Tuesdays With Judy

Battling mental illness with a paintbrush

For the opening of this year's art show, Judith Raskin-Rosenthal was determined to make her classroom look like a real gallery. Her room was number 300, so she'd taped a sign on the door: "Gallery 300." She picked out 61 of her students' artworks and hung them on the walls. And she covered one table with a blue tablecloth, then laid out hors d'oeuvres on plastic plates.

The 13 artists in the show are all clients at The Bridge, Inc., a mental-health agency on West 108th Street. They call themselves the Bridge Group Artists. At the show's opening, on the afternoon of October 18, it is easy to pick them out. Each wears a carnation corsage.

Within 10 minutes, 70 people have crowded into the room. "Where are you, Scott?" one man asks.

Sergu��s Africa
by Sergu�� Lanquetot
Sergu��s Africa

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    The Coffee Cup
    by Scott Zwiren
    "I'm over here," Scott Zwiren says, gesturing to three paintings and two drawings. His hope today is to sell at least one of his works.

    Scott, 40, needs the money. He receives an SSI check every month, but the bulk of it goes to The Bridge, which provides him with a room, utilities, and most of his meals. Subtract the money needed to buy clothes and other necessities, and he's often left with $3 a day.

    This wasn't the future he'd imagined for himself when he was a 16-year-old freshman at Colgate University or later when he studied film at NYU. Back then he aspired to make animated movies and write books. But that was before bipolar disorder derailed his dreams, before he was haunted by suicidal thoughts, before he jumped in front of a No. 2 train and lost his right arm and half his right leg.

    Over the years he had to learn to do everything with his left hand, including draw and paint. But the story of his personal struggle is not part of the marketing pitch at this art show. While each of the Bridge Group Artists has a serious mental illness, their diagnoses are not mentioned on the walls. The text beneath each artwork lists only the title and the artist's name.

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    Snarling Foxes
    by Glenn Grancio
    A tall stranger approaches Scott. "Are you the artist?" he asks. "I just bought this one." He points toward an acrylic painting titled The Coffee Cup, which costs $150.

    "It's going to Amsterdam.I'm going to give it to the chairman of our hospital." As it turns out, the buyer works as a psychiatric social worker in the Netherlands and heard about the show from a friend.

    The show has been open only 20 minutes, and The Coffee Cup is the first work to sell. Judy walks over and sticks a red dot on the bottom of Scott's painting. He appears stunned; it takes a few moments before he can respond. "I'm blown away," he finally says. "Thank you very much."

    In a lifetime defined by rapid mood cycles�by crushing depressions and dangerous highs�this is one of those rare moments when Scott Zwiren felt truly great.


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    A Room With a View
    by Jill Friedman
    A quick glance at the walls of Gallery 300 and it's apparent that each artist has a distinctive style. Amburse White draws cartoon faces, one right next to another, each slightly different in size and shape; Judy calls them "claustrophobic faces." Francisco Ortiz paints renditions of Noah's ark, with pairs of animals ready to board. Chris Gaskin's drawings hark back to his days as a graffiti artist spray-painting the city's trains. And James Sneed's style recalls the eminent painter Jacob Lawrence, whom Sneed describes as his mentor in the early 1960s, when he was a young artist living in Harlem.

    Judy started the Bridge Group Artists in 1988, shortly after The Bridge hired her to run art therapy classes. She picked out the most talented students, created a class just for them, and began organizing art shows. The annual shows gave everyone something to work toward, and over the years the level of expertise rose. Today the group has five women and eight men, ranging in age from 30 to 67. Most of the artists have little in common other than a love of art and a diagnosis of mental illness (usually schizophrenia or bipolar disorder).

    The artists' backgrounds vary as much as their artistic styles. Jennifer Gilliam grew up in Europe and has two master's degrees. Chris Gaskin, a former car thief from Queens, has made five trips to state prison. Jill Friedman went to Barnard and once had a job with the city parks department. Amburse White worked as a buyer for a supermarket chain before he started smoking crack and sleeping in Morningside Park. Almost all of the artists now live in apartments owned by The Bridge.

    The artists who have been with the group the longest�Scott Zwiren and James Sneed�joined in the late 1980s, soon after the group started, while the newest member, Chris Gaskin, used to sell his art to fellow prisoners for packs of Newports, until he was freed 16 months ago.


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    Recovery I
    by Chris Gaskin
    On a Tuesday afternoon in mid November, four weeks after the show, the artists are in room 300, hunched over their latest projects. The art show remains on the walls, albeit with large blank spaces left by the pieces that sold. The smell of freshly sharpened pencils fills the room. Strewn across the tables are the supplies: watercolors, acrylics, colored pencils, magic markers, oil pastels, pens, paper.
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