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Columbus program exhibits works by artists impacted by mental illness, substance use disorders

Fresh A.I.R. strives to break down stigma, educate the community, and focus on artistic vision and professional development of the program’s artists.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Fresh A.I.R. (Artists In Recovery) Gallery is an art gallery in Columbus with a unique mission: to exhibit works by artists affected by mental illness and substance use disorders.

A program of the nonprofit mental, behavioral, and primary healthcare clinic Southeast Healthcare located in the city’s downtown, Fresh A.I.R. strives to break down stigma, educate the community, and focus on artistic vision and professional development of the program’s artists.

By focusing on the use of art as therapy, the Fresh A.I.R. program offers participants a variety of ways to work through their mental health and substance use concerns with self-expression.

“My art helps me explore the deep, inner part of me that I can’t express,” Explains Marianne Philip, a multimedia artist that has found solace from past mental health and substance addiction problems with the program. “If it wasn’t for the art, if it wasn’t for Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, I wouldn’t know where I would be.”

For the participants in the program, Fresh A.I.R. provides not only an outlet for creativity, but a community of support as well.

“Mental health issues and substance use issues can be incredibly isolating, so having art as a means of reconnecting with society and forming those relationships is also a key part of why it’s important in recovery,” says Lauren Pond, manager of the Fresh A.I.R. Gallery.

“Being in this environment has helped me feel like I’m not alone,” reinforces Philip.

And it’s not just a supportive community for the gallery artists. The program helps foster support in the larger artistic community as well.

“I’ve had people come out of the woodwork and [tell] me about their issues with depression or anxiety,” says Kristin Morris, another resident artist with the program. “I don’t feel like I’m alone anymore; I feel like I’m in a community of people.”

Morris is a sculptor who came to Fresh A.I.R. with a long history of mental health struggles including obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to Morris, she is able to channel her OCD into her artwork, which includes crafting clay figures with incredibly fine detail work.

“It has been such an amazing experience for me,” she says. “It’s been so positive.”

All studio artists for Fresh A.I.R. compliment the program’s mission, meaning they have all been affected by mental illness and/or substance abuse issues in some way. Providing workspace for these resident artists is one aspect of the Fresh A.I.R. program. Another is the featuring of artists through gallery exhibitions.

During the pandemic, the exhibition space in the lobby of Southeast Healthcare’s downtown building was closed in order to provide safer care for patients. Thankfully, the program was able to rework some of their grant-funded studio space in the Chromedge Studios building in Franklinton to accommodate exhibitions.

The exhibition that debuted in April of 2022 is a collection of new works by painter Austin Tolliver. Tolliver turned to art as a way to help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression. Tolliver is thankful for an environment like Fresh A.I.R. where he can interact with people who, by the nature of the gallery’s mission, already have an understanding of Tolliver’s background and the nature of his creative inspiration.

“To come here, it’s very good to not worry about judgement and just be able to be yourself,” says Tolliver. He explains that it is more comfortable to be in a space where he knows he will be surrounded by people that already know some of what he is experiencing. “I find it very exhausting when I have to go into a room and deal with people being like ‘What’s wrong? Are you tired? What’s going on? How are you?’.”

“I think art is a phenomenal thing to get in touch with your feelings and your mental health,” says Morris of her drive to weave her artistic pursuits into every aspect of her road to recovery. “It’s just so nice to be able to express yourself...in whatever you do. It’s so powerful.”

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