Tuesdays With Judy

Battling mental illness with a paintbrush

The Bridge Group Artists gather here to work every Tuesday afternoon. On this day, they are all preparing for the next show, 11 months away. Everyone, that is, except a heavyset 38-year-old named Ira Brewer. Ira isn't sure what to do next. He sifts through the stack of catalogs and old magazines that Judy keeps for inspiration, hoping to find a photo of a crocodile. Eventually he gives up, picks up a green pencil, and tries to draw one from memory.

Ira's portfolio contains 12 years of colored-pencil drawings, many inspired by the months he was homeless and living in the Bellevue shelter. There's a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit ("I used to hang out every day at OTB"); a brain with a chain around it, next to a liquor bottle; Richard Nixon on a $3 bill ("because he's a phony"); characters from The Simpsons; several igloos ("because sometimes I feel isolated"); and a girl in glasses, one eye bigger than the other ("This is a girl I used to go with. She has a bigger gambling problem than me; she plays a lot of scratch tickets").

Ira did many of these drawings in Judy's art therapy class, which is held in the morning. There, students draw quietly for half an hour, then Judy tapes their works to the wall. "Who would like to speak about their work?" she asks, and Ira's hand usually shoots up. The focus in art therapy is not on creating great, salable works, but on the art process and the emotions it conjures. When Ira and other students sit back down after talking about their pieces, everyone claps.

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

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    by Jennifer Gonnerman
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    Unlike art therapy class, the point at the Tuesday afternoon sessions is to work�not spend hours talking about everyone's feelings. Nevertheless, after the art show every year, Judy devotes an entire class to what she calls "processing"�listening to how everyone feels and giving a pep talk to those who need it. "Just because you didn't sell doesn't mean you're not any good," she says, then offers up Vincent van Gogh as an example.

    Mostly, though, room 300 is quiet on Tuesday afternoons. The only noise is the sound of pencils scratching. "The art room is like heaven," says Francisco Ortiz. James Sneed adds: "There are few things I enjoy as much as I enjoy this class." James, 67, started drawing at age five and gave up painting three times over the years, but not since joining Judy's class. "I think Judy is a gem," he says. "She cares about the artists. She really does the very best for us. People who really care about the artist�you don't run into them often."


    image
    Three Women Waiting
    by Ira Brewer
    Not just anybody can get into the Bridge Group Artists. Students in art therapy class who draw the same things for five or 10 years�circles, squares, ducks, birds�do not qualify. Judy only invites people to join who demonstrate both talent and drive. Six years ago, Sergu�� Lanquetot, then 38, wanted nothing more than to join the group. He talked about it frequently during art therapy. "Why aren't my pictures in the show?" he'd say. "I feel badly I'm not in the group."

    Sergu�� grew up in the neighborhood, on West 106th Street near Riverside Drive, in the apartment where his parents still live. He eats lunch there every day, and when they found out he was upset about not being in the show, his mother fired off a letter to The Bridge. Still, Judy refused to let Sergu�� in the show. The problem, Judy says, was simple: "Sergu�� could not complete a picture . . . and at the same time he felt totally frustrated and angry because he wasn't in the group."

    One of Judy's rules for herself is that she never picks up a paintbrush and adds a few strokes to a student's work. When she was a child, her mother, who was an artist, used to touch up her drawings for her; she never forgot how horrible she felt afterward, knowing the achievement was not truly hers. "It's a terrible thing to do," she says.

    Sergu�� was certainly a challenge, but Judy was not going to bend her rules for him. "I really had to figure out how I could get him to complete," she says. "He's scared to try anything new. . . . So I came up with the idea of a collage." She bought gold paper, rhinestones, sequins, beads. With lots of coaxing�but no hands-on assistance�Sergu�� created a collage of a jewel box. Judy included it in the next show, and Sergu�� was elated. Everyone saw his artwork on the wall, alongside the rest of the artists'. The only problem was that no one wanted to buy it.

    After the show, the piece eventually sold. Sergu�� beamed with joy when he heard the news, until Judy told him who the buyers were: his parents. The turn of events triggered a lengthy class discussion. The topic: Do parents have the right to buy their child's art? Judy thought this was OK, but Sergu�� said he would have preferred if a stranger bought his work.

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