From Milwaukee Renaissance

PeaceOfMind: TheArtsLeadTheWay

The Arts Lead the Way

By “Bluebird”

Gayle Bluebird, RN, has been active in the consumer/survivor movement since the early 1970s. She is the coordinator of the Office of Technical Assistance (OTA) for Peer Networking, a part of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) in Alexandria, VA. She conducts training all over the country at hospital facilities, promoting the development of peer roles, dialogue and communication between providers and service recipients, and the development of Comfort Rooms. She has written and edited two manuals, Participatory Dialogues and Reaching Across With The Arts, with funds from the federal government (SAMHSA). In 2006 she produced and edited a film/video titled, Leaving the Door Open: Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint, also for SAMHSA, (TBR soon). She has written a guidebook on developing peer roles entitled Paving New Ground: Peer Roes in Inpatient Settings, which is now available on the NASMHPD website: She is also known for her role in the arts as coordinator of Altered States of the Arts, a national network of consumer/survivor artists, writers and performers.

I have had on my desk for well over a year the Writer’s Guidelines for submitting an article to “Mental Health World,” while also being aware that I was not receiving any issues — which I attributed to my not having notified them of my new address. You can imagine my disappointment when Patricia Obletz contacted me and let me know that the journal was no longer being published. The good news is that Patricia said she is carrying on and wanted me to write an article about the arts for “Peace of Mind.” It is good timing. Lots of exciting things are happening to promote the arts among people with mental health issues.

To begin with, more and more people with psychiatric histories are using the arts as a major part of their recovery. Some are achieving economic independence as they forge ahead to create careers as artists in the performing arts area or as visual artists. Others are simply able to spend more time in their creative pursuits, finding many more opportunities to showcase their work. The Arts, visual and performing, are finally being given appropriate recognition and status; the old image of “basket making” led by art therapists in hospital settings has pretty much gone. Instead, people are being encouraged to be creative and to be free to explore different mediums on their own.

There has also been a change in the way the public views art done by people with psychiatric illnesses. Even art that used to be considered dark or demonic, sometimes referred to as MAD Art, is finally being seen as a way to comprehend the complexities of a mental illness and, in some cases, to understand its origins. In the past, people were often discouraged from going “deep inside” to create art that revealed their struggles. Their work was seen as “symptomatic” rather than as a useful part of a path that allowed them to work through their feelings. The public is more receptive because people feel able to explore their own feelings while trying to understand the expressions of the artist.It is important for artists to claim their work and to have their work shown in public places as more and more museums, cafes, and public places provide space. Claiming also means naming. Many mental health facilities will display artwork in their lobbies or hallways without giving the artist credit, citing the HIPPA laws as the reason. Quickly, when I discover this, I point out that most people would be honored to have their names accompanying their work, if asked, which is perfectly permissible under any laws or guidelines.

One of the most exciting places to find unusual art that is both transforming and mesmerizing is the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. All of the artwork is done by untrained artists, most of whom have led reclusive lives, many with histories of a mental illness. Here our stories are not hidden but woven into the bios that accompany each work as natural and informing. If you get a chance, please visit this museum. You will not be disappointed.

Art is the great communicator. I have been hearing so many people say, “Art is the best way for people to get it.” Recovery stories written by people with mental illnesses are being posted on websites, in newsletters and other venues. The number of biographies and autobiographies, sometimes written by famous people, has increased as well. Putting our work out there for the public eye requires disclosure but, that too, is changing into pride, not hide.

Art helps us weather the storms

All of these things bring me great joy. I think that appreciation and use of art has been growing stronger, without people noticing it. Artists don’t campaign or complain; they just create. Even facing economic hardships in these turbulent economic times, it may be art that helps us weather the storms. As starving artists already, who better are able to survive, but us—Artists Leading the Way.

Please visit, a site that showcases MAD artists’ works; poetry, paintings, writings, and more. (By MAD we mean art with a message: art that tells a story, is unusual, political, transforming, healing or outside the norm.) Ed Pazicky, in Port Charlotte, has been designing and maintaining the site for a number of years and is to be complimented for doing an excellent job.

Wambui Bahati has written a book, You Don’t Know Crazy, her autobiography that starts out with her tragic story, but ultimately leads her to peace, joy and wellness, with lots of information about how she found it. Go to for more information.

Mike Skinner, NH, has a new CD out: Waitin’ for a Train. Mike’s music is very much related to his depression and childhood abuse that now he uses to inspire in his songs and music. Go to for more information.

Bluebird notes: Art will be prominent again this year at the NAMI Convention, July 6–9 in San Francisco. A symposium with three artists will take place on July 8. Featured will be Nancy Thomas, a musician from the Bay Area, Landon Scranton, singer, songwriter from Riverside, CA, and Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer, Santa Clara County, author of the book, “Writing Through the Darkness: easing your depression with paper and pen.” (A really wonderful book: go to blogspot, for more information).

In October, the annual Alternatives Conference will be held in Nebraska this year, October 28-November1. For the first time, there will be a pre-conference Arts Day, primarily to provide training on arts activities that peer specialists and other peer providers can use in their work serving other peers. Expect to find the usual array of arts workshops during the conference and the ever popular Open Mic for everyone will be held on Saturday night. It is anticipated that there will be a large number of arts workshops to choose from during the conference, as last year exceeded expectations. The Saturday night Open Mic Performance is always popular with talented performers all set to strut their stuff.

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