Santa Rosa exhibit highlights artistry of adults with mental health challenges
Sharon Files doesn't use a paintbrush or acrylics or other art supplies to create her dramatic artwork. All she needs is her one-of-a-kind wardrobe and her fashion accessories.
The Santa Rosan, 49, prefers wearable art and expresses herself through her fashions - though not the types found in high-gloss magazines advertising designer clothing. Files slips on sweaters as leggings, drapes several purses across her body and layers shirts, skirts, pants, vests and jewelry into eye-catching displays of self-expression. No two outfits are alike.
Her fashions tell a story: “That I'm unique and I'm a fashion designer,” she said.
This week photographs of her wearable art will be on display as part of “recovart,” an exhibit featuring some 80 works by 10 artists with mental health challenges. The show includes paintings, fiber arts, drawings, jewelry and other mediums, created in the light-filled drop-in art studios at the Wellness and Advocacy Center in Santa Rosa.
The exhibit highlights the journey through recovery and showcases the talents of Sonoma County adults who attend the center's art program.
The show is an opportunity for members “to have themselves seen in the community as part of their personal growth,” said Sean Bolan, the center's manager. “I hope (the public) can see that even with mental health challenges, people can create and find expression and define themselves.”
“recovart,” which opened Tuesday at Santa Rosa's Finley Community Center, runs 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays through Dec. 6. An opening reception is 5-7 p.m. Thursday.
The center's art director and exhibit curator naomi murakami showcases artists with professional-level talents as well as those lacking training and producing “naive art.” Several artists are homeless or have struggled with homelessness, an issue “that goes hand in hand” with mental illness, murakami said; all struggle with some type of mental health challenges. One lost her home to last year's firestorms.
“Having mental health issues is almost like having a natural disaster in you, but not one you can see,” murakami said. “Mental health issues are really isolating you from your family and friends and the community.”
There is a stigma surrounding people with mental health issues, she said, but “art is a great bridge.” She cites statistics that nearly 1 in 5 Americans battle mental challenges issues each year.
Some find it debilitating to become engaged in the community. That so many attend the peer-run, self-help center and pursue artistic expression is a celebration in itself, murakami said.
“We want to congratulate people for making it here. For some people it's a challenge just leaving home,” she said.
A program of Goodwill Industries of the Redwood Empire and contracted by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, Mental Health Division, the center offers a wide range of services, including peer support and a Career & Computer Lab, through free memberships.
murakami is hopeful “recovart” will encourage the public to see the considerable talents of community members with mental illnesses.
She has been taking photos of Files for a decade and has almost 3,000 photographs chronicling Files' outfits. Most show Files with close-cropped hair or wearing hairpieces; on a recent morning she was at the center sporting a blonde mohawk.
“I feel like it needs to be documented,” murakami said. “It has more power when it's documented.”
Her photos aren't the only ones of Files. Wherever she goes, Files said, “people usually try to take pictures of me.”
In addition to the fashion chronology, “recovart” also includes colorful portraits painted with acrylics and spray paint on large canvases, and dozens of pen-and-ink drawings of “Starship designs” on tiny scraps of paper framed together by the artist.
A pen-and-ink drawing described as “Salome dancing before an Arabian king” features a soft yellow sky created with grinds of an antipsychotic medication that the artist had been overprescribed.
murakami said the arts program invites members to pursue whatever medium they prefer, from beading necklaces and bracelets or crafting greeting cards to working on drafting or sewing projects.
A small gallery space at the center is available for artists to sell their creations.
The open-studio spaces operate on a drop-in basis, with the focus more on the process than the outcome. Art, murakami said, “really does help you get in contact with yourself and gets you to express yourself and share (your talents).”
The subject of mental illness often makes people uncomfortable, she said, and frequently is misunderstood, but people “are not so scared to hear about mental health issues through art.”
She's hopeful the “recovart” exhibit will be a welcoming - and creative - bridge linking artists and viewers to the recovery journey and the talents, achievements and value of those facing mental health challenges.