Robb Williams calls it “word work,” a type of modern art that started, he said, with the Dada movement in 1916.
“You put a word that fits in an area,” he explained, doing just that to the unfinished canvas on the easel in front of him. “It’s attributed to subtitles in foreign film, although our generation was more inspired by comic books. (Graffiti artist Jean-Michel) Basquiat used the technique.”
Williams stepped back from the painting taking shape before him. A founding member of the Studio In-Sight program here at Cornerstone Montgomery, a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Bethesda, he shared space with nearly a dozen fellow artists this afternoon. When the program started 10 years ago, Art Specialist Tessa Barr says, there were four artists; now up to 50 men and women of all ages and with different mental health issues come by every week to collaborate and create.
Like Van Newcomb, who recently launched an Etsy shop to sell his fantastical watercolors—unicorns, dragons and gryphons are his favorite subjects. And founding member Vicky Perrault, whose bold acrylics line the walls of the Cornerstone Montgomery facility and whose work has been compared to Georgia O’Keefe. “Not that I copied her,” Perrault said. “I didn’t know who she was! But it’s good to have somebody as a reference.”
Perrault grew up in Bethesda, taking art lessons in grade school and studying at the Corcoran School of Art as well as Montgomery College. Here at Studio In-Sight, she’s working on a series of paintings for an upcoming show. “I usually use a lot of bright color when I paint,” she said. “I use acrylics, and they dry quickly so you don’t have to worry about the colors getting muddy.”
When the music gets too loud or the buzz of her fellow artists feels noisy, Perrault slips into an alternative studio. “We call it the meditative art room,” Barr said. “It’s nice to have an option for other artists who work differently.”
All the artists at Studio In-Sight work at least a little bit differently than their mainstream counterparts. This is, after all, a place that provides services to people living with chronic and persistent mental health disorders. But the studio is a part of Cornerstone’s Life Skills Program, where the objective is to guide, train, and empower the clients in a social and supportive atmosphere. And along with a supportive, nurturing environment, Studio In-Sight gives artists the opportunity to show and sell their work, with a dedicated Personal Visions Gallery at the nearby Ratner Museum, where the studio’s second annual “Hotter Than July” exhibit runs through July 31.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” said Barr, “and a positive outlet for their lives, which can be challenging. It also gives them a vocation; they can show and sell their work.”
Indeed, Barr noted that while the Studio In-Sight artists participate on many different skill levels, there are working artists among them. Any client with an interest in art can join the studio—supplies can be expensive, and support hard to find outside—but the most prolific members take an active role.
“Artists curate the show,” Barr explained. “They form a committee to put together the opening reception, and they’ll teach workshops that are available on a donation basis, with the proceeds going directly to the artists teaching the workshop.”
At the back of the studio Joanne Dvorsky worked on a large, luminous canvas that she said is a tribute to another artist: David Bowie. “Color is light—it’s a reflection of whatever you see,” the painter and jewelry-maker said. “And when you’re painting a nebula, you’re pretty free. If NASA can assign colors, so can I!”
The colors she has assigned to this particular nebula are purples, blues, greens and reds. It’s a stunning piece, at once evocative and original. Dvorsky showed the gel and medium she used to give the work texture, and revealed that she applied the paint with sponges and a plastic spoon. “It’s the radius of my arm,” she pointed out, adding that she has work that demonstrates much more control—sometimes, she paints with a toothpick—but there was a deep joy that went into the creation of this particular painting. “I had a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m basically back in kindergarten, and having a great time.”
“Hotter Than July” will run June 27 to Aug. 26 at Cornerstone’s Southport facility, 6040 Southport Drive, Bethesda. The opening reception will be held July 6, 3:00 to 5:00 p.m.; refreshments will be served. Exhibit hours are by appointment; call 301-896-4265.