Mental Health Association artists showcased

Twice a week Sherman Newman is assured a few hours of the inner peace that once eluded him.

Newman, a 48-year-old living with bipolar schizoaffective disorder — a mental condition that creates mood swings, uncertainty and confusion — welcomes the chance to get lost in artwork.

“I just let my mind wander,” said Newman, who wears his hair in short braids and flashes a shy smile. “I’ll be at peace and I’ll just go with the flow, whatever comes out.”

Twice a week Newman attends an Arts for Wellness class at the Mental Health Association for Greater Baton Rouge’s Alliance House Drop-In Center.

Newman loves to draw scribbles, creating abstract lines and shapes, then coloring those in with bright colors.

“I like to have structure in my life,” he said. “Because I know I’m not working I like to get up and know I’m coming here. I know I’m going to be doing something every day instead of looking at the walls doing nothing.”

The art students draw and paint under the tutelage of Katherine Anders, a lifelong artist who has taught the class for three years.

“They don’t come in with a particular interest in art,” Anders said. “But I believe that everybody is an artist, but it gets schooled out of them or brought out of them along the way. I’m trying to bring it back out.”

Those attending the center live with mental disorders and receive regular treatment and come, often daily, for a supportive environment.

“I have friends here,” said Joe Naquin, 52, who talks in excited bursts about his favorite drawings and taking walks at the day’s end. “They are my best friends besides my family.”

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, Naquin’s doctors later said he had psychosis, which can cause sufferers to lose touch with reality.

Naquin loves to paint natural scenes, his favorites being the bright flowers and full crowns of eucalyptus and cherry trees.

“It’s good therapy for me,” he said. “It reduces my stress and calms me down.”

Creating art fosters empowerment and improves self-esteem, said Anders, wife of Advocate columnist Smiley Anders.

Anders, who lives with the up and down mood changes of bipolar disorder, relies on art to even herself out.

“It was a way to express myself, but it is much more than that,” she said. “Whatever was bothering me before just goes completely away.”

Last year the Mental Health Association hosted an art show for Anders’ students. They sold 19 pieces, mostly around $50 each. The show provides a public place to “break the stigma of mental illness,” said Jenny Ridge, the fund development specialist for the association.

A newcomer to the class, Janet Dupuis, 58, is living at the Women’s Community Rehabilitation Center after seeking treatment for her recent bipolar disorder diagnosis.. She longs to return to her Lafayette home, but said she is happy to be stable after years of suffering from depression and a reliance on painkillers.

“I get sad and I get lonely, but I don’t have to go all the way to the bottom like I did when I went into the hospital,” she said. “I could feel those feelings and know it’s the disease, and I don’t have to fall into that.”

Dupuis has found solace in the art classes. At a recent class she tried painting in the expressionist style of Mark Chagall, drawing a brightly painted sitting room with pink chairs. Later adding a woman flying across the background.

“There are no wrongs when you do art here,” she said. “This place is just so peaceful. You can take a deep breath here.”

Paint a Brighter Future Art Show

What: Showcasing the artists of the Mental Health Association for Greater Baton Rouge’s Alliance House Drop-In Center. Wine and refreshments will be served.

When: Tonight 6 to 8 p.m.

Where: LSU Journalism Building, Corner of North Stadium Road and Fieldhouse Drive