Tuesday, October 6 , 2015, 10:39 pm | Fair 65º

Mental Health Association Club Helps Members Survive, Thrive Through Art

Saturday's Arts Festival at De la Guerra Plaza will showcase their works and talents

Artist Lesley Gorgan displays one of her paintings on the patio of the Mental Health Association’s Fellowship Club Recovery Learning Center.
Artist Lesley Gorgan displays one of her paintings on the patio of the Mental Health Association’s Fellowship Club Recovery Learning Center.  (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)

By Alex Kacik, Noozhawk Intern |

Many artists use their creativity as a departure from reality in its therapeutic meditation. But for artists Lesley Grogan and Rodger Casier, art is a means to survive.

“It’s the most powerful tool to fight my illness, it gives me the strength to survive,” said 48-year-old Grogan, who suffers from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and cautioned that art is not a substitute for medication. “I can’t fight it because that just makes it stronger. You must distract yourself and quiet your mind by focusing on something outside yourself — it’s more powerful than medication.”

She says she spent most of her early and high school years in Great Britain, later returning to Santa Barbara, drawing and painting throughout. 

She teaches members of the Mental Health Association’s Fellowship Club Recovery Learning Center and volunteers at the nonprofit Jodi House, which offers programs for those with brain injuries. Students are encouraged to create whatever inspires them.

“Some of my students are amazingly talented,” Grogan said. “If you saw what they can do, you’d be blown away, especially because they are so ill. It’s good for my spirit to see people express themselves and see their enjoyment.”

The art room at the Fellowship Club is a work of art in itself. Splashes of colorful paintings and sketches adorn the walls, cabinets are filled with brushes, acrylic paints and stencils, and the tables are scattered with color swatches and paint splotches. Club member Violet dabbed her swatch as she filled in the orange markings of a giraffe that spanned half of the table.

Casier designs vibrant stencils that are filled in with a series of lines and outlined by colorful mosaic-like square cutouts. His work has been featured on the covers of professional publications such as Schizophrenia Bulletin and Behavioral Health. He says art is a form of meditation that is sometimes the only way to quiet the voices.

“The artwork is absorbing,” he said. “It’s a sense of tranquility that sometimes lasts for an hour, but to me it feels like days, weeks, months.”

Grogan blends deep hues of paint to create striking portraits of faces, cats and fish while accentuating patterned action lines that outline the form. Grogan also isolates her mind while decorating “the infinite possibility of a blank canvas.”

“Your mind becomes quiet because you don’t need thoughts,” she said. “You feel your way through the paint and the form.”

The Santa Barbara community can experience and purchase the members’ art at the Mental Health Arts Festival from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2 at De la Guerra Plaza. About 60 tables will line the street, showcasing all types of art. Members will be performing as well — anything from acoustic guitar to karaoke. Casier will showcase his harmonica skills; it’s his15th year participating.

Casier, 55, said he discovered his passion for art at San Marcos High School, and went on to major in mixed media at SBCC. He later traveled to San Jose State University, but it was there where his symptoms of mental illness began: schizoaffective disorder, a combination of depression and schizophrenia. He exercises a verbose vocabulary and reads up on mythology and Buddhism to focus his mind.

“I win some of the battles (with the voices); before I never won any. It might be a sign I’m getting better,” said Casier, adding the voices have began to be positive rather than evil.

Evil manifested several times in Grogan’s life in the form of attempted suicide. When she was 17, she threw herself beneath a car because “if demons we’re taking my body, I would have rather died,” she said, adding, “If I had succeeded in killing myself, I would never be here and help other people reduce the stigma of mental illness and help people learn more about it so it’s not so scary. My life has meaning now.”

Neil Friedman, the club’s project manager, explained the biological aspects of art and schizophrenia. Art facilitates the brain’s neuroplasticity, or its ability to recognize itself by making new neural connections throughout life. Ultimately, art allows the person to concentrate in the “here and now” and facilitates communication throughout different parts of the brain.

“Voices occur in the temporal lobe, and art moves the energy to other parts of the brain and allows the person to be more grounded,” Friedman said.

He constantly tries to disprove stigma associated with the illness. He said the art festival helps — it allows members to feel equal to people in the community because of the art they contribute.

“I don’t see them as the illness, but as a person,” Friedman said. “The level of sensitivity and caring they have for one another is much greater than the average person.”

Eleni Ierides, a clinical psychology graduate student at Antioch University Santa Barbara, has been interning at the club since June. She helps the members work toward self-sufficiency.

“This population is underserved,” she said. “It opens your eyes to a lot of gifts they have to offer. It’s a different perspective to see struggles you aren’t accustomed to; it’s powerful to watch them persevere and use art to do so.”

Gorgan said schizophrenia has no correlation to intelligence; it’s a matter of the senses “telling you the wrong thing.”

“Madness and brilliance are pretty close together. Everyday (my students) do something wonderful,” she said. “To see their enjoyment of accomplishment and appreciation of their own talent despite what they’re up against is ultimately gratifying. They come to my room and accomplish something no one else can do.”

Click here for more information about Saturday’s art festival.

Noozhawk intern Alex Kacik is a graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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