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New exhibit at Brooklyn Museum features artists with mental illness

Meet a few of the artists behind the exhibit ‘Seen and Heard.'

November 1, 2019 Mary Frost
Artist Jason Germain, while working on a painting appearing in the exhibition “Seen and Heard” at the Brooklyn Museum through Dec. 16. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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Artists participating in a program for people living with mental illness are exhibiting their paintings at the Brooklyn Museum in a show called “Seen and Heard,” now through Dec. 16. The opening reception takes place Nov. 7, from 6-7:30 p.m.

Overseen by the Institute for Community Living in East New York in partnership with the museum, the exhibition offers a unique window into voices that have been traditionally excluded.

“There’s evidence that healing comes through art,” Jerry Ramos, a senior vice president at ICL, told the Brooklyn Eagle. Through the program, clients “expose their talent and feel some sense of wellness, and also express what they’re going through.”

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Teaching artist Dylan Stanfield has shaped the program since it began almost 15 years ago. He considers himself to be more of a fellow artist than a supervisor.

“I’m just here to help people wherever they’re at in their artistic process. To refine it, to feel empowered by their creation, and help them get their voices out into the world,” he said.

Related: Art classes instead of court dates? In low-level cases, Brooklyn DA says yes.

To prepare for the exhibition, Stanfield spoke to each artist about how the act of creating art changes the way they think about themselves, and helps them surpass the stigmatization associated with a diagnosis of mental illness.

“We’re made up of the stories we tell ourselves,” he said. “What are the stories we start telling ourselves that help us get past that diagnosis?”

The Eagle visited ICL while the artists were working on their pieces for the exhibition. Here are some of their stories.

Jason Germain

Artist Jason Germain, while working on a painting appearing in the exhibition “Seen and Heard” at the Brooklyn Museum through Dec. 16. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Artist Jason Germain, while working on a painting appearing in the exhibition “Seen and Heard” at the Brooklyn Museum through Dec. 16. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Jason Germain moved more than 30 times as a child, from house to house and school to school. Afflicted with schizophrenia, dyslexia and mood disorders, he spent two-and-a-half years in prison.

He speaks softly. “My life comes from extreme pain. People say they’re surprised I’m still alive.”

“I stole to make money. I lived as an evil person — but I was nice about it,” he added.

In his painting (shown above), Jason shows himself doing his artwork, and also locked behind bars in prison. A spirit emanates from a cup of coffee, which he drank all the time while incarcerated. The painting also includes a Star Trek space ship.

When people see his detailed blueprints for space ships, they’re surprised, he said.

“I thought I was crazy, to build a ship that could fly. When I came here, Dylan looked at my designs and said, ‘You can do this. Start with the engines and add color.’”

“I felt my eyes open,” Germain said.

“My motto is freedom,” he said. “I came from jail and I always wanted to be free. Ever since I started painting, I think about the concept of my freedom. It means peace, quality, love, happiness. All those things I was wishing to have.”

Michal Behar

Michal Behar. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Michal Behar. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

When Michal Behar started school, her teachers told her parents she would never learn to read or write — that she was “uneducable.”

“So I listened to the teachers and I would doodle on my notebooks,” she said. When she was 18, Behar was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and ADHD. She starting attending ICL in 2013.

Doodling “was a way of expressing myself, and dealing with my anxiety,” she said. “When I came here to ICL, I met a gem of a person, Dylan. He saw something that other people hadn’t seen outside my family. He said, ‘OK, I think this is a little bit more than doodles.’

“He gave me oil sticks and said, ‘Do something.’ And it took off.”

Behar also has synesthesia, where something perceived by one sense (an image, a sound or any other sensation) triggers a perception by another sense.

“I see color when I listen to music,” she said.

Behar’s intricate drawings have earned her a large Instagram following. With her large canvas, “Colorful Wall,” appearing at the Brooklyn Museum, it will be the first time her work is on exhibition.

The painting is strongly influenced by Behar’s visual perceptions triggered by the song “Over the Wall” by Echo and the Bunnymen band. As part of the exhibition, people will be able to press a button to hear the song while looking at the painting.

“There’s a lot of stigma lately in society,” she said. “We have to be part of the conversation because we’re part of society and we contribute to society. If you shut people out, what you’re doing is you’re killing civilization.”

Victor Alicea

Victor Alicea. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Victor Alicea. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Victor Alicea was born in Puerto Rico and raised in East New York before moving to the Bronx. He has always loved to draw, but never painted before working on his current large and colorful canvas.

“This is the first time,” he told the Eagle. “It’s got me surprised. Wow, why haven’t I been doing this?”

A circular pulsating, glowing area “flashes on and off,” he said. “This is me.” The lines “generate electricity. I’m absorbing all this stuff.” A graveyard in the lower right-hand corner means “don’t do drugs.”

Alicea credits Stanfield for helping him find his way through art. “He’s a straight up guy. When you have a person who has your back, you can’t go wrong.”

He wants people to see that although things can be bad, there’s always a bright light.

“We’ve become a bad place. I hope people will look at my painting and see some kind of relief,” he said.

Rafael Rodriguez

Rafael Rodriguez. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Rafael Rodriguez. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Rafael Rodriguez has always been a poet, but only got into the visual arts after he met Stanfield at ICL.

“The colors, the lining and the decorations” are the most important thing in his artwork, he said. “My decorations come from the walls and streets, like in Brooklyn, Queens.”

His painting is called “The Whole World.”

“There are a lot of things into that picture,” he said. “That’s the whole world!” He pointed out sections of the painting. “That’s the puzzle, and that’s the graffiti.”

A man he met in jail got him started in art, Rodriguez said.

“When I was in jail, I had a friend, he was teaching me. He did a boat on my arm. He was doing it out of staples … I started drawing after that.”

He credits ICL for advancing his work. “Dylan was the one who showed me how to keep it in my head” and draw from real life, he said.

“It’s hard to draw off the wall,” he said. “Dylan was the one who gave me the technique.”

In his painting, “I want people to see something good. To learn from me, too. Like one day you can do that too, but take your time. If you rush, you’ll get in trouble. If you wait, you’ll respect yourself.”

Nathaniel Holmes III

Nathaniel Holmes III. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
Nathaniel Holmes III. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Nathaniel Holmes III incorporates writing, reading, clothing design ideas and popular media into his artwork.

Of the painting he will exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, he said, “This picture here is basically a story that was popular called ‘Power.’” (The television series “Power” is produced by 50 Cent and broadcast on Starz network.)

“TV shows, newscasts; there are a lot of different cultures out there now, black, Spanish … it’s all in my pictures,” he said. “When you put yourself in your work, it’s a documentary of yourself. You can’t lie.”

“I want to be known. I don’t want to be misunderstood,” Holmes said.

“Seen and Heard” in on view now through Dec. 16 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy.

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