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Strokes, In Steps

Manhattan Times 

by Monica Barnkow


“I was a walking mess.”

Russell M. recalled how he had faced off with the courts after struggles with substance abuse.

It was August 2014, and he needed to make a change.

His break came, he said, in being referred to Odyssey House.

The social services agency, which offers comprehensive programs in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx, seeks to assist individuals and families deal with substance use disorders, mental illness, homelessness, and medical problems. Founded in 1967, Odyssey House offers services to community members of all ages, from adolescents to senior citizens.

Once enrolled, Russell M. was provided supportive housing, rehabilitative treatment and social services that helped him get back on surer footing.

This past Thurs., July 9th, Russell gathered with fellow members of the Odyssey House Art Project, which presented the group’s eighth exhibition at the Haven Art Gallery on East 121st Street in East Harlem.

This year’s exhibit explored the Native American concept of “spirit animals” as a means of expression. Artists undertook a study of shamanic traditions, in which it is believed that spirit animals are beings that empower, guide and protect. Each artist then chose his or her own animal to depict, using a variety of techniques.

The show will run now through December 9th and is called “What is your spirit animal?”

Russell M. presented three pieces which honored, among other animals, otters.

The mammals had a special place for him as some of the idiosyncratic characteristics of otters, such as loyalty, playfulness and curiosity, were ones with which he identified.

“I am a fairly loyal person, childish at times, very playful, very free,” he observed.

Odyssey House programs serve approximately 2,500 at-risk people a year with, among other services, group and individual counseling, medical care, job skills training, housing support, family interventions, wellness and art programs.

The organization manages 13 sites throughout Manhattan and the Bronx.

President and CEO Peter Provet noted that the vibrant art programs are a significant component of the program.

“The real point is that the clients do art, but it is not art therapy,” he said. “We just want the people to express themselves.”

Learning about new techniques and media also serves to increase collaboration, socialization and a sense of accomplishment among peer clients.

“They learn new skills, how to work with people, in groups, and [how to make] a project they can be proud of,” reported Jerald Frampton, Odyssey House’s Expressive Arts Coordinator. He noted that most participants had no prior experience creating art.

“They explore something about themselves through art,” added Isobelle Surface, Senior Vice President.

“They are better equipped to manage their addiction, be able to live independently, and engage with what the city has to offer.”

Russell M. says he is seizing on the opportunity to do just that.

Though he intends to move back to his hometown in Virginia eventually, he is now focused on furthering his work at Odyssey House – and using his artwork to help him sustain a sober life.

“I want to continue [here] in New York.”

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