Feature articlesSeptember 2015

Rediscovering life’s skills
with brushes, paint and pens

Forget any preconceived notions you may have about art as a form of non-verbal therapy during psychiatric treatment. Andrea Blanar has an entirely different approach: As a JGH Occupational Therapist, Ms. Blanar has removed art from the clinical setting and made it a catalyst for developing skills—such as problem-solving, organizing one’s work and being open to criticism—that help in grappling with the day-to-day demands of life.

“The accent is definitely not on illness,” said Ms. Blanar this past June at an exhibition of paintings, drawings and collages by the nine artists in her workshop at the JGH Institute for Community and Family Psychiatry. “In our group, art is a haven that allows you to reconnect with your strengths and take a real sense of pride in your progress.”

Her comments resonated with Reisa “Tashi” Lipszyc, whose confidence has soared in the three years since she joined the workshop. “At the end of the first year, I actually hid my work from everyone,” she recalled, “and now I’m displaying it in public, so I’ve come a long way. It’s been liberating to be in a group where there are no expectations of me and —it was Andrea who kept me going.”

Looking at her abstract, maze-like designs in colour and black-and-white, Ms. Lipszyc said she hasn’t yet found a style she feels totallly comfortable with, “but it’s wonderful just to have the freedom to explore.”

Ms. Blanar, who is a professional artist, said the spring event was the first public exhibition for her group, which was launched in 2000 to “empower patients, promote rehabilitation and return them to a higher level of functioning.

“Many people think that creating a painting or any other piece of art is a form of play. It’s not: When done properly, it’s hard, disciplined work. That’s why the conversations in our group are not about illness, but about solving the problems that will make a painting turn out the way the artist wants it to.”

Ms. Blanar said the members of her workshop openly acknowledge that mental illness has interfered with the creativity they may once have possessed. “But our focus in the workshop is on doing what any artist would normally do—discuss artistic technique, refer to art books, express opinions and learn to take criticism.”

For Gale “Goldie” Ostroff, her involvement has culminated in a style in which high-quality felt-tip pens are the medium for boldly coloured, semi-realistic pictures of heads, hands, eyes and other objects that interlock in a flowing, sinuous manner.

As a veteran of the workshop, Ms. Ostroff said her 10 years’ experience “has given me a feeling of regaining control, staying in control and pursuing something where there’s no right or wrong way to get where I want to go. But that doesn’t mean there’s no discipline. In the end, I have to feel sure that it all works.”

Looking at her pictures, Ms. Ostroff explained that the faces were purely imaginary and not a representation of specific individuals. Even so, she said, her work certainly reflects her real-life experiences, “which are full of hands reaching out and people coming together. That’s a pretty accurate description of our workshop.”

TD Summer ENG

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