Mental wellness through the arts

Photographs courtesy ArtsWestchester


For more than 30 years, ArtsWestchester – a flagship arts council in New York state – has partnered with Westchester County’s Department of Community Mental Health in a program that helps participants use their minds to heal their minds.

For those suffering from mental illness, the arts provide “one of the most normalizing experiences,” says Joanne Mongelli, ArtsWestchester’s deputy director of programs and policy.

“If we can provide them with enough support, chances are they can stay in their communities.”

Using funds from the Department of Community Mental Health, ArtsWestchester provides residencies in the visual, literary and performing arts to 26 agencies throughout the county – an increase of six over last year. Some 260 people, who come from every demographic group, will be served this year alone.

The residencies are seven to eight weeks long, with each class being two to two and a half hours.

“It’s a nice chunk of time that an artist gets to spend with eight to 10 (people),” says Jessy Méndez, ArtsWestchester’s coordinator of arts in education.

Both she and Mongelli stress that this is different from arts therapy. The participating artists are not licensed therapists, Méndez notes. Nor do they know their students’ diagnoses, Mongelli says.

It is, Méndez adds, “a judgment-free zone.”

“What we stress to the artists is that it’s not their job to figure out what kind of mental illness the (participants) have, but to tap into their inner creativity.”

Some might discover a hidden talent. Some might find that their talent lies more in the appreciation of the arts. Whatever it is, Mongelli says, “self-expression is good for all of us.”

What is perhaps most exciting – and moving – is that from these residencies, new connections are made. It could be that the individuals in one residency join to make a mural. Last month, some 70 participants came together to display more than 150 works in all visual media in “Visions 2014: Art of the Mind,” the latest installment of the annual exhibit held at ArtsWestchester’s Arts Exchange headquarters in White Plains.

This year, two residencies bore unusual, collaborative fruit. At the Mount Vernon office of the Rockland Psychiatric Center, painter Tova Snyder led a residency in which 12 students learned the basics of painting – including the use of chiaroscuro or shading – as well as how to frame their works, which were then displayed in the halls of the facility.

They inspired poet David Surface, leading another residency, to get his students to create imagery-inspired poetry based on them. The marriage of words and images resulted in the creation of three posters that grace the 329 Bee-Line buses that thread Westchester and the Bronx.

One featured an abstract painting by Jibaro in waves of lime, orange, red, purple and blue, accompanied by C.M.’s poem “Face of the People”:

“We have suffered for so long, beaten and broken

Our bodies are in pain but our minds are free

The hunger will never subside but the spirits of our people

will keep us fighting

We believe in the unbelievable.”

ArtsWestchester, celebrating its golden anniversary in 2015, presents “Drawing Line into Form: Works on Paper by Sculptors From the Collection of BNY Mellon” (Oct. 3-Dec. 6). The show is a window into the creative process of a Who’s Who of Modern and contemporary art as two dimensions become three.

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