Backgrounder : Fountain Gallery for People with Mental Illness
A woman stares pensively from the canvas, her face pale with eyes watching and wary. Amy Koy’s self portrait is revealing — of both her talent and mental illness.
“This self-portrait was one of the first finished works I painted outside of school assignments,” she said. “In each of my self-portraits I look different. I don’t consider myself a finished product.” Koy is one of 15 artists who are exhibiting their works at the Fountain Gallery, 702 Ninth St., Manhattan, on Tuesday, Sept. 19. And like Koy, all suffer from chronic mental illnesses. Yet their works are not the results of art therapy sessions or disturbed mental ramblings but rather professional-level works of precision and vivid imagery
“Art is more than that (therapy) for me,” said Koy, 51, who was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. “It is the main focus of my life. Therapy is therapy, but art is my life. That’s why is gallery means so much to me.”
The gallery, which is open to the public, is run by Fountain House, a New York-based non-profit organization that assists the chronically mentally ill with day-to-day living through a variety of programs including housing, employment, education and case management. Opened in 1948, Fountain House pioneered the “clubhouse” method of helping people with mental illness by engaging them as partners in their own recovery. Those who use Fountain House’s services are “members,” not clients or patients, and are expected to volunteer at Fountain House and particpate in the life of the clubhouse in an ongoing and substantive manner.
The gallery, for example, was created by and for the members, and a committee of 12 determines which artworks are worthy of exhibition. The gallery includes works ranging from abstract paintings and photographs.to sculpture and jewelry.
“Photography is my passion,” said Fountain House member Tony Cece, who considers New York City as his open-air studio. “Every day I see angles, composition and other photographic situations as I walk around the town. I take photos with my mind and heart and shoot by instinct without thinking about the mechanics of the camera.”
“It’s a great accomplishment,” said Esther Montanez, director of Special Projects at Fountain House, located at 425 West 47th St., Manhattan. “The mentally ill have never had their own gallery before.”
But Fountain Gallery is more than just a project for the mentally ill. While some Fountain House members are self-taught, others have art education and degrees in art, and for all the gallery is their means of making a living and finding their places in life. Sixty percent of the profits go to the artists and 40 percent to Fountain House.
“Our object is to make money,” said Montanez. “Our goal here is for our members to work hard on their art so it can be sold.”
Martin Cohen, 40, who holds an MFA and has exhibited his work in numerous galleries, recently sold one of his paintings for $1,000.
“Right after I left college I began to battle with schizophrenia and depression, and I felt stigmatized by my illness,” he said. “I would often work during the worst times of my illness, acting out on paper and canvas instead of real life.”
“But my illness was preventing me from socializing. Fountain House came along at the perfect time — I was forced to interact with people everyday.”
Every year more than 1,000 people benefit from Fountain House’s daily services, and the clubhouse method has spread to 300 programs worldwide.
For Cohen, who suffered through a dozen breakdowns, 10 hospitalizations, and a derailed art career after a promising start at SUNY Purchase and Carnegie Mellon University, the gallery meets the need.
“Now I’m strong enough to feel like I can promote myself and my art,” Cohen said. “Things are starting to roll for me now. All of a sudden, my work is out of the studio and exposed to the public again.”
Cohen’s art is startling in both its use of geometric images and color. The cold shapes are strengthened by brilliant strokes of color, and within the shapes are elements of collage, transforming the shapes into vignettes of life. His human figures also are geometric but blurred on the edges and softened by muted browns and yellows.
The Fountain Gallery exhibit is entitled “Diverse Structures,” which aptly describes the variety of techniques used.
“If you don’t do the work, you feel bad about yourself, like you’re letting a talent go to waste,” said sculptor and jewelry-maker Michelle Cohen, who came to Fountain House with severe depression and schizophrenia. “It’s the same if you do produce work and have no place to show it.”
But the Fountain House members are not the only ones benefiting from the gallery. Art aficionados have snapped up a number of pieces at prices far below their worth, and major corporations have shown interest. In fact, Citicorp is hosting a show in its gallery later this year featuring Cohen’s work.
And the community has given to the gallery as well. Architect Chris Scholz of Elskop & Scholz in Manhattan designed the 828 square-foot gallery pro bono. He has a relative who suffers from mental illness. And neighborhood businesses, friends of members, and corporations all have contributed funds to make the gallery a success.
“Having my work shown in the gallery is the best thing that every happened to me,” said Michelle Cohen. “I feel like I have a lot to say; I want to express myself. And now, at last, I’ve found the ideal place to do that.”