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Commentary: Continuing the Conversation

— For the second year in a row, Alexandria is holding an unusual exhibit of art. Its purpose is both a celebration of creativity and the artist's own special vision, and an opening gambit to begin the conversation on what mental health is, what it means to have a mental illness and how those with intellectual and developmental disabilities see and deal with the world around them.

Art Uniting People

Now through June 30

Lee Center, 1108 Jefferson Street

Beatley Central Library, 5005 Duke Street

July through December 2012

The exhibit opened on May 12 at the Lee Center where it will remain until the end of June. Opening night brought the artists themselves with their red ribbon badges, their families, volunteers and guests along with those who had worked with some of the artists during the year. The art depicted the world of children and adults, who deal with mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration and intellectual disabilities. Some were joyful and made you smile to look at them, some were intriguing like “the suitcases,” some beautiful and some filled with pain.

Dr. Margaret Dowell, a Maryland-based artist and adjunct professor at the College of Southern Maryland was the guest speaker. She is a co-editor of the book “Addiction and Art” and editor of a website www.AddictionAndArt.Org. She talked about art as a way to communicate, to understand addiction and to help society be more supportive toward those on the road to recovery. Classical pianist Ann Lee performed a piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff which was composed after an experience of severe depression.

This exhibit and celebration like the first was proposed by the Mental Health Anti-Stigma Hope Campaign in collaboration with the Community Services Board, Alexandria's Therapeutic Recreation program, the Alexandria Office of the Arts and the Alexandria Commission for the Arts along with the Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center, Kelley Cares Foundation, and the American Art Therapy Association. Those who worked to put it all together included college interns Margaret Johnston, Kristin Halvorsen, Monica Dreyer, Sandra Wang and Sarah Strobel Hill, who worked with artists to help them prepare for the exhibit; Cheryl Anne Colton, city Office of the Arts, Jackie Person, City of Alexandria Therapeutic Recreation program, Masharia Holman, Anti-Stigma Hope Campaign, Susan Drachsler, Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center, Carrie Fesperman Redden, Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria and Alexandria Community Services Board staff. Other donors offered their help in framing including Alexandria Picture Framing, Art & Frame, Artifacts, Inc., Broadway Gallery, Carriage House Picture Framing, Erickson & Ripper Gallery, Gallery petalouth, Kelly's Art & Frame, Mary C. Ray, National Art and Framing, P&C Art and Principle Gallery.

The relationship between the artist and mental illness, substance abuse disorders or other illnesses is not new or unusual. But in this exhibit the artists are not well-known, formally trained or even recognized for their talent. They are people who are communicating their special vision, people who for various reasons are considered outside society which is why this art was once called “outsider art.”

Their art comes from within themselves from their own personalities and is often unusual in concept and subject. Some in the past did become well known while others have always remained anonymous.

Those who wish to see this work for themselves should visit the Lee Center where the work will remain up until June 30. From July to December, it can also be seen at the Beatley Central Library.

No celebration could be complete without refreshments and several Alexandria businesses contributed with sandwiches, snacks, fruit, vegetables and dessert. They included Alexandria Cupcake, Balducci's Food Lover's Market, Best Buns Bread Company, Caboose Cafe & Bakery, Detox Kitchen, First Street Giant, Giant at Alexandria Commons, Great Harvest Bread Company, Harris Teeter at Foxchase, Monroe's an American Trattoria, Safeway at Bradlee and the Warehouse Bar & Grill.

Raffle items were provided by Alexandriaa Cupcake, A Show of Hands, Gallery Lafayette, Nickell's & Scheffler and the Warehouse Bar & Grill.