The Art of Recovery
Exhibit displays the emotional fallout from eating disorders
Burlington County Times
October 03, 2016
Being slender almost has become the holy grail for many women in this culture. But getting there may not
be pretty, and the demons of anorexia and bulimia surely underline that.
Women, who almost exclusively have these serious eating disorders, and their bewildered families often
turn to the Renfrew Foundation for Eating Disorders, a national facility for treatment with a residential
center in Philadelphia and satellites in other locations. There is a Renfrew Center of Southern New Jerseyon Midlantic Drive in Mount Laurel for day treatment programs.
In "The Art of Recovery," an unusual exhibit at Perkins Center for the Arts on Irvin Avenue in
Collingswood, the fallout from these disorders is vividly displayed on the gallery's walls.
At the recent opening of the exhibition, which runs through Oct. 8, several brave women stood at their
works and explained how Renfrew's art program allowed them to express some of their feelings in a
stark, visual way.
"These women have had the courage to use art as therapy, and now to share that experience," said
Sondra Rosenberg, the creative arts therapy adviser.
Several of the women, all former clients at Renfrew, spoke of the feelings that led to their creations,
among those that hang on every wall of one of the large Perkins gallery.
As one woman explained, her focus was on self-restriction and a feeling of not ever being good enough.
Or thin enough.
"The two went hand in hand," she said.
Another woman started her art therapy with a simple pencil because that tool seemed controllable, and
control is a key factor of anorexia and bulimia.
"It took me a while to go beyond that pencil," she said.
Issues of feeling trapped by their own need for control, often translated into literally controlling what food they eat — or don't, were also explained and interpreted in the art.
A bird, in one case, was the metaphor for escape from the chains of food obsession, with the notion of just flying away from her own body conveying the painful meaning behind the work.
"Each work has great meaning, and as I was hanging the pieces, I was feeling it," said Philip Carroll,
Perkins' associate curator of exhibitions. "There is so much pain in these drawings and paintings."
From splitting oneself away from the desperation to recalling, in one painting, the dining room table of
childhood and all it represented, the works told these difficult remembrances for some women.
From 13-year-olds struggling with eating disorders to those in midlife, some of whom had made return
visits to the treatment center, the stories — and art pieces — ran the gamut. Recovery can be elusive,
and several of the artists noted that being able to translate their experiences through art was greatly
"All the talk in the world may not have the effect of just pouring out the pain into something you can see and touch," one artist said.
Even girls and women who had never held a paintbrush found solace in digging deep to tell their stories
One recurring theme from those with anorexia and/or bulimia was the fear of change. Others were
confronted with the realization that they felt a burden about taking care of others, but not themselves, or that others could not be trusted.
"It's easier to be focused on restriction rather than on freedom," said a young artist, who felt she had a voice in the art room. "I didn't feel so comfortable speaking up, but I did feel comfortable telling my story through art."
After first getting treatment for her eating disorder at 13, one speaker returned two more times to Renfrew over a decade to untangle what caused her anorexia.
"Finally, art therapy helped me to find my strength," she said.
The variety of styles, symbols and even colors, from monotones to the most vivid of hues, allows the
Perkins show to reveal the vast sweep of feelings associated with eating disorders.
Themes like one figure holding up another, or thoughts literally printed across one artist's self-portrait of her face, suggested the complexity of the disease. Renfrew, which has brought the art of clients to public spaces for the last decade, now has a collection of 170 pieces. According to Rosenberg, who leads the art therapy program, eating disorders are complicated, painful and often associated with shame.
"What happens in our art space can actually be revealing to the girls and women in a new way," said
Rosenberg, who, like Carroll, has seen the pain expressed visually and so powerfully.
"As I was hanging the art," Carroll said, "I found myself so grateful that we can tell this complicated story visually, and perhaps give our visitors an insight into how not everything can be expressed in words. But pain is pain.