Art Exchange

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A couple years ago, I wrote on this blog about Amee Le’s wonderful art and mindfulness program at Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto. She recently worked with a group of artists there on an art exchange with artists at the Horizon Health Network’s Addiction and Mental Health Services program in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Horizon has a program called P.E.E.R. 126: Peers Engaged in Education and Recovery. It’s a community-based addiction and mental health service. In addition to some medical and rehab-oriented things in the P.E.E.R. 126 program, they have art and music. This makes me very happy. Whether you use art to express feelings and perspectives, earn a living, or work on skills like hand-eye coordination or mindfulness, art is superb. There’s really nothing else like it. And I’ll get back to art in a minute.

Jennifer Pepin and Chris Foster of J. Pepin Art Gallery talked with me on the podcast once about how, when it comes to disability, some people are willing to engage with art made by disabled people in a way that they aren’t with the actual people themselves. My family had trouble communicating with me after my TBI in 2010. But once they saw me performing myself in a movie, a lot of their fear and hesitation broke down. We started communicating better. They said they understood me more. And there’s also a lot of fear and stigma around mental illness. People who might ordinarily think they prefer to stay away from that community will come into the J. Pepin Art Gallery unaware of its mission. They love the art, are absolutely taken by it. Then, they find out that people with mental illness made that art. Stereotypes begin to shatter.

When it comes to brain injury and mental illness, we have a lot in common. Some of us experience similar symptoms. Most of us experience similar prejudices and insidious ways that people attempt to explain us away, get rid of us, or keep us from coming in all together. “How could I hire someone with a brain injury to work here? They’ll forget everything or lash out and never get anything done. How could I hire someone with a mental illness to work here? They’ll freak out or miss too much work and never get anything done.” Simply not accurate or fair. Filled with prejudice. And despite many commonalities, I don’t see the brain injury community and mental illness community acting as allies nearly as much as we could. Which leads me back to the top of today’s post. And art.

The CHIRS folks in their Mindfulness Art Workshop worked out an art exchange with the New Horizons folks in their Recovery Art Studio creative expression group. Check out Amee’s blog post about the exchange from April 15th.

To me, this art exchange is bigger than the sum of its parts. Besides it being fun to get things in the mail in the digital age, there’s something exciting about sending mail, knowing that the people receiving your gift will be happy to get it.

Also, I see memes and listicles online about the importance of getting rid of negative people so that you can thrive. This concept of judging people in emotional pain by calling them “negative” and getting rid of them is dangerous. Because so many people with brain injuries and/or mental illness can struggle with things other people don’t see or understand, we’re often on the receiving end of others’ friend list clean up efforts. I remember when I was cleaned off people’s lists in 2011. I see a lot of people in the brain injury community posting the memes about cleaning off your friend list as if it were as easy and straightforward as taking out the recycling. It’s one thing to end a relationship because the people involved are not all enriched by it. But to end it because one person’s just too negative truly damages every one of us. It pretends that mental illness is just an annoying state of mind. It pretends that if you’d just cheer up, nothing at all would be tough in your life. And it also pretends that anyone who’s not “negative” is superior to anyone who is. As people with brain injury disabilities, compared to the non-disabled community, we’re at the bottom in this divide. Does it really help the cause for acceptance and justice if we put ourselves on top and just find someone else to put beneath us? Let’s not reinforce the same structure that society uses to hold us down.

Communication can be so hard across distance, when pain is involved, and when people don’t understand each other’s perspectives. Rather than dismiss a group of people out of hand, exchanging art is a genius and compassionate way to build a bridge toward relationship and community. Here. Here’s what I’ve got. What do you have? Now, we’re connected, even just a little bit.

Anyone out there ever done an art exchange? Anyone interested in it, as a group or as an individual?