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The Creation of Hope: My journey through the darkness of mental illness

By Mark Brenneman

May is Mental Health month in America, and what better time to look at the positive side of those that struggle with mental illness. There is so much negative stigma associated with mental illness and it seems like the only time the topic comes up is when something bad happens. The truth is that those who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators. Statistics bear that out but does public perception? Valeo Behavioral Health Care operates the Creations of Hope Gallery which is a community outreach project that looks at the positive side of individuals with mental illness. The goal is to build a bridge that connects individuals with mental illness to the community, as well as connecting the community to knowledge about mental health, recovery, and the healing power of the arts. The Creations of Hope Gallery is located at 909 N. Kansas Avenue in the NOTO Arts District of Topeka. The mission of the gallery is:

  • Celebrate the work of artists experiencing mental illness and artists that utilize art as a force for personal healing.
  • Provide an accessible and empowering resource for artists to enter the art community.
  • Raise awareness and educate about mental health through the power of art
  • Provide events that challenge stigmatizing views of special populations by focusing on creativity, strengths, and hope rather than disability.

I am one of those individuals who has struggled with mental illness. I was categorized as SPMI or Severely and Persistently Mentally Ill. My road to recovery was a long one. I did, however, recover.   One of the things that moved me along my journey of recovering from mental illness is the Creations of Hope Gallery Exhibit project. When it began twelve or so years ago, it showcased work of only a handful of artists who suffered from mental illness. Oma Lacey, a CARE Counselor at Valeo Behavioral Health Care came up with the idea of putting on an exhibition of artwork produced by some of the clients at that Community Mental Health Center. It utilized space in a small gallery in downtown Topeka, Kansas, where the mental health center is located.

Cara Weeks, Valeo Art Therapist, and Mark Brenneman work together to help make art therapy available to more people with mental illness.

I did not take part in that first year, but I did in the second. I spent the summer teaching myself how to paint with oils and the resulting work, “Dancing Girl,” was accepted into the show. Cara Weeks had come on board at Valeo by that time as a CARE Counselor to take over from Lacey, who was about to retire. Weeks had an undergraduate degree in Fine Art from Kansas University and a Masters Degree in Art Therapy and Mental Health Counseling from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville so she was well equipped to take over the reins and expanded the Creations of Hope exhibit to include artists from across the state.

I went on to exhibit twice more, served as a juror for the show twice, and have now co-curated one exhibit with a fellow intern from Emporia State University, and curated one exhibit on my own.  As a culmination of my Masters Project I co-curated an exhibition featuring the work of Charles Anderson, a pioneer in the field of art therapy. The exhibition will coincide with Mental Illness Awareness Month and will be on display at the Creations of Hope Gallery throughout the month of May.  Anderson happened to be one of the jurors who accepted my work into previous shows, and in my art school undergraduate days at Washburn University, never failed to stop by the Washburn Art Student Association booth at both the Mulvane and Aaron Douglass art fairs, say hello, and encourage me to continue my pursuit of becoming an art therapist.

I have come a long way in my recovery journey. I am now employed as an art therapist at Valeo where I was a client for so many years. I have two classes left to complete for my own degree in Art Therapy. I took over a group from Weeks, who now runs the Expressive Therapies Program at Valeo, and converted it into the Creations of Hope group which supports clients along their way in participating in the gallery to expand their horizons and network into the community.

During my last year at Washburn I volunteered at Valeo helping with the Studio Art group with Weeks and Jennifer McRavin. As soon as one exhibition was done, clients began planning for the next one. It was really an uplifting experience for them, and they really looked forward to it each year. It increased moral and mental outlook a tremendous amount. It has been very influential in the recovery efforts of a lot of people who suffer from SPMI – Severe and Persistent Mental Illness. When it was a juried exhibit, each year over three hundred pieces had to be evaluated from all over the state from over a hundred artists.

The Creations of Hope Gallery looks beyond all the negatives we hear about those who suffer from mental illness. It showcases the positive side of people who suffer so much negative stigma, and emphasizes their productive qualities: their hearts and souls – things they have to offer each other, the community, and the culture at large. It gives them a voice in a world that likes to ignore them and push them aside. There are those of us who will always strive to give them a venue to express their thoughts and feelings in a healthy, positive, and productive manner, as I look forward to a career of doing my part in that venture.


Valeo Mental Health Awareness Month Activities

The Creations of Hope gallery is currently presenting an exhibit called My Journey in Art Therapy, and will feature a special presentation by art therapy pioneer Charles Anderson, ATR, whose legacy and impact can be hard to quantify in words. Reflecting upon themes of struggle and survival, moments of dismissal, and windows of opportunity, Mr. Anderson guides us through his life. He illustrates moments recalling his identity as an artist, an art therapist, and African American man, and, in turn, lends insight into the ways he navigated the perceptions and expectations that society often placed upon him. The exhibit runs through May. The special presentation by Charles Anderson is on Saturday, May 19th, 2:00-4:00 pm. The gallery is located in the NOTO Arts District and is open Fridays 12-5, Saturdays 11-3, and is open late the First Friday of each month. For more information contact Cara Weeks at cweeks@valeotopeka.org or 785-783-7558.

Valeo Behavioral Health Care is offering many opportunities during May to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, and to learn more about what can be done to support their efforts.

  • Friday, May 4th – First Friday at Creations of Hope Gallery; 909 N. Kansas Avenue; 5 pm – 8 pm
  • Saturday, May 5th – Cruise Night in the Capitol exhibit with Cumulus Radio; Downtown Topeka; 3 pm – 8 pm
  • Monday, May 7th – Grief Support Group; 3:30 pm – 4:30 pm
  • Tuesday & Wednesday, May 8 & 9 – FREE Mental Health First Aid Class – Youth Focus – 1:30 pm – 5:00 pm; 330 SW Oakley, LLCR. Please RSVP to mhfa@valeotopeka.org.
  • Friday, May 11th – A Workshop on Making Wooden Knives by Hank Tyler; Creations of Hope Gallery; 909 N. Kansas Avenue; 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm. $45, materials included. Questions or Registrations:  Cara Weeks at 785-784-7558.
  • Saturday, May 12th – NAMI Walk; Hummer Sports Park; 9 am – 1 pm
  • Saturday, May 19th – Stuff the Bus event supporting the HOPE Team; 10 am – 2 pm
  • Saturday, May 19th – Special presentation by Art Therapist, Charles Anderson and featuring poetry by Greg Dawson; Creations of Hope Gallery, 909 N. Kansas Avenue; 2 pm – 4 pm
  • Thursday, May 31st – American Red Cross Blood Drive; 10 am – 3 pm; 330 SW Oakley, LLCR.


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