Patients share their art through Acadia Hospital project

Posted Jan. 16, 2012, at 4:04 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Shayne, wearing a camouflage hunter’s jacket and baseball cap, sat quietly in a meeting room at The Acadia Hospital, at ease in a place he knew well. He is a patient, but it was his work as an artist that most recently brought him to the hospital to talk about the new Acadia Artisan Project.

The project, launched in October 2011, is an opportunity for patients to show their artwork in a public venue — the main hall of the hospital. And one of the eight pieces that make up the January-March exhibit is Shayne’s oil painting “Peaks and Valleys,” a mountain landscape under a glowing, overcast sky.

“I had never shown my paintings to anyone until I came here,” Shayne said. “[Painting] was something I just toyed with. To have people and professionals say I should sell my work and that I was talented was daunting at first. It took a while for that to settle in. I’m quite proud of it now.”

Since opening in 1992, The Acadia Hospital in Bangor has been a resource for information and treatment of mental illness, behavioral disorders and chemical dependency. People travel from all over the state for inpatient and outpatient care at the hospital.

The artisan project was spurred by the experiences of Acadia clinician Lynn Griffin, who often asked her patients to bring their artwork into therapy sessions. Over the course of several years, her list of patient artists grew longer, and she realized that many patients turned to some form of art as a therapeutic tool, whether they realized it or not.

“Some of my patients also bring in artwork,” said clinician Laureen Frost, who joined the project’s committee early on. “I have some of the artwork in my offices, and it’s just an honor.”

Shayne’s interest in painting was aroused after a visit to a Maine art gallery, after which he purchased a simple oil painting starter kit and began rendering mountains, wildlife and ascending angels — peaceful images that helped him crawl out of the familiar, dark pit of depression.

“I know with my illness, a lot of it is isolating. I’d have really bad days,” Shayne said. “At those times, painting has made me focus on the here and now. Sometimes when all you see in your head is a horror film, to see something beautiful checks that out. It gives you a reason to get up in the morning.”

Since his involvement in the project, Shayne has thought deeply about how people struggling with mental illnesses often have a more difficult time showing their art publicly for a number of reasons, including personal motivation, lack of confidence and fear of the stigmas attached to mental illnesses.

In some ways, the exhibit is one step towards combating those stigmas. The artistic talent of Acadia patients serves as a testament to the fact that, as Griffin put it, “they are whole people” with interests and lives outside the hospital and their illnesses.

Perhaps that is why Shayne and another patient, Robert, agreed to share their thoughts about the program, granted that they be referred to only by their first names and that their ages not be revealed (both are adults).

Robert took up photography as a way to relax. As he searched the Maine outdoors for sunlight and flowers, he discovered he could remain in a positive space. His portrait of a brilliant blue dragonfly speaks of his love for nature and gardening.

“It’s good therapy,” Robert said. “I’ve learned from a lot of older friends that even though they don’t have a mental illness to the degree I may have, they’ve always found some sort of art that takes them away from day-to-day issues that they have to deal with.

“It actually feels good [to be in the exhibit], but the whole purpose of photography, for me, is to be able to relax,” he said. “It actually creates anxiety to show it — and anxiety is one of the problems I have — so I think it was an opportunity to open the door so I can start showing my work.”

This isn’t The Acadia Hospital’s first display of patient art. Two and a half years ago, a women’s trauma therapy group presented a quilt to the hospital. It is now on permanent display behind glass at the end of a long, sunlit hall.

The artisan project is about giving all patients the opportunity to share their artwork anonymously. Griffin gathered a committee during the summer to bring the project to fruition. A member from each department within the hospital weighed in on the plans, including a patient representative.

Art’s power to heal isn’t a new discovery. In fact, the American Art Therapy Association connects people to art therapists around the world who use the creative process to help people improve their health and emotional well-being.

The positive energy felt by the artists in creating their works seems to have passed on to exhibit observers. Several patients have called Frost to tell her how the exhibit by their peers has positively affected them as they walk to therapy.

The main hall is a high-traffic location, “a validating space, probably the prominent space they have for a display in the hospital,” according to director of facilities Michael Bradstreet, who frames and hangs the art.

The first Acadia Artisan exhibit of six art pieces ran October through January and included photographs, paintings, a quilt and jewelry. The rotating exhibit, with the theme “Hope and Recovery,” was replaced by a new batch at the beginning of January.

The pieces now on display range from intricate embroidery to a portrait drawn on a plain piece of paper, the first submission by an adolescent patient.

“I’ve seen employees stop and notice that the exhibit has changed,” said Frost. “And they take the time to look at each and every piece. Walking down the hallway, there’s something magical happening for me. I don’t know how to describe it.”

If interested in viewing the exhibit, call Alan Comeau, The Acadia Hospital communications officer, at 973-6166. For information about The Acadia Hospital, visit acadiahospital.org or call 973-6100.

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