Collingswood art show focuses on mental disorder
September 15, 2016
On her worst days, Aimee Gilmore worried about everything.
Was she pretty enough? Was she good enough? Was her cat lonely without her during the day?
Her bouts with depression and severe anxiety led to unhealthy coping behaviors and an eating disorder. She spent three months in 2004 at The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, a residential treatment facility in Philadelphia. There, she found the most solace in art therapy sessions, where she could release her emotional storms in a healthy way.
"I had struggled for so long, it was hard for me to associate language with what I was feeling," Gilmore said.
One of her pieces — a large self-portrait inscribed with lines from a daily journal — will be on display at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood Saturday through Oct. 8. "The Art of Recovery" show features 33 pieces from a large collection of works by Renfrew clients, all women treated for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other behavioral health issues. Nearly all are signed with the artist's first name and last initial.
Sondra Rosenberg, Renfrew's creative arts therapy supervisor, began collecting pieces about a decade ago. Part of the 170-piece collection has been on display in dozens of public places since 2007.
Eating disorders are a complicated coping mechanism, Rosenberg explained. "In order to stop the eating disorder behaviors, it really requires looking at what's driving them, and usually that's intolerable emotions — a lot of shame and anxiety."
The work "is like a window into the world of these people," Rosenberg said. "It's eye-opening for a lot of people."
It's the first time Perkins has shown a collection of work born out of art therapy and mental illness, said Philip Carroll, the nonprofit's associate curator of exhibitions. Visitors passing by the center's Irvin Avenue studio over the next month can stop in and wander through its gallery space.
"There's some interesting themes," Carroll said. "Some are fairly clear, some are not."
"They have a lot that they're saying ... the imagery is really kind of haunting."
Each is a physical expression of the creator's internal struggles: fear and despair, loss and isolation. The first artwork in the show, titled "Fear," is a collage of decaying rose petals framing the title word. It was made by a 39-year-old who used an eating disorder to control her emotions.
Another piece, by a 15-year-old client with bipolar disorder, depicts headless, manic bodies throwing themselves out of a black hole of depression.
"They're almost alien to themselves," Carroll mused.
A hand-drawn portrait of a family eating dinner represents a 50-year-old's childhood trauma. Another depicts a town under water, painted by a 15-year-old who wanted to show what it feels like when she lost control of her depression.
Gilmore kept a daily journal of her worries, so she could pen them across her own photograph. She will be among the artists who will speak at the show's reception at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
"The piece is about not hiding, and not keeping those anxieties and fears in darkness anymore, and allowing myself literally to wear my worries," Gilmore told the Courier-Post.
Just as a tribal warrior might wear a tattoo or body marking to celebrate a battle, Gilmore said the work represents her ability to overcome her disorder. Today, the 34-year-old mother and working artist is healthy and doing well. When she has a bad day, she has learned to catch herself before falling into old habits.
Anyone interested in art or concerned about someone with an eating disorder should come to the show, Rosenberg added.
"You can't tell if somebody has an eating disorder by looking at them," the art therapist noted. "The show is my way to break down some of the stigma and look at the very human emotions and experiences that are behind symptoms that can seem so incomprehensible."