Lee’s new memoir, Dimestore will be published in March, 2016 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Click to hear Lee Smith read a portion of The Last Girls.

Brushes With Life

HILLSBOROUGH, North Carolina----“We mentally ill can be a shy bunch. Aside from bipolar mania, we generally keep to ourselves.” Documentary film maker Philip Brubaker gets a big laugh as he introduces his film “Brushes With Life: the Journey of Art” to a packed house. “But our dreams of being artists are realized with the Brushes with Life gallery. Here is a gallery that shows folk art, amateur art, outsider art, classically trained art, abstract art. The only way to have your work shown is to have a mental illness, which is seldom an asset.”

The University of North Carolina Neurosciences Hospital houses this ongoing gallery, sponsored by the STEP (Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation) Program. Nearly 100 new works are shown at every reception.

Brubaker continues, “Art springs from the heart, but more importantly, the mind. A mind that is heavy with anxiety and pain can get a release from art like nothing else. Brushes With Life has grown over the years, developing a consistent roster of talented artists. Their journey through art is a way to relieve pain. Many of these artists you will see in my film.” The lights dim.

Diagnosed with depression as a teenager, then with borderline personality disorder, irrepressible Heather is shown as she composes witty, complex collages.

“I’m sick of that phrases ‘mental illness,’” Rhonda announces. “It pisses me off! Many of us may have started this process out of anger, but ultimately, it’s healing.” Figures hide within figures in her intricate, elegant black and white drawings.

Todd, creating his humorous animal cartoons, points out that “This gallery focuses on dealing with the whole person, we’re not dealing with mental illness here.”

A big young African American man named Kwami is filmed leaning up against a chain-link fence, watching some some boys shoot baskets at an outdoor goal. “I wanted to play basketball,” he says. “But my mom’s boyfriend burned my hands while she was at the store.” The camera focuses on his large, nubby hands; the audience gasps. But Kwami says, “People can see my hands, and they don’t mind it---but having a mental illness, now that’s way more of a problem than my hands.” Kwami’s wildly colorful paintings also hang on the walls of Caramore, the residential treatment program in Chapel Hill where my own schizophrenic son Josh spent some productive time. He died in 2003 from complications due to his illness.

Brubaker’s film even includes a touching love story. Attractive, tremulous Claudia, diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, is engaged to marry beaming Mike Dunn, a writer and artist who was both imprisoned and homeless before finally receiving appropriate treatment. Now he works in a bookstore and is headed for graduate school in library science. “I wrote sixty pages of a memoir in three days once,“ he tells me at a reception after the film. “I felt so much better …I think it’s important to face the hard and painful experiences and work through them. I guess I’m really talking to myself in my writing and my art--- but that’s what schizophrenics do, isn’t it?” he laughs.

Humor and openness abound here—both in the film and in everyone’s comments afterward. A far cry, I can’t help thinking, from the reactions of hush-hush horror our family faced when Josh got sick back in the 80s.

“Everybody was comfortable with their condition,” Brubaker says.” I felt it was important not to make it heavy-handed.” Brubaker says he wanted to focus on “the individuality of each person----how funny, how smart, how human they are. I wanted to glorify them.”

One of the sponsors tonight is the “Nothing To Hide” mental health coalition, dedicated to replacing stigma with understanding, according to local activist Susan Spalt. “It all started with the idea that the stigma of mental illness is a serious problem. Almost as serious as the illness itself.” She is thrilled by” the eloquence with which people in this film talk about how far they have come and how they can change.”

But “Brushes With Life” is a bright splash of color and hope in a dark picture: ironically, North Carolina’s entire mental health system is in jeopardy as we celebrate this success. According to a current expose in Raleigh’s News and Observer, a 2001 reform attempt has failed, wasting over $400 million and leaving more than 350,000 seriously ill people without community care. Local mental health services used to be provided by federal, state, and local government. Reform put the counties out of business and forced them to hire for-profit “providers” which offered sometimes specious “community support” services for exorbitant prices. Costs more than doubled, to $1.5 billion a year. Only five per cent of the money went to intensive outpatient therapy. As a result, our mental hospitals are overwhelmed, while prisons and homeless shelters are filling up with people who have severe and persistent mental disorders.

According to Mark Sullivan, director of the Mental Health Association in Orange County, “A core problem with the new system is that it was built upon a fundamentally flawed assumption; that the private sector will always outperform anything run publicly. It is a wildly popular notion, and a key reason why this plan was able to gain support in North Carolina. The private sector is far superior in many arenas, but not necessarily when it comes to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.”

Local social worker Peter Kramer has served Hillsborough’s area mental health program for twenty years. The day his program was formally divested of its services abruptly in July 2006, Peter says, “A mother called up and said her son was hearing voices, but there was no doctor there to refer her to.” Soon this clinic is due to close entirely. “People are calling us in tears saying things like, What’s going to happen to me? I’ve had my doctor for 17 years, what can I do without him?”

In discussing the extraordinary film we have just viewed together, Kramer points out that “The people in this film have been supported by good doctors and programs—by local clubhouse programs such as Club Nova, Caramore, and Chrysalis, by outpatient therapy, medication, and case management. This film builds on the strengths of these folks. The art is good, and they are getting validated here. Instead of seeing them as people with deficits, we see them as people with strengths.”

Artist Mike Dunn tells me, “People are people, you can’t just draw lines. I’m trying to be a good ambassador for people with my illness. We have hurts, and we have hearts, and we have hopes, too.”

I just wish Josh could be here to see it.