Thursday, January 23, 2003

Art exhibit: We see through a lens, darkly

Photographs by mentally ill a window into their lives

By Rita Price
The Columbus Dispatch

ATHENS, Ohio - So much of the time, depression proves itself a stronger force than the world outside Jane Bowen's door. Anxious and afraid, she stays in.

"I tend to isolate myself," Ms. Bowen said. "Good days? I very seldom have good days. I have good moments. I live for the moments."

Those brief, exhilarating snippets of pleasure often come with a camera in hand. Part window and part shield, the little point-and-shoot frees her.

"A godsend," said Ms. Bowen, 42, reflecting on the day she first walked into Elise Mitchell Sanford's photography class.

Confidence and creativity are but a few of the sweet byproducts of the Athens Photographic Project, born when Ms. Sanford decided to reach out to several residents who, like her own son, suffer from mental illness.

"I thought, `What do I know how to do? I know how to take photographs. How can I turn that into something to help?'"

The 73-year-old widow and photographic artist found donations and sponsors, secured a meeting place, then handed her students cameras and film.

Document your lives, Ms. Sanford told them. Take pictures of your neighborhood, your town, your friends, your family. Can't bring yourself to leave home? Don't give up. Shoot inside.

The results - several 10-week classes, hundreds of rolls of film and thousands of frames later - have traveled throughout Ohio as an exhibit that is showing in Columbus through the end of the month at the Place To Be.

"We made art," Ms. Sanford says in the exhibit introduction. "Art that is startling in its honesty."

Although it would be silly to imagine that mental illness does not affect her students' work, Ms. Sanford rejects any suggestion that it defines it.

"The vision of normals does not exist," she said. "Nor does a category exist for someone who suffers from mental illness. There is no one mind-set, no one attitude, no rule for making art."

Paul Reininga, one of the students in Ms. Sanford's first classes during summer 2000, is a 51-year-old paranoid schizophrenic. That often mars his life, he explained, but not his photographs.

They remain perfect, frozen instances in time: a stark, opened door; Mr. Reininga's mirror-reflected self-portrait; four young men at a gas station; dark clouds swirling above a rooftop statue.

"Nature," Mr. Reininga said when asked what he most likes to photograph. "I keep trying to go out to the Ridges in spring and shoot the flowering trees. But everyone likes my city stuff better."

For the two exhibits produced so far - "I have a voice" and "Our Voices/Our Worlds" - Ms. Sanford did not allow sentiment to dictate composition. She recruited a juror to choose work from each photographer.

"That's the way it happens in the art world," she said. "We did it right."

Karen Serago, coordinator of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Altoona, Pa., served as juror for the first project. The work that came to her in a bundle of white envelopes appeared well-composed and powerful. It also commanded respect, she thought to herself, because of the hurdles its creators overcame.

"They took risks many of us would not," Ms. Serago writes in her juror's statement. "They see the world through the darkest of lenses and yet manage to disclose simple truths.

"With this work they have empowered themselves and their subjects, and in the process, reclaimed their self-worth."

Ms. Bowen said the simple fact that Ms. Sanford prods her to occasionally photograph strangers and to request their permission first, can be a huge, therapeutic event.

"I thought, `People? I'm no good with people.' Animals were as close as I wanted to get," Ms. Bowen said, laughing.

But she managed to go to church on a crowded Easter, secreting away her camera. The prize: an up-close, candid photograph of her parents taken just after they received communion.

"I gave it to them for their anniversary," Ms. Bowen said, beaming. "It's beautiful."

Ms. Sanford donates her time to the project but relies on sponsorships to provide equipment for her students. Various organizations - including local and state chapters of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Ohio Arts Council and the Appalachian Psychiatric Healthcare Systems - have been generous.

"I'm tired of these people getting short shrift," Ms. Sanford said of her aggressive fund raising. "I'm not going to give them junk."

Small, heartfelt contributions abound, too. One nurse at the local psychiatric hospital takes time off to drive her patient-students to Ms. Sanford's class rather than see them miss such a source of joy.

"It's just wonderful of her," Ms. Sanford said.

The next round of instruction lasts for 10 weeks. Already, Ms. Sanford dreads the end.

"The hardest thing to say, at the end of the class is, `Turn your cameras back in,"' she said. "It's heartbreaking."

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