City Limits By Phyllis Vine
Making art has long been part of healing for addiction and mental illness. At a gallery in East Harlem, it’s something more, too: the artists’ vision for the future.
It was an art opening unlike most in New York. In East Harlem, in the 96-degree heat of a June afternoon, guests started lining up 15 minutes early. When they got in, there wasn’t a glass of white wine, or any other alcoholic beverage, to be found.
For artist Jerald Frampton, it was an especially intense experience. As a photographer, Frampton has shown in galleries in New York City, Chicago, Tucson, Santa Monica, Helsinki and Vienna. He has published in Art in America and Aperture, and been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
His final venture in the art world, though, was less glorious. A fashion shoot that absorbed his energy for 18 months collapsed, the result of a conflict between a French designer and a British financier. Frampton remembers chafing at the endless long-distance phones calls, the international travel, and how he was held hostage to the whims of a company whose signature creation was thousand-dollar, hand-etched elephant rifles. Then came serious family illness, followed by 9/11. Frampton said to himself, “What I’m doing is ridiculous.”
Now he’s in a different space entirely: The Haven Gallery on East 121st Street. It’s part of a 63-unit residential complex run by Odyssey House, a 37- year-old organization that operates treatment programs for people recovering from substance abuse and mental illness. Since June, the gallery has been a showplace for 30 canvases, hanging in a lounge with high ceilings, sun-bathed walls and overhead spot lighting. “It was part of the design to make the space look open and cheerful, welcoming to the community and not just another governmental building,” says Frampton.
Since joining Odyssey House two years ago as director of the expressive arts program for residents, Frampton has been working with clients who often remain fragile after years of moving between shelters, hospitals and jails, recovering from substance abuse and trying to stabilize their mental health at the same time. Some are new mothers. All are formerly homeless. Odyssey House helps them reconstruct their lives, find jobs, finish school.
Frampton has a special appreciation for what they’ve gone through: He’s been 20 years in recovery himself, and has his own recollections of struggles with methadone treatment. In this new job teaching art to residents, Frampton is aware of the need to cushion clients who are reluctant to take risks, and he paces the work to begin slowly. He has organized field trips to museums, where students discover Matisse and Goya. Classroom exercises employ fail-safe techniques, such as an experiment in drawing a picture with looking at it while moving a pencil across the paper. Another requires the pouring of paint onto a canvas, the same way one might pour syrup over pancakes. Or he mixes paint with soap in a kitchen blender, changing its texture from smooth and runny to thick and foamy. Projecting profiles onto a canvas, he has shown students how to outline, much the way Leonardo da Vinci did centuries before.
Frampton doesn’t embrace the concept of conventional “art therapy,” which uses creative expression as a tool to help mentally ill people manage symptoms or express dormant emotions. Nor does he see himself or is students as working in the genre of “outsider” art, so trendy in recent years among collectors, critics and others who presume it expresses the turmoil and pent-up energy of artists either manic or delusional.
Quite the contrary, says Frampton. The challenge, he’s finding, is to motivate people to create when their own experience is defined by a debilitating sense of emptiness. He works to engage people lacking in confidence, dubious of their skill, and aims to show them they have a picture within.
Five artists discuss how those techniques, and their inner pictures, influenced the paintings that ended up in the Haven Gallery exhibit.
RALPH CORREA “BONE FARM”
Ralph Correa, 40, announces his jovial mood with a broad grin. Heavily tattooed, he is a walking art form himself, with a dove in a heart on one arm, and a snake wound around a sword on the other. Proudly, he points to “Theresa” inked below his shoulder. “My mother’s name,” he says and beams.
Correa might have expected that his picture “Bone Farm” would generate interest and praise after a similar piece sold in May at Gallery M, operated by a different Harlem-based mental health agency. But he is still delighted that people pause to take in the details of his picture when they stand in the lobby foyer where the exhibit starts.
“Bone Farm” conveys a certain mystery, perhaps attributable to the darkened colors that pull viewers into its modestly sized canvas. Moss and hunter greens, along with shades of brown, are textured, layered thick, using the technique of mixing paint with detergent. Then he laid the paint – he didn’t use a brush – onto the canvas.
A close look reveals tiny bones scattered in every direction. He made bones from sawdust, and with Frampton’s help shaped, dried and placed them strategically where they seem to bubble up from the center of a dense, crusted earth. They are the human debris symbolic of the decay of civilization. “This could be a sacred burial ground, like the one they discovered in Manhattan when they started digging,” Correa says. He’s referring to the graves of black New Yorkers dating from the colonial period that were reinterred last summer at the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. He considered adding a tower but scratched the idea after he realized it would alter the historical landscape. “I tried to visualize it the way they left it,” he said, “as a sign of respect.” It has been seven months since Correa arrived at Odyssey House, and every day is a test to build a life free of drugs. Now he is thinking about careers, but first he must pass the GED. He is considering different job possibilities. Working as a drug counselor, helping other people stay clean – perhaps in a club house like the one he attends in the neighborhood – seems most compelling. And while he is gratified that he sold a painting, Correa gladly gifted “Bone Farm” to Odyssey House, where it will remain part of the permanent collection (as will most other works in the show).
“It’s a blessing,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to happen.”
SONDRA KENDALL “PORTRAIT OF ANONYMOUS”
Sondra Kendall sits on her twin bed in a sparse, neat room, with a corner view overlooking Second Avenue and 121st Street. It is late in the day, and she is tired. Since leaving Odyssey House at 6:15 that morning, she has basked seven cakes and spent more than two hours commuting each way.
Before drug use brought her into treatment, Kendall was employed as housekeeper and nanny, and she was hoping to eventually work as a cook. (Her employers, to her great disappointment, ate most of their meals in restaurants.) Now, with less than month to go before she graduates from vocational school, Kendall thinks about the job she will look for, the one where she can apply her skills as a trained baker.
Sondra is partial to the impressionists – Vincent Van Gogh is her favorite – and the wall above her bed displays pictures from that movement’s various artists. The other wall is a montage, pictures of friends she has made during the nearly two years she has lived in Odyssey House. Like the model for her much-admired painting, “Portrait of Anonymous,” some have moved on to their own apartments.
Sheepishly, Kendall admits to having been more reluctant than most students who attend Frampton’s classes. “I told Jerald I can’t draw,” she recalls. But he told her, “Everybody can draw. Draw a snowman.” And that’s how she started, with two circles. After receiving considerable praise for “Portrait of Anonymous,” Kendall’s awkwardness has begun to recede, and she realizes that the coaxing paid off.
“Portrait of Anonymous” is grouped with Correa’s “Bone Farm,” in the first set of paintings, and visitors have been clustering in front of Kendall’s work. Perhaps that’s because the canvas hangs at the entrance, but the painting’s haunting presence – a looming face – has a lot to do with it, too.
Kendall uses simple lines to achieve a bold shape on a black background. The model sat twice for her. Each time she projected his profile onto a screen, then outlined the features onto a canvas. She then spent about four days getting the outer red lines the way she wanted. She left the space in between blank, and the result is a trance-like, brooding portrait. By splashing white under her subject’s eyes, she has achieved a dramatic moment. Long after you move on and are looking at another picture, it’s hard to shake the melancholic gaze of this face filling an entire canvas.
RAYMOND BAEZ III “BALANCED HEART”
“Don’t forget the number after my name,” says Raymond Baez III. His shaved head makes this strappingly tall, good looking man of 28 look even larger than he is.
Baez may stand alone in the show for having always shown artistic ability. When he was a youngster, he drew cartoons; when he got older, he sold handmade greeting cards. Even now, when ever he has a piece of paper and a pencil, he will doodle or draw, as he does while we talk. In just a few minutes he produced a delightful sketch of a young couple sitting near a bountiful river, with the Palisades in the background.
“One day your art will be on the wall,” Baez remembers his mother saying. But when he saw his painting “Balanced Heart” at the Have Gallery, he was stunned. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t known his work world be displayed. It’s just that “I thought I was still dreaming.”
“Balanced Heart” is a large canvas with simple lines. A blurry stretch conveys the permeability of the heart’s wall where feelings enter. It tells a story with color as much as line and shape. Purple signifies royalty; pink, friendship. Burgundy stands for blood.
While people gather around his picture, he points to the space between the chambers, showing where he has placed a drop of blood inside and outside. “It shows flow,” he says. And he has also blended colors outside the heart. The overall impression he wanted to leave was how to balance the tension between positive and negative impulses, the yin versus yang.
Baez is custodian at an Upper East Side hospital, where he witnesses suffering and physical frailty each day. While painting “Balanced Heart,” images of pain preoccupied him. “I was thinking about war in Iraq, about 9/11,” he says, about “how the heart releases a force when there is a death in the family.”
DENNIS ARYEEQUAYE “DOG AND FLOWER”
Admiring “Dog and Flower,” Baez stands with artist Dennis Aryeequaye, shown here in the turtleneck shirt. While he was working on this picture, someone admired the “dog” and Aryeequaye realized it didn’t look at all like the ram he thought he was painting. Fifteen years ago, when Aryeequaye was 13, his family moved to the United States. He didn’t return to Ghana until three years ago, when his family went back for a visit. There he met a cousin, a draftsman, whose talents he admires and emulates.
Aryeequaye typically paints his homeland working gold, yellow and orange. Symbols of Christianity, including a lion from the tribe of Judah, recur. “African Mother” evokes the peaceful African prairie rich in his memory. Blues drench the sky boldly and dramatically. It is “the color of happiness,” he says. “God has changed gray skies.” On the horizon, a mother wears a bright green-and-red patched skirt; she holds an infant, baby Jesus. Near them sits a lion, comfortable, happy, and a protective smile. Wind bends the trees bracketing mother and baby – “a peaceful wind,” is how Aryeequaye describes the motion flowing across the green canopy. “I once saw a tree like that,” he says, pointing to the hunched-over trunk, from which branches grow skyward.
In another picture, “Africa: Red and Gold,” the lion sits in the upper-right-hand corner, a guardian of culture. In the bottom right are a snail and peanut, ingredients for a stew his sister buys from a Bronx store specializing in foods from Africa. But it is the haunting skeleton, drawn in a thick gold, that pulls you into the frame.
The skeleton was a creation of Ralph Correa and is reminiscent of “Bone Farm” and its eerie quality. Frampton says such collaboration is rare among painters; it’s more common among sculptors making large pieces. But that’s exactly the kind of effort he deliberately promotes – to help his student share in a community before they have finished their own individual work.
MARY PELTZER “SPIRITS OF LOVED ONES”
At 45, Mary Peltzer, still a fan of Janis Joplin, wears a long-sleeved t-shirt with the late singer’s picture. Her own gravelly voice is strikingly evocative of Joplin’s; flamboyance, a wry humor and a past interrupted by drugs flesh out some of the similarities. Peltzer, however, got control of herself in a way Joplin never did.
Here she cradles “Spirits of Loved Ones,” a picture that she thanks Frampton for helping her finish. White doves appear suspended on the blue portion of the picture. On the circular edges, the color thins, allowing the canvas to emerge as the boundary.
Mary says this picture speaks to “blessings from God” and a hope for the time she will return to music. Because she was adopted, she knows little about her birth mother. But she does know that her mom was musical. Perhaps that explains Peltzer’s talent, and her aspirations. It is unlikely that she will return to go-go dancing, or to the Greenwich Village bars where she played the guitar as an opening act.
What she really hopes is to reconnect with the producers who once showed an interest in her songs. That wish, and the belief that “someone’s watching,” pervade her picture.
It has been a long day for Peltzer and the other artists who, one by one, have peeled off for the photo shoot for this story. Now it is 5:30, and Peltzer has removed her canvas to go upstairs for picture. It’s also dinner time, time for residents to track through the lounge on their way to the dining hall. One woman in a wheel chair parks herself in front of the place where Peltzer’s doves usually fly. But there is only a blank space.
“What happened to the picture?” the resident asks. “Where is the picture that’s usually there?” She points to the emptiness on the wall. “I like to see these pictures here,” she says emphatically to no one in particular, lingering an instant before wheeling herself into the dining room.
The impact of this art show for the residents of Odyssey House, according to Arnold Unterbach, director of mental health services, compares to the collective joy and energy that explodes when a resident graduates, gets a job or finishes a GED. He describes it as “opening the windows and letting the fresh air in.” But this exhibit, he says, surpasses that. It is, Unterbach decides, like “all the windows opened at once.”
Phyllis Vine is a member of the National Alliance For the Mentally Ill and author of Families in Pain: Siblings, Spouses and Parents of the Mentally Ill Speak Out.