Everett show spotlights art that helps creators heal

EVERETT — The room largely is quiet.

A man in his mid-60s paints the image of an owl on canvass.

Another in his 40s makes a pencil drawing of an atomic bomb on wood.

A younger man who recently created a life-sized human skeleton out of driftwood spends this Friday afternoon sketching.

The mood is relaxed.

Their projects aren’t assignments, but works of their own choosing.

Their works are diverse, but their life stories share two common threads. Each of the seven men toiling around the tables has been in trouble with the law. Each lives with mental illness.

Ian Flannery, 25, spent part of the hour painting black a wood sculpture he bought for $10 at a Goodwill. Eventually, he plans to add shiny stones and parrot feathers to it.

He has been discovering another layer of himself at an art class offered at the state Department of Corrections office in Everett.

“I just exercise my creativity,” he said. “This is a good way to relieve stress, just doing artwork. Even when I’m off supervision, I’m going to continue taking this class.”

Flannery was charged with assault in 2007 after punching a Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy in the nose.

After his arrest, a mental health worker at the jail recognized signs of his illness. He later was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent time at Western State Hospital.

A judge eventually signed an order acquitting Flannery of the assault, finding that he was insane at the time of the crime.

The order required he receive treatment and remain under supervision of community corrections officers.

More than five years later, he is making steady progress. His medications are working and he is completing a series of requirements aimed at equipping him with coping skills.

Flannery is one of many people with mental illness whose artwork has been shown this month at the Schack Art Center in downtown Everett.

He has two works on display.

One he calls “The Essence of Abstract.”

The other is an intriguing piece he calls “Katrastra’s Artifact.” It’s a cow skull he has painted and decorated with polished stones, semi-precious gems, turquoise, abalone and other items.

Some of the art show participants are offenders on Department of Corrections supervision. The idea is to showcase the work but also bring public awareness about mental illness in hopes of reducing stigmas.

Andrea Holmes works in the Special Needs Unit at the Everett corrections office. Her caseload includes people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. Some have developmental delays. About 90 percent of the clients her unit works with are classified as “dual diagnosis.” In addition to mental illness, many have major chemical dependency issues that require treatment. All are time intensive.

Holmes calls the art program “Creative Solutions.”

“The art offers an avenue for the expression of emotions and experiences that can be quite difficult to put into words,” Holmes said. “The ability to show art work in an open public venue not only provides the artists a way to give back to their community, but also helps to reduce stigma associated with mental illness.

“Just like any other medical disorder, mental illness is treatable, recovery is possible, and a mental health diagnosis does not define a person,” Holmes added. “This art show raises awareness about mental health and gives the community an opportunity to look past misconceptions and personal biases to catch a glimpse of the value we each possess.”

Cynthia Akers, a counselor from Compass Heath in Everett, said art can be therapeutic and a creative outlet for her clients. “This is kind of a big release for them. It’s a chance for them to show ‘I’m more than my mental illness,’” she said. “A lot of their work is just outstanding.”

Holmes is thankful for the support the program has received from her corrections office colleagues, Compass Health, the Schack center and the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Akers said there wouldn’t be a show without Holmes.

“The community is really lucky to have her,” she said. “Andrea is a great motivator.”

Organizers hope the art show becomes an annual event each May to coincide with National Mental Health Awareness Month. This year’s show ends Thursday. The art is for sale and donations are accepted directly at the Schack to help fund the cost of the show.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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