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'Cabin Fever' Exhibit: Affirming the Healing Power of Art

Tom Porter
Artist John Buckley has been studying painting for more than a year now and has sold a number of his works.

PORTLAND, Maine - "Cabin Fever" is an art show with a difference: It has been described as a testament to the healing power of art. The traveling exhibit showcases the work of about 40 different artists, who have all been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

Cabin Fever features more than 50 works of art. Just as important as the art itself, though, is the back story - how the creative process has helped the artist.

"It's really a celebration of recovery," says Pat McKenzie, "using art and creativity for those who are living with persistent and serious mental illness and/or addiction." McKenzie is vice president of Opportunity Alliance, a Portland-based community action agency that helps individuals and families with mental illness and other problems.

The group collaborates every year with two other non-profits - Sweetser and Shalom House - to produce the Cabin Fever art show, which opens next week at the Opportunity Alliance Family Center in South Portland. McKenzie says some of the artists are professionals, and the 52 featured works were selected by judges from hundreds of entries.

"There's oils, acrylics, there's what we would call realistic landscapes, there's abstract, there's - I mean, very modern-looking art, there's photography," McKenzie says. "So it's many different, I guess, genres and styles."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Some of the works waiting to be hung in a "Cabin Fever" exhibit at the Opportunity Alliance in South Portland.

One of the featured artists is John Buckley. Friday morning finds him in the art studio at Shalom House in Portland, paintbrush in hand, talking about his latest work. "What I've got here is a comic strip with Rambo going into a Burger King," Buckley says. "He's been living out in the woods for about 40 years and he's a little frazzled, so he's in there ordering up a meal, and it's not going to well for him."

Shalom House is agency which provides mental health services to adults. It also offers art therapy classes twice a week. Buckley, who lives with PTSD, wishes it was more.
"If we had 5 days a week that would be heaven.

Painting, he says, helps relieve much of the physical pain that he says comes with his condition. "Because I come in here, I'll paint four or five hours. My hands feel great, my knees feel great. I usually feel pretty good afterwards as well."

Buckley, who's sold a number of his paintings, has been attending art classes for nearly a year now. It's not just the painting that attracts him. "The whole atmosphere and all the people that come, they're just great people, you know. Just 'cause someone's knocked down doesn't mean they're not still a good person."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Shalom House art instructor Tenney Swift, right, with Development Director Jill Silander.

Jeremy Dyer has four paintings on display in the Cabin Fever exhibit. "One of them is a portrait of a couple of cats that a friend of mine has, another one is a winter snow scene," he says.

And the other two, he says, are charcoal sketches of a character from the Walking Dead sci-fi horror series. He's been coming to classes for about a month and a half, he says, but has been making art, and feeling the benefit of it, since he was a kid. "And it was like an escape for me, from life and all that, and it helps me now," Dyer says. "It's very much a cathartic, therapeutic type piece of expressionism."

"If you observe people that are working in the room it's almost like a zone," says Tenney Swift, the art instructor at Shalom House. "It's like a meditation, especially with painting, I find that people get into almost like a meditative state."

"Art is a really good way to start talking about mental illness. It's sort of an easy way to ease into it," says Jill Silander, the development director at Shalom House, where she says between 20 and 30 people attend art classes every week. "It's just a place where people can come and not feel so isolated."

The Cabin Fever traveling art show opens its doors Monday afternoon at Opportunity Alliance's Family Center in South Portland. A smaller show opens Tuesday at York Public Library.