For Fred Waters, painting isn’t so much about crafting a perfect piece of art for others to see. Instead, painting gives him a chance to quiet the constant racket in his head and focus on one detail at a time.
"For a few of us, the painting is a way to express feelings or allow ourself to have certain feelings. Because like for me, life gets overwhelmingly scary and there’s a lot of stuff I want to numb out and don't deal with anymore," he says.
Waters lives with mental illness and addictions that at times overwhelm him. But an art class at Western Montana Mental Health Center’s day treatment program is helping him find strategies to overcome his challenging symptoms.
"With the illness, it feels like my mind wants to run 120 miles an hour, but my body is only going 10 miles an hour. And it forces me, teaches me how to slow down and balance it out so I can communicate like we're doing now, without — I'm not racing through this. I don’t mind. I love coming here. There’s a lot to learn."
Waters’ and other day treatment clients’ artwork is part of the Stomp The Stigma Art Show and silent auction this Friday in Kalispell. The proceeds go toward an art fund for future supplies and frames.
"I love that chicken. It's called the black chicken. Isn't that great?"
Ron Fournier runs the day treatment program. He guides me through the Center’s hallways, laden with watercolors, acrylics and a set of handcrafted wood-burned walking sticks waiting to be sold.
"I love the colors and the art because it's all bright. It's all bright and cheerful and beautiful things. Looking at it makes you feel good. It's not like some of the dark stuff that I think people would expect," Fournier says.
Western Montana Mental Health Center also offers therapy and peer support groups to help patients find a job, know what’s expected when they rent an apartment, and generally take care of themselves independently.
Like other health service providers in Montana, WMMHC was hit hard by recent state-level budget cuts to Medicaid and grant programs. The Center closed the only girls’ specific group home in the Flathead Valley in April and can no longer bill Medicaid for therapy and addiction programs.
Case managers in the Flathead Valley were also let go in April due to cuts to the state health department.
"That's such an important service to our clients," Fournier says. "Case management connects people to housing, to transportation, to other social services that client may need in order to stay living in the community independently. So that's been very difficult, and difficult for the clients."
Fournier says clients still receive the care they need and that the art program has become its own source therapy for some clients, like Fred Waters. Waters says he especially appreciates his visits to the day treatment program, because he knows what life is like without access to mental healthcare.
"It was hard growing up because there was nothing. The only thing for treatment was the state hospital and the street. That was it," Waters says.
Dolores Aderman has three paintings in the show inspired by famous artists like Pablo Picasso. She says she’s drawn to their work because, like her, they lived with mental illness.
"I can understand them. I can understand — not that I have bipolar, I'm not bipolar — but there was a lot of painters actually who are bipolar, you know. And you get in their head and it's like, wow. You know, one time you're happy go lucky. You're doing good. Then, boom the next minute you're like, all over the place. And that's the way they were."
"This is my favorite, she's up there, I love her."
One of her painting riffs on Picasso’s signature cubism motifs by breaking a woman’s face into parts: A smiling orange side looking out at the viewer, and a green, somber side, looking in on herself.
"On one side of the face thinks something, and the other side of the face is something else. So it's cool. I like it."
For Aderman, flipping through a binder of these artists’ work makes her feel seen.
Other paintings feature a rainbow of northern lights above crystal clear waters; a blossoming blue tree against a faint pink sky; a glowing yellow goldfish in a deep blue lake.
Ron Fournier says his clients’ artwork illustrates an unexpected facet of mental illness.
"We will have clients here at the art show. Come and visit and you'll be surprised. I think your fears will melt away, because in this country it seems like we're stigmatized by mentally ill as being maybe violent or unruly. That's not the case.," he says.
The Stomp the Stigma Art Show and auction is this Friday, May 18 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Western Montana Mental Health Center in Kalispell, at 410 Windward Way. For more information call 257-1336.