A group of resident artists from the Mercy Housing Lakefront art therapy program are sharing work based on their life experiences in “Those People,” a special exhibition at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery.
The exhibition was conceived by Mercy Housing resident Eddie Corbani, who asked his group mates in art therapy to create work in response to being seen as “those people,” people who are looked down by the rest of society on or set apart as “other” due to experiences beyond their control. Members of the Mercy Housing art therapy program brought it to the attention of the gallery. All proceeds from the exhibition will go to the artists and the art therapy program.
Mercy Housing Lakefront, which provides affordable housing for low-income families, seniors, veterans, and people with special needs, has offered an art therapy program to its residents for more than 20 years. Mercy Housing president Mark Angelini says it’s one of his organization’s most successful programs because it has allowed residents to regain a lost sense of identity that often accompanies the isolation of homelessness, a common experience among many residents. “I think anyone in any setting who can jump in and do art would find a lot about themselves and what they can do,” he says.
This is the first time the art therapy program has put on an event like this, and the Weinberg/Newton Gallery was a natural fit due to its commitment to social issues.
The residents use a variety of media, but all of their work explores the sense of “otherness” that they have been made to feel within their communities. It also plays on themes of identity and security.
One of these artists is José “Che” Gonzales, who is all too familiar with isolation.
Gonzales was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States as a young child. When he was 24, he decided to join the marines. “I did it for a sense of purpose.” he says. “I joined and I was in Iraq and Afghanistan for a year.”
Upon returning from his deployment, Gonzales began to exhibit signs of post traumatic stress disorder. “There’s no system to treat it,” he says. “When you go complain at medical they just tell you to keep going. I chose to look for other resources or medical outlets to help. I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t normal.”
After Gonzales decided to try using marijuana as a treatment for PTSD, the military discharged him without rank. Without military benefits to cover tuition, his plans to go to college were completely destroyed. and he had no financial resources. The sense of purpose and identity he had found in the military was gone. “I was homeless and living in a garage in Pilsen,” he says. “I’d never been stable. I was trying to figure out not only to deal with my issues but how to be a human. I got out with nothing.”
Eventually, he found his way to Mercy Housing where he was introduced to art therapy. It was a natural fit for Gonzales, who always had an interest in the arts. Suddenly he found a new outlet for healing and reflecting on his experiences with PTSD. His paintings on display in the gallery are chaotic and in vivid color, and often directly mimic his emotional state at the time of their creation.
Now Gonzales has found a sense of stability. He’s a student at the University of Chicago studying business and a passionate advocate for art therapy. “I have to use this to be a voice for people like me,” he says.
Ethel Smiter, another artist whose work appears in the exhibition, was initially skeptical of how she might benefit from an art therapy program. Now as her work is displayed in the gallery, the pride she holds in it is infectious. “I can’t stop smiling,” she says. “I’m proud of myself.”
She credits Mercy’s art therapist, Elizabeth Markman, for encouraging her to giving art therapy a try. “When she first started coming out, I didn’t want to be bothered with art,” Smiter says. “When I got down there and got involved I realized art was kind of whatever you make it. Elizabeth is really patient and she shows us a lot of things I didn’t even know was art. I’m feeling a lot better about my art and a lot better about myself.”
But despite the joy that sharing her work has brought her, she acknowledges that it hasn’t been without its challenges. Smiter’s work uses combinations of text and color to tell her own story and dispel myths that people might have about domestic violence.”It takes a lot of courage to say you were a battered woman,” she says. “But I do want to help someone who may be suffering somewhere and doesn’t know how to get out.”
Angelini and Weinberg/Newton owner David Weinberg both intend to continue the partnership. A larger show centered around the theme “home” is already in the works for next year.
“Those People.” Through 5/30: Mon-Sat 10 AM-5 PM, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 300 W. Superior, 312-529-5090, weinbergnewtongallery.com, free.