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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    With Artreach, creativity is healing

    Program member Jason White works on a sketch of his favorite bass guitar during a visual art class at Artreach in Norwich on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Faith Satterfield discusses plans for a canvas with program member Barbara Stanley during a visual art class at Artreach in Norwich on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A program member paints a flower during a visual art class at Artreach in Norwich on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Program member Jason White mixes paint during a visual art class at Artreach in Norwich on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Program member Jason White, left, and teacher Faith Satterfield work on their paintings during a visual art class at Artreach in Norwich on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich ― The atmosphere in the room feels serene.

    One person is laser-focused on the small canvas that sits on a tabletop easel. She takes one of the brushes from a tin and dips it into the yellow paint she has squeezed from a tube onto a palette. She then sets about creating a basket populated by colorful flowers.

    Next to her, a young man is meticulously drawing on his own canvas a five-string bass from a photo on his phone. He’s using a pencil and is measuring with a ruler, trying to get the proportions just right before painting the image.

    Occasionally, the participants chat about something; it turns out that one woman is moving to a new home, while another has just moved into her own.

    Teacher and muralist Faith Satterfield ― who had suggested the participants take their artistic cue from something that is inspiring to them right now ― strolls around the room, stopping to talk with each person. She also makes sure to walk over to the laptop computer on a side table, to check in with folks who are attending the session virtually.

    This was a recent Thursday visual art workshop at Artreach, the Norwich-based arts and health agency. Artreach supports mental health and wellness through the creative and performing arts. Its website, creativityishealing.org, neatly reflects its motto.

    As associate director Emma Palzere-Rae explained, “Artreach uses the creative arts such as theater, music and visual arts to promote and sustain recovery from mental illnesses. Our public performances and art exhibits help bust the stigma of mental illness and raise awareness about mental well-being.”

    Artreach, which began in 1985, is a multi-pronged organization.

    Its Second Step Players is a mental health sketch comedy troupe. People who have lived with mental health issues create and perform sketch comedy “for the purpose of social change in mental health.”

    There is a stand-up comedy team, too, called the Comic Alchemy.

    Its music program presents an annual Coffeehouse, where Artreach members perform with a band of musicians. Participants also might play in Artreach’s jazz band or take individual guitar or bass lessons.

    Its artistic development classes are taught by artists, writers and performers from around southeastern Connecticut.

    Discussing how the arts help mental health, Artreach Executive Director Rebecca Atkins explained it this way.

    “It happens in a lot of different ways. At Artreach specifically, one of the ways is we make our art in community, in connection with each other. Even though people are doing their individual projects, you’re just doing it together. The sense of belonging, being in a room where you can experience belonging, reduces your internalized stigma and gets some of that out of the way, some of the perfectionism out of the way, so you can just create. I feel like it helps people reconnect with a part of themselves that they enjoy and appreciate and maybe don’t get enough time to spend time with.”

    In the mental health system, when people go to get help, they talk about what’s wrong — and that’s appropriate for those settings, Atkins noted. When they go to Artreach, she said, they get the chance to set that aside for a while and to be with a different part of themselves “that’s a healthy part, a creative part, a connected part. That’s a good practice, to remember how to not just be immersed in what’s wrong but also what’s right.”

    ‘They don’t judge you’

    Artreach program member Jason White, who grew up in Bridgeport and now lives in Norwich, said he appreciates the community at Artreach. He said he likes “the stuff we get to do – the stuff I never thought I would do. My mom told me when I was a young kid, the first thing I ever wanted to do was to be a comedian, and I have (been that) at Artreach. I’ve been in three comedy shows.”

    He added that those shows were “really fun. It brings some confidence to me I didn’t think I had in myself.”

    Barbara Stanley, who also lives in Norwich, said she has PTSD from various experiences in her life.

    But at Artreach, she said, “All these people, they don’t judge you. When they see that you’re having a crying jag or whatever, there’s a sensitivity. Because that person might need a hug right now or maybe need me to back off and not talk or maybe need me to change the subject. It’s almost like therapy without being therapy.”

    She said she knows at least two Artreach program members who have borderline personality disorder and at least two or three who have schizophrenia. One of the latter had leaned over to Stanley at one point and whispered, asking her if she had said something to him (or if, the implication was, he was hearing voices). She gave him a hug and said, no, she didn’t but don’t worry about it. “He’s an amazing person,” Stanley said.

    Stanley, who loves to sing and said that singing is one area in her life where she has some confidence, recalled that the first shows she did with Artreach were “The Sound of Prozac” and “West Wing Story.”

    Her performance of a song in a different Artreach production was videoed and posted online.

    “Whenever I’m feeling depressed or whatever, I look at it and say, ‘You can do this,’” Stanley said.

    Confronting stigmas

    Artreach, which is located on the Uncas on Thames campus, consists of four full-time staff members and has about 40 active program members.

    While the program helps people with mental health issues, it also combats stigmas about mental health with Artreach’s theater and music performances, as well as its art exhibitions. The public is enjoying the work as art, Palzere-Rae noted, but then they recognize that the people who created the art have faced challenges but still have this talent.

    Artreach is collaborating now with the Public Library of New London. The library is displaying artwork from Artreach participants in the main reading room, with the pieces changing out two or three times a year.

    Artreach is also developing a play that explores racial disparity in the mental health and health care system. The project is using some professional actors and playwrights.

    They plan to use the play, titled “The Waiting Room,” as a tool, bringing it to health care and mental health providers to start conversations about some of these issues that can be addressed, Palzere-Rae said. Public performances of “The Waiting Room” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

    How it’s funded

    Through the years, Artreach’s primary funder has been the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Artreach has then supplemented special projects with smaller grants from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, and with local community and family foundations, banks, local funders, and private donors, though private donors are a much smaller part of the funding.

    The annual money from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has been Artreach’s base of support.

    Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Artreach’s annual budget was about $330,000-$340,000, Atkins said. Since the pandemic, the organization’s funding has shifted due to an influx of ARPA money; there were more dollars available from more sources. But most of that is likely not sustainable. The ARPA funds will run out.

    Atkins said that Artreach and other nonprofits need new sources of annual funding. She spoke about the problems that happen when Artreach’s annualized contracts aren’t indexed to inflation. The organization’s dollars stay the same, but the cost of everything increases. And, of course, there is the issue of Artreach’s taking care of its employees, who need raises to pay their own bills.

    “Our fervent hope for the future is that as the funders who have given more see how well we manage the dollars that come into our agency, they will want to continue to fund us in the future and that we will have a more diverse base of annualized funding that will include more equality between the arts side and the Department of Mental Health side. That would really change our ability to have more staff and provide more opportunities to more people,” Atkins said.

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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