For Brent Ashley, art is a miniature psychiatrist. When he paints, he makes sense of all the things in life that he couldn’t otherwise understand. Like when his relationships have failed because he was too manic or fell into a depression. Or when he got paranoid that someone was trying to kill him or sabotage his creativity or steal his parents’ money. Ashley’s art is a visual diary of the experiences and emotions that, because of his bipolar disorder, he wasn’t able to understand or connect with before.

“Art is a great part of therapy because it allows you to express subconscious feelings that you’re not aware of on a physical platform, whether it be sculpture or painting or photography or music,” the Summerville-based, SCAD-educated artist says. “Whatever it is, it’s your subconscious that’s coming out. It’s something that you’re not ready or willing to talk about verbally, and I think all great artists have done this.”

Over the years, Ashley’s paintings have been featured in Art of Recovery, a program that was established by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health in 2001 to highlight artwork created by mental health patients statewide. Its goal is not only to help the artists, but to help the public better grasp what they are going through. Sue Perry, the program’s coordinator, says her artists see their work as a means of communication within the healing process. “I’ve been told by the artists that sometimes when there’s not words to express yourself, you can express yourself through the art,” she says.

In the early years, Art of Recovery was confined to the mental health department’s headquarters in Columbia. Shows debuted in its community gathering room, and the pieces eventually decorated the walls throughout the building. “After we had done this for two or three years, we felt that it was very, very important, because we were getting such a great reaction from people coming in about how talented the artists are,” Perry says. “We felt that the community should know about this outstanding, awesome talent that these artists have, so we wanted to use it as an anti-stigma project and also an educational piece for the community.”

Perry and her team eventually set up shows at the Columbia Museum of Art, the South Carolina State Museum, and the Anderson Arts Center, and in 2006 the program won the South Carolina Arts Commission’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award. Piccolo Spoleto will be the first Art of Recovery show in the Lowcountry, and it will also give the program the kind of national and international exposure that the arts festival is able to provide.

Works for Art of Recovery exhibits are collected in the spring, when Perry and her committee put out a call for submissions onto its intranet system. The message reaches the 17 centers and eight inpatient facilities across the state, and because of its pedigree, the Piccolo show got an especially enormous response. When we spoke with Perry, she was in the process of selecting works for the final exhibit.

“I’ve handled some just outstanding artwork,” she says. “When these are brought to the community and the general public gets to see how creative these artists are, it’s kind of an awakening for the community, and it’s a bridge.”

Perry says the works are hopeful, bright, and cheerful. “It’s a variety, a total variety of different pieces, and I think to come to see it would actually be a unique experience for [the audience],” she says. “They may come with preconceived ideas of what they’re going to see, but I think they’re totally going to be surprised at what they do see.”

When the Art of Recovery shows open, the community — and especially the arts community — has the opportunity to learn about the program and connect with its artists, like Ashley. For patients like him, art is a way to freely discuss the moods and conflicts they have within themselves. Ashley’s paintings help him understand what he can’t normally put into words, and it helps his loved ones understand why he behaves the way he does.

“When they see [his painting “Every Piece of Me”], they see this clutter that’s being fragmented apart, and they said, oh yeah, I can see where you were here, you were here, you were here, but you were never being steady on one course,” he explains. “You were always misdirected on all these different paths.”

Still, at one point in his career, Ashley looked at his paintings, and he saw that everything he was going through internally, everything about who he was, was being manifested onto his canvas — for everyone to see.

“I didn’t like that,” he says. “Because I was afraid of it. I was afraid of what people would think, how they would view me.”

So he stopped. But it wasn’t long before he started again. Because each time Ashley creates a new painting, it moves him forward from where he was. No matter what he does in life, he’ll always come back to his art, something he explored in his piece “Jack the Crayon.”

“I’m tattooed, I’m nailed to that little figure, that little artist inside of me,” he says. “It’s what makes me who I am.”

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