Inside Outsider

In the art world, the term “outsider art” is a label created by those who live and work on the fringes of society. These artists often suffer from mental-health issues or disabilities, and their brilliant works are frequently only brought to light after their death.

In the North Bay, several mental-health-service providers are determined to put a positive spin on the term “outsider art” and recognize the contributions of otherwise marginalized community members through the Sonoma County Wellness Art Collaborative.

The organization hosts a new group exhibit, “Out of the Shadows: A Collection of Transformative Art,” opening Friday, Aug. 18, at the Steele Lane Community Center in Santa Rosa, with a reception featuring spoken-word and musical entertainment.

At the forefront of the collaborative is Adam Kahn, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked for the past 10 years at Buckelew Programs, a community-based service provider that helps people with mental-health challenges to live independently within the community. Now a supervisor at Buckelew, Kahn formed the Sonoma County Wellness Art Collaborative to promote the creative works of many of these individuals.

“Culturally, we appreciate our artists who have eccentricities, but I don’t know that we really appreciate our eccentrics who have artistic abilities,” says Kahn. “And a lot of the folks we work with do have those artistic abilities. Their way of being in the word is so unique, but oftentimes it’s not something that’s appreciated by the mainstream. A lot of that expression is shoved into corners or dark places.”

For the wellness art collaborative, Kahn reached out to other North Bay mental-health service providers, including Community Support Network, Telecare Sonoma ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) and
St. Joseph’s Health. Kahn says the partners all see the benefits of the intersection between arts and mental health.

“The arts brings in people from all different backgrounds, we’re really experiencing that while gearing up for this show,” says Kahn.

“Out of the Shadows” will include more than 60 pieces of art from over 30 participating artists. The range of art at the show runs the gamut of media, including painting, photography, sculpture and even puppetry. The subject matter of the work reflects the role that art plays in each artist’s life, be it for coping or to express the anguish of their situation. “The muse is as unique as the artist,” says Kahn.

All the artwork will be for sale, and the proceeds will go to the artists, many of whom live under the poverty line or are homeless, in addition to living with severe mental illnesses or traumatic brain injuries.

“To me, the sale of the artwork is almost secondary,” Kahn says. “Some of our artists might feel differently, but I’ve seen such a great response, not just from the public, but from the artists who have the opportunity to show their work and have that kind of interaction with the public.

“It really does create a sense of self-worth for them.”