- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

STAUNTON, Va. (AP) - For Joseph Laurenzo, artistic expression resembles a kind of road. It’s a way for him to arrive at strikingly creative images, such as a bird connected to a hand, and it’s also a way for a thought to find its way out of his mind.

“When it gets into my head, it won’t leave until I actually draw it,” he said.

Laurenzo, 27, was among about eight students taking an advanced art class Wednesday morning at Western State Hospital, a class the instructors say provides an important avenue for healing. It’s one of a host of classes - with topics such as community life skills, computers and physical fitness - that Western State patients may take to help them with their recovery.

And in the back of the students’ minds in art class right now is an upcoming exhibit called “Art: A Path to Recovery.” It’s the sixth annual area show featuring work from adults who have confronted some form of mental illness. It’s conducted during National Mental Health Month, from May 9 to May 31, at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art in Staunton.

Submissions are now being accepted.

Rachel Isak, an occupational therapist at Western State Hospital, said the submitted art must have been created within the past year, but she stressed that art can come from anyone who’s undergone some kind of mental health struggle - and participants don’t need to provide any sort of documentation of a diagnosis.

Isak and Western State art instructor Tina Halterman were working with students in the class on Wednesday morning.

Isak, Halterman and Donna Gum, executive director of Mental Health of America of Augusta, are among the organizers of the coming art show. In the past, a good number of the art show submissions have come from Western State Hospital, though they’ve come from other places, too.

Gum noted that past art shows have included a range of genres.

“We’ve had paintings, we’ve had drawings,” she said. “We’ve had sculpture, porcelain, hand-made baskets (and other pieces).”

Isak said she’s used art as a form of therapy herself, and she noted one advantage it offers compared to other forms of therapy.

“The beautiful thing about art is that unlike many forms of therapy that are focused on talking, it’s a way that you can express yourself without words,” she said. “It gives your inner self a voice without having to say anything at all.”

Isak noted that her own art involves mixed media, sometimes moving between the scientific and the abstract. This year she’s submitting a painting graced by what she termed retro and psychedelic colors - all applied to a police shield salvaged from the 1960s. She describes the piece as fusing images often seen in opposition to each other: authority and colorful protest, in all of the various manifestations those two forces might take.

“It’s a representation of the peaceful meeting of those two forces,” she said.

That spirit of uniting seemingly unrelated images pervaded the class Isak and Halterman led on Wednesday morning. One of Laurenzo’s pieces joined the image of a bird and a hand, showing the bird perched on - and gripping - a branch. The images were disparate, but crafted with care.

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