SAF In the News

Survivors Art Foundation

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March, 1999 — “The Southampton Press” newspaper

Survivors Tap Healing Power of Creative Art

By Pat Rogers

Celebrating life. Celebrating survival. Acknowledging that beauty can come from pain and the creative process can help heal. These ideals are at the heart of a multimedia exhibit mounted by the Survivors Art Foundation (SAF) opening at the Southampton Cultural Center this weekend. And one footnote and caveat should be added: “Survivor” art may not be what you think.

Consider, for example, bronze sculptures created by Oxana, a native of Brazil. The fluid, graceful statues of the female figure stand in stark contrast to the horrific trauma the artist survived. When Oxana was six, a neighbor poured gasoline on her and set her aflame, said SAF founder and executive director Candyce Brokaw of Quogue in a recent interview.

“The sculptures represent who Oxana is,” said Ms. Brokaw. “She’s a beautiful person inside. Creating sculptures of beautiful women is her way of healing herself.”
Need more examples? What about the large, colorful acrylic paintings celebrating the beauty of life painted by brain-tumor survivor […] of Sea Cliff? Or stained-glass panels depicting nurturing intimacy between children and an adult created by sexual abuse survivor Judy Castelli of East Hampton? Shifting to the medium of performing arts, consider the fact that two separate troupes will perform at the show to demonstrate that healing and the celebration of life are also present in the graceful movements of dance.

Welcome to the multimedia exhibit, titled simply, “Birth.” The exhibit will open on Friday at noon and run through Sunday at the Cultural Center on Pond Lane in Southampton. An opening reception will be held on Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit will feature works from about 40 members of the international non=profit Survivors Art Foundation, started in Westhampton in 1997. Art rendered in watercolor, oil, charcoal and other media will be displayed. Sculpture, photography and works in print of poetry and prose will also be part of the show.

In addition, numerous performances will be offered on Friday and on Saturday afternoon. On Friday, between 5 and 6 p.m., The Westhampton Beach Presbyterian Church Youth Liturgical Dancers, a troupe of four Middle School students from the Westhampton and Riverhead school districts, will perform a number that celebrates life and spirituality.

During the Friday opening, Dr. Suzanne Stutman, president of SAF’s advisory board, will read her poem, “I, a Woman,” which was first read publicly at a conference held at the United Nations on “The Elimination of Violence Against Women” this week. The conference was sponsored in part by SAF.

Westhampton author Peter Swet will read an excerpt from his book, “Cracking Up: Nice Day to Have a Brain Hemorrhage.” The four-member Korean Dance Troupe from New York, The Heeah Choi Dancers, will perform a pieces to help illustrate that healing can be achieved through dance.

On Saturday at 1 p.m., Bojana Blagojeviz, a poet from Bosnia, will read her work against a backdrop of photographs taken by Bosnian children of their war-torn country, snapped as a way to facilitate their own recoveries.

This weekend’s “Birth” exhibition celebrates two things: Women’s History Month and the arrival of spring, which Ms. Brokaw described as a kind of birth. The exhibit represents another type of birth: it is the first show mounted by the Survivors Art Foundation — in real life, that is. The non-profit organization has been holding “virtual gallery shows” on the internet at its website, since November 1998. SAF provides an outlet for a wide array of artistic expression, including comics/cartoons, film and video, poetry and short stories, crafts and the performing arts.

“Things just exploded after we put up our website,” said Ms. Brokaw. “We quickly gained an international membership from 10 countries and 40 states. We never imagined it was going to take off like it did. In addition to people wanting to put their stuff on the web, offers of help came in. One of our members in [The Netherlands] has a server [on which] he gives us unlimited air time. There’s a woman in Connecticut who contacted us and now puts the art on the web. It just goes to show how many people out there who have gone through traumas know that art can heal.”
SAF does not charge a membership fee or commission for any works sold. The foundation is open to both children and adult survivors of any type of physical or emotional trauma.

“There are some people who might think our organization is too broad since we are open to any type of survivors, but I don’t think so,” said Ms. Brokaw. “The healing process cuts across all types of traumas. It’s very important that not only the experience be validated — yes, it happened — but also the art created by the survivors.”

And yes, as might be expected, there is art and poetry that uses haunting images and bitter, angry words. “It depends on where the person is in their healing process,” explained Ms. Brokaw. “There’s usually anger, bitterness and a whole slew of emotions at the beginning. But as you begin to heal, the message coming through the art changes. It’s more positive.”

The range of emotions depicted in the artworks is one clear indication that healing can take place by creating art. Another gauge is from the testimony of the artists themselves. Ms. Brokaw said emphatically that the creation of art is therapeutic and added that this certainty has been relayed to her by many member artists.

Which member artists? Artists like Dan Rhema from Kentucky, one of SAF’s regional directors, who has a “three dimensional” painting and a multimedia piece at the Cultural Center exhibit. Mr. Rhema contracted meningitis while working in Mexico, “died” and came back to life, and recovered. Before his illness, Mr. Rhema said he was not an artist and had never created art. Afterwards, he said that he began compulsively scavenging for items and then putting them together to create his pieces.

“After my near death and my brain injury … The art started pouring out of me,” Mr. Rhema said in his videotape, “Altered Visions.” “I think the early pieces I created were a grieving process for me. My first piece, “The Fever” was an acknowledgement that I was not who I was before. The art is healing for me.”

Another member of the group, Dr. Stutman, feels the same. “I believe so deeply that we — as artists who have been so wounded, yet have survived to sing, to tell, to create a world of beauty which enriches life — have a special gift and purpose as healers,” she pronounced in her SAF board member profile.

Ms. Brokaw explained that in many cases the primary objective of the artist is exposure, not sales. To that end, “Birth” will be videotaped and portions will be added to the SAF’s internet site. While “actual” exhibitions are juried, the work displayed on the website is not. “It’s hard enough as an artist to have your work rejected,” Ms. Brokaw explained. “It’s doubly so for a trauma victim. The work is so personal that it’s like the person’s experience is being rejected, along with the art. This is why we put everything on the internet.”

The SAF website also provides lists of places to turn for people seeking assistance recovering from any type of trauma. And the internet connection also brought some high-powered people to the organization’s 11-member board of directors.

One such board member — and SAF international liaison — is Dr. Sorosh Roshan of New Jersey. Dr. Roshan is the president and founder of the International Health Awareness Network. Separately, Dr. Roshan has presented conferences at the UN on Women’s Health in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala, Vienna, Copenhagen and Beijing. Another high profile board member is Dr. Stutman, a Penn State University Professor, author and board member of the international organization, “Friends of the Children.”

Other SAF board members live closer to home. SAF board president Barbara Hope lives in Westhampton Beach and Colorado. Vice president Meryl Spiegel lives in East Quogue. Art gallery liaison Ingrid Madera lives in Sag Harbor. Director of dance arts Linni Deihl lives in Quogue. Other board members include Lars Lunde, Martin Finkel and Karen Clementi.

Besides providing survivors with the opportunity to have their work seen, Ms. Brokaw said she hopes that the exhibit will foster understanding for viewers that tragedy strikes ordinary, “good” people. She said she thinks that kind of understanding will help bring down the walls of isolation that can surround trauma victims.
“Everybody knows a survivor of something or they are one themselves,” said Ms. Brokaw. “You hope that tragedy never strikes you or people that you love, but if it does, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.”

“Birth” will be on view at the Southampton Cultural Center from Friday through Sunday; hours are from 12 to 6 p.m. An opening reception will be held Friday, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit is sponsored in part through a New York State Council on the Arts grant, administered by the Huntington Arts Council, Inc. Inquiries about SAF should be directed to either Post Office Box 383, Westhampton, New York 11977, or via email at [email protected].

View the Southampton show online

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