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Howard Center Arts Collective Shows the Power of Self-Expression

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"Cuddly—Not, Fish or What? On Its Native Habitat" by Stephen Tall - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Cuddly—Not, Fish or What? On Its Native Habitat" by Stephen Tall

Art making and therapy have always had a symbiotic relationship. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung encouraged his patients to paint mandalas in the 1920s to alleviate anxiety, and he created art himself in times of personal distress.

The Howard Center Arts Collective is open to adult artists who have lived experience with mental health or substance-use challenges, personally or with family members, friends or colleagues. Launched in 2013, the collective maintains a packed schedule of quarterly exhibits, weekly open studios, virtual meetups and museum trips.

A YouTube video about the collective is viewable on the Howard Center website. In it, member Tom Stetson describes his mixed-media and pen-and-ink works as inspired by "medieval woodcut printings and old medical illustrations." He says he sometimes works eight to 10 hours a day. "I have a lot of difficulties verbalizing things, so I use imagery," Stetson explains. "It's very therapeutic for me; I'm able to quell the demons inside me."

Artist Colleen Murphy is the art installation guide for the Howard Center Arts Collective. She shared some thoughts in advance of the group's South End Art Hop exhibition.

"Symbolic Age" by Annie Caswell - COURTESY
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  • "Symbolic Age" by Annie Caswell

How did the collective get started?

The Arts Collective had a very unique birth. In 2013, several staff who worked in Howard Center's group homes were at their annual retreat. There, a few who were artists had an idea to reach out to other artists with lived experience with mental health challenges. These early members worked collaboratively to put together the first public exhibition of the Arts Collective.

The experience felt good, and this nascent community began the process of creating a space where, irrespective of whether we provided services or received them, we were all artists and we shared that common ground.

How many members are there currently?

There are between 20 and 25 participating members. Some only participate in shows; some come to open studio; some only participate in our weekly Zoom calls (where we share art and provide feedback). Some join us for all three. We like to meet people where they are at and let them select the activities that feel most comfortable.

Tell me a bit about your own artwork and your approach to the intersection of art and mental health.

I work in mixed media and am particularly interested in environments — both internal and external. Collage is an important part of my work, which is at times representational and semiabstract. Art is how I express thoughts and feelings using colors, symbols and photographic references to respond to the world or create my own. It gives me a way to get outside of my head and into my imagination while physically connecting with materials.

What's one of your favorite moments from working with the collective?

I would have to say that the reception [this summer] at the Flynndog gallery that commemorated Christine Pemberton and her artwork was a profound experience. I knew Christine for a short time before she passed, and she endeared herself as a kind, friendly, talented person who was dedicated to her art, as well as to the collective.

Meeting her family when they came to Vermont to hold a memorial service, as well as attend the art reception, highlighted how art provided a respite from her challenges. It was rewarding to hear how much her creativity nourished her.

"Lady With Pets" by Luke Carlson - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "Lady With Pets" by Luke Carlson

Is there a dedicated space or studio for artist members to work, or do people create their artwork on their own?

Both! Some artists prefer to work on their own or occasionally attend open studios, and others are regular participants. We have open studios twice a week. Mondays are public; Wednesdays are for Howard Center clients only. We are following all COVID guidance and are currently masking and distancing.

You already have an impressive number of events; is there anything else the collective has planned for the future?

We are preparing to paint a mural soon at Brian's North End Automotive [at 98 North Avenue]. We'll be painting three garage doors and the side of the building. Tom Stetson will be the lead artist to sketch the designs that we brainstormed as a group, and other members will paint out those designs.

We are participating in the South End Art Hop and will be exhibiting at the Innovation Center for three months. That show will be curated by SEABA, and we will also have an online presence.

Our last external show of the year will be at the Metropolitan Gallery at [Burlington] City Hall in November — our first time exhibiting in that space. We discussed exhibition themes as a group and chose the title "Interwoven."

The Howard Center Arts Collective's Art Hop exhibit is on view through November at the Innovation Center of Vermont, 128 Lakeside Ave. The collective's public open studios take place every Monday, 12:40-2:40 p.m., at the ONE Arts Center, 72 N. Champlain St.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Artistic Treatment"

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