Former Renfrew Center patients discuss recovery via art therapy

Renfrew Center art therapist, Sondra Rosenberg, said that an annual show of patient artwork from the Roxborough eating disorder treatment facility showcases a universal human truth.

“We all struggle with the messiness of life,” she told the crowd gathered at Friday’s discussion and exhibit at Chestnut Hill College.

But for the “acutely ill” sufferers of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, “that messiness is intolerable.” 

 

To demonstrate the state of mind of someone in the middle of their fight to recover from an eating disorder, the point between a realization and release, Rosenberg pointed to a painting titled “Sweet Lie Trap” by a 29-year-old patient identified as Caroline C.

A girl with a helplessly screaming mouth sits inside a kind of pink bubble, accompanied by foods like ice cream cones. Outside the pink bubble, dark, child-like scribbles run rampant.

“The outer area is how I perceive my life and my emotions – messy, chaotic, unmanageable,” reads a statement from the artist. “Inside is the fakey-sweet world of bingeing and purging. It promises pleasure and release, but leaves me trapped.”

A discussion around art and therapy

Rosenberg led a discussion with an audience of about 50 people, exploring the themes in the curated show of about 20 pieces of artwork, including drawings, pastels, paintings, and collage.

She directed visitors’ attention to an unsettling, untitled piece, showing a human-like figure whose legs become black stilts below the knee, hoisting a prone and bleeding figure over its head. Rosenberg pointed to the “uncertain ground” the figure straddles, a tumultuous red-and-black field that could be “fire or water or soot.”

Rosenberg explained that this image came from an exercise designed to bypass “the critical mind” and let the subconscious rise: the patient began the canvas by closing her eyes and scribbling randomly. Then, she looked at the lines, and developed the picture based on what that scribble suggested to her.

A former Renfrew patient, Jenna Bass, 24, was also on hand to speak about her experience in Renfrew’s art therapy program, illuminating the themes in a painting she calls “Mercy of the Fallen.”

In it, a girl with luxuriant red hair, a distended belly and a gaping jaw seems to be shouting a stream of oblivious bluebirds and musical notes.

Bass described a native tendency to quash all negative emotions, and said the figure’s swollen stomach represents pent-up feelings, while the emerging bluebirds represent a projection of “false happiness.”

Bass said that a brutal disassociation from her own body plagued her while she struggled with her eating disorder, but painting was “one of the biggest tools in my recovery thus far,” forcing her to stay connected to herself.

Recovery is a journey

Speaking with NewsWorks after the presentation, Bass said art has become a crucial part of what she calls “the pause,” a hard-fought reprieve between the swirl of destructive thoughts and harmful action.

“It makes me think of running a marathon,” Bass said of the mental and emotional work of recovering from an eating disorder. She has been participating in the Renfrew’s annual art show (which has appeared at other colleges and universities throughout the region) for the past three years, and enjoys being involved in public relations for the program.

Many pieces in the show were clear representations of desperate interior landscapes: hunched, distorted figures and gaping screams. In another, the glossy profile of a black crow dominates a lacquered, illegible collage of cut-up eating disorder brochures, which, according to the artist, depicts “the secrecy of this disease.”

But a painting by the 43-year-old Alyssa R., titled, “So Many Dependable Joys are Waiting for Us,” hinted at the relief of recovery: a female figure, pulsing with rich, fanciful colors, reclines blissfully in the water.

And Rosenberg pointed to a piece called “Stuck,” by a 20-year-old patient named Emily, showing a subtly-lit path wending under naked trees and a leaden sky.

“This was a creation of a place that my eating disorder thrives in. It’s also a place I desperately try to run away from,” the accompanying statement reads. Rosenberg guessed that while the painting’s tone is bleak, the presence of that pathway hints at a way forward.

The idea of a better future also appears in Bass’ piece, which is one of a series. For Bass, a subtle green glow around the musical notes in her piece represents the way words and images that go unheard in a dark place can be saved, shared and understood later.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.