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.

    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.

    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."


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    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.

    Anybody who came to the art show this past October would have been surprised to learn that until recently Sergu�� couldn't finish a picture. This year, he had seven works for sale. The most impressive was a large collage he called Sergu�� Africa, featuring dozens of tiny animals: fish, birds, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, monkeys, frogs. Sergu�� had meticulously drawn them with colored pencils, and used a pair of tiny scissors to cut each one out. Then he painted a background and glued them on.

    At the art show, he urged everyone who stopped by his collage to look closely. "The faces are my specialty," he said. Some of the animals were smiling, he explained, while others were angry. Pointing to the pack of zebras, he said, "They're all looking out for themselves, and they're happy to be by the water."

    The collage sold in seven hours. Priced at $175, it likely could have drawn five or 10 times that much in a real art gallery. Within two days, six of Sergu�� works sold�and none were purchased by his parents.


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    Self-Portrait
    by Jennifer Gilliam
    By December, the total earnings for the Bridge Groups Artists' show had reached $4,090. Thirty of the 61 works sold, including at least one piece by each artist. Unlike other galleries, The Bridge gives their artists 100 percent of the proceeds. It was the most successful art show they had ever had.

    Over the prior year, Scott Zwiren had earned more money from art sales than the group's other members. A painting he'd been working on for more than a decade, titled The Snailman and the Mermaid, had sold for $1,000. The money didn't last long, how ever. One of the common effects of bipolar disorder is a tendency to overspend. As Scott puts it, "I went on a hypomanic spree."

    The money bought him the chance to sit for hours at neighborhood spots like Sip and the Hungarian Pastry Shop. "I spent a lot of time drinking $3 sodas," he says. "I was smoking at the time, so it was packs of cigarettes, coffee, cabs. And it was an impoverished kind of overspending: Going to the ATM machine and pulling out $20 every day."

    Scott started at The Bridge in 1988, soon after Judy arrived. Back then, he was trying to adjust to life without his right arm and with a prosthesis attached to his right leg. While he had enjoyed sketching throughout high school and college, now he had to learn to draw with his left hand. "He went through all types of emotions with me�gratitude, anger. It was an emotional kaleidoscope," Judy says.

    Scott agrees. "There were times I came in depressed, argumentative . . . feeling like I wasn't getting enough attention, feeling like I was getting too much attention," he says. There was a five-year period in the 1990s when he stopped coming altogether and instead took illustration classes elsewhere. But in recent years he's been a steady presence in room 300, working quietly on his art every Tuesday afternoon.

    Since his suicide attempt 19 years ago, Scott has accumulated an impressive list of creative accomplishments: He played one-handed bass in a band, performing gigs in the West Village; he wrote numerous short stories; he published God Head, a novel based on his own life; and he sold more than 25 works of art.

    Still, his battle with bipolar disorder continues, and some weekends he feels so depressed he can't even bring himself to get out of bed. Painting and drawing are what keep him going, along with the expectation that he show up every week for Judy's class and continue to work. "I feel more at home on a Tuesday afternoon than anywhere else," he says.


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    Judith Raskin-Rosenthal, an art therapist, started the Bridge Group Artists in 1988.
    Photograph by Robin Holland
    Sergu�� Lanquetot started plotting his next collage soon after the art show opening. On a recent afternoon in room 300, a pencil sketch for the new collage lies on the table in front of him. It is another African landscape. Next to it is an envelope stuffed with dozens of tiny, hand-drawn zebras. Each is an inch or two long, with black stripes, pink ears, and a pink mouth.

    Six other artists work silently, but Sergu�� is too anxious to sit. "Judy, I can't do any painting!" he says. "There's only turquoise in the set!" Judy, busy with someone else, tells Sergu�� to wait.

    A few minutes later, he starts again. "I don't want to use turquoise blue. I want to use Mediterranean blue. I want to use cobalt blue. Do you have any cobalt blue?"

    Judy walks over and begins unpacking the tubes of watercolors. "I'm not doing this for you," she says, "but this is how you do it." She unscrews one top and squeezes a little paint onto a plastic plate. "You have to start working professionally," she says.

    Sergu�� leaves the room, returns with a cup of water, pours a little on the plate, and mixes it with the paint. He dips a large brush in and makes a few broad strokes across the top of the paper, creating a sky.

    "Judy, can you tell me if you like it?" he asks.

    "No, I can't," she says.

    He continues working, and after two hours the paper has three colors, representing water, sky, and ground. Painting the collage's background�maybe 30 strokes in all�has taken him two hours.

    Out of earshot, Judy explains: "Sergu�� is dying for me to come over and do the work for him. It's not going to happen. Look at how he keeps calling me over and asking my approval. This is the first time he put the sky in, he put the grass in, and all at once without me hanging over his shoulder. Without me saying, 'Try it this way and see if it works. Try it that way.' "

    By the end of class, Sergu�� painting is still wet, lying flat on a table. "Take good care of it," he calls to Judy. Then he walks out.


    The Bridge Group Artists include Ira Brewer, Patricia Doherty, Jill Friedman, Chris Gaskin, Jennifer Gilliam, Glenn Grancio, Sergu�� Lanquetot, Francisco Ortiz, James Sneed, Amburse White, and Scott Zwiren.


    jgonnerman@villagevoice.com

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