The Mental Health Association of Santa Barbara hosted its 18th annual Mental Arts Festival last weekend to showcase the works of community members with mental illnesses.

The event displayed the works of over 60 local artists with pieces ranging from sculptures, handmade jewelry, origami, oil paintings and collages to help reduce the stigma of mental illnesses. In addition to musical performances and a raffle to raise money for the MHA’s local chapter, the event also offered educational materials about mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Rodger Casier, a regular art contributor since 1990, said the fair helps participants channel their stress by both utilizing and celebrating their artistic talents.

“They saw my paintings hanging at the Mental Health Association during a board meeting and got the idea [for the festival],” Casier said. “Creativity is important — it can help you escape from symptoms of schizophrenia. When you pour your guts into painting, you can escape from pain.”

MHA board member George Kaufmann said his son’s struggle with a mental illness inspired him to volunteer for the organization’s various programs.
“The key operative for us is support,” Kaufmann said. “I have a son with schizophrenia; years ago he was able to get into recovery-oriented program that turned his whole life around. He’s my inspiration that recovery is possible.”

The MHA provides residential services, family-to-family therapy, peer mentoring and progressive therapy treatments including music lessons, art classes, a social business club and computer skills group.

According to Kaufmann, the festival reflects the nonprofit’s aim to connect with the community in a unique way.

“It’s not just focusing on illness but focusing on wellness and health and recovery,” Kaufmann said. “We try to focus on abilities, not disabilities. It’s a chance for people with art abilities to put [them] on display for the whole community.”

UCSB graduate and artist Hank Voss said the showcase helps him express his emotions in a visual, creative way.

“I’m an artist at heart — it’s my personal expression of beauty,” Voss said. “I’m kind of personal about it, but it’s my way to show my appreciation for other people … my way of communicating my love to other people.”

According to MHA board member and festival organizer Darcy Keep, the art gala helps illuminate the inaccuracy of stigmas that surround many mental illnesses.

“It’s a very cathartic process for [the artists] … a way to quell anxiety,” Keep said. “People always think, ‘Oh, they’re not like me,’ but they want everything we want.”

Lesley Grogan, who has participated in the festival for eight years, said the gallery encourages her artistic endeavors.

“It gives me a chance to show people what I can do,” Grogan said. “I’m here to fight the stigma of mental illness — to show I can be capable even though I have an illness.”

Additionally, Casier said the gala is an important financial opportunity for the artists, some of whom only display their work at the annual festival.

“It’s really the only time of year we have to make some money,” Casier said. “I’m pretty much a recluse … with paranoid schizophrenia sometimes my social [skills] are not the best … but I’m not paranoid here; I’ve got something to make me feel confident.”