is a landscape called “Peaceful Measures.”
“This is who I am now,” Saylor says, and she brings her life up to date in words.
An unemployed drywall finisher, she volunteers regularly at area animal shelters, Habitat for Humanity and at Kainay Community Church where she is a member. She remains in treatment, remains on medication, remains involved in art.
“I’ve raised two kids who’ve turned out wonderful,” Saylor says.
One of them is Kandace Merrill, Saylor’s 22-year-old daughter who started painting when she was no more than three years old. Merrill’s work — including a haunting half-finished self-portrait — are displayed with her mother’s at Community Mental Health.
Merrill, who is a diesel mechanic in the U.S. Army Reserves 377th Transportation Co. based in Lansing, has been an eyewitness to her mother’s journey — the highs and the lows.
“This is such a huge expression of life,” Merrill says. “It brought out things I didn’t know I could do.”
There are more such expressions. As many as 30 other pieces of art on display in the halls at Community Mental Health, some purchased by the agency, others exhibited by a grant from an organization called Very Special Arts.
Some of the artwork will be part of a state show that will go on tour, all created by what Canter calls “the mental health community, past and present.”
“We’re all linked together by the love of art,” she says. “It helps us find things we have in common ... and art brings joy to our lives. It expands who we all are.”
As Wyns says, the Great Lakes Creative Arts Project is “more than just about art class.”
“It’s a different way of providing services,” she says. “It focuses on people’s strengths rather than their needs.”
For Saylor, who has been a Community Mental Health client since she was a teenager, the arts project is an added dimension to her life. Once shy, she was the center of attention at the art show’s open house recently, talking with strangers about her paintings and drawings.
“We all have different fingerprints,” she says, “but here, in these classes, everybody’s in the same boat. We’re all there because we love art.”
Sunday, February 27, 2011
The Muskegon Chronicle:
Posted by BA Haller at 10:10 PM