STAUNTON, Va. (AP) — For Joseph Laurenzo, artistic expression resembles a kind of road. It's a way for him to arrive at strikingly creative images, such as a bird connected to a hand, and it's also a way for a thought to find its way out of his mind.
"When it gets into my head, it won't leave until I actually draw it," he said.
Laurenzo, 27, was among about eight students taking an advanced art class Wednesday morning at Western State Hospital, a class the instructors say provides an important avenue for healing. It's one of a host of classes — with topics such as community life skills, computers and physical fitness — that Western State patients may take to help them with their recovery.
And in the back of the students' minds in art class right now is an upcoming exhibit called "Art: A Path to Recovery." It's the sixth annual area show featuring work from adults who have confronted some form of mental illness. It's conducted during National Mental Health Month, from May 9 to May 31, at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art in Staunton.
Submissions are now being accepted.
Rachel Isak, an occupational therapist at Western State Hospital, said the submitted art must have been created within the past year, but she stressed that art can come from anyone who's undergone some kind of mental health struggle — and participants don't need to provide any sort of documentation of a diagnosis.
Isak and Western State art instructor Tina Halterman were working with students in the class on Wednesday morning.
Isak, Halterman and Donna Gum, executive director of Mental Health of America of Augusta, are among the organizers of the coming art show. In the past, a good number of the art show submissions have come from Western State Hospital, though they've come from other places, too.
Gum noted that past art shows have included a range of genres.
"We've had paintings, we've had drawings," she said. "We've had sculpture, porcelain, hand-made baskets (and other pieces)."
Isak said she's used art as a form of therapy herself, and she noted one advantage it offers compared to other forms of therapy.
"The beautiful thing about art is that unlike many forms of therapy that are focused on talking, it's a way that you can express yourself without words," she said. "It gives your inner self a voice without having to say anything at all."
Isak noted that her own art involves mixed media, sometimes moving between the scientific and the abstract. This year she's submitting a painting graced by what she termed retro and psychedelic colors — all applied to a police shield salvaged from the 1960s. She describes the piece as fusing images often seen in opposition to each other: authority and colorful protest, in all of the various manifestations those two forces might take.
"It's a representation of the peaceful meeting of those two forces," she said.
That spirit of uniting seemingly unrelated images pervaded the class Isak and Halterman led on Wednesday morning. One of Laurenzo's pieces joined the image of a bird and a hand, showing the bird perched on — and gripping — a branch. The images were disparate, but crafted with care.
"I tried to pick forms that would fit the bird," Laurenzo said. "I needed to form the fingers in a certain way to give it a certain look."
Halterman said it's important to encourage that sort of experimentation. She said the clients — or students, as she refers to them — appreciate the chance to take those risks.
"I want this to be a place of freedom," she said, noting the soft music and the clusters of artistic materials that create an easy ambience in the room.
Halterman recalled, too, the way art provided ways for her to experiment when she was young.
"I remember when I was in grade school," she said. "I was a hyper-active child. I wasn't bad; I was mischievous."
By middle school, she'd gotten the chance "to dabble in" art, along with other activities. By the later grades she'd plunged into art, painting and drawing and eventually specializing in ceramics at James Madison University.
"It opened up my world," she said, noting that grades in all her classes improved once she'd discovered her affinity for artistic expression.
"That's really nice for a kid who wants to rebel," she said.
Laurenzo said he's been able to express himself freely in the class. He said that he writes poetry, too — and when feelings bubble up, he knows there's a place where they can travel.
"I always have some kind of avenue I can take to deal with emotion through art," he said, adding that people who know him can discern what he was feeling at the time he put down an image.
John G. Hudson IV, another student in the class, said he was particularly drawn to creating natural images and angels.
"It touches my spirituality," he said, adding that he planned to submit his artwork to the coming show.
Isak said the police shield she's painting for the art show unites a kind of yin and yang, as she joins a symbol of authority with images of creative expression. That's a fusion that Halterman understands, too. Before she became an art instructor at Western State in 2010, she worked there as a security officer.
"I kind of reflect that shield Rachel's painting," she said.
Information from: The News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com