Center City Arts

Thursday, December 1st, 2011 at 11:30 AM
Center City Arts by Rebecca Styn
Rebecca Styn / Erie Reader

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, one in four adults – over 57 million Americans age 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder  (major depression, anxiety disorder, etc.) any given year. And given that statistic alone, I find myself asking why there’s still such a stigma associated with these illnesses. However, one organization that continues to not only help in battling this stigma, but also progressively works at treating individuals in a holistic and creative environment, is the Center City Arts (CCA), part of Stairways Behavioral Health—one of the largest non-profit mental health care organizations in Northwest Pennsylvania.

The short introduction is that this program, according to the CCA’s fact sheet, provides a unique and pressure-free art experience to those that have recovered or are recovering from mental illness and those that assist them in their journey.

A more personal and detailed introduction is that it truly offers a sense of stability and peace to anyone that enters the room. Lee Steadman, the program’s director gave me a brief tour of the facility. As I entered the open studio, music played in the background and the faint smell of roasted coffee lingered throughout. Individuals creating art were scattered throughout the room and full-spectrum lighting emanated - trying to mimic the sun – yet providing the much needed Vitamin D our bodies will soon crave throughout the winter months. The high beams and dark colored wood posts gave way to a modern and clean yet tranquil feel to a very historic structure. The studio is housed in “Old Main,” which is the historic, ornate, and intricate, Rose Koehler Curtze home in the heart of the city.

The home, which is located at the corner of 26th and Holland streets, was purchased in 1995 as part of a long-term revitalization project that Stairways began participating in in the early 1980s. At the time, the area was in serious decline and most homes were owned by absentee landlords and in dire need of repairs. Over the last 30 years, in addition to “the anchor” (a term Stairways utilizes when describing the mansion and its place in the system) that is “Old Main,” the organization created an affordable housing project for elderly individuals living with mental illness; developed eight homes for transitional and permanent housing in the city of Erie; and have built four duplex apartments, rehabilitated a single-family home, and constructed a seven-unit apartment building—all within walking distance of the Koehler-Curtze mansion.

As for the CCA – there is currently no other working arts studio for people with mental illness in NWPA. According to Steadman, “The programming gives individuals a chance to learn skills, create, socialize and earn money by selling their art.” The mission of CCA believes in the healing and transformative power of creative expression and integrative wellness – not only for those who may be experiencing difficulty, but also for all who seek self-exploration and personal growth. They provide a pressure-free arts experience for anyone involved.

“There’s a difference between a teaching artist and a teacher,” Steadman tells me after giving me a tour of the facility. “A teaching artist will embrace the abstract thinking of someone that they’re working with, as opposed to a teacher who is generally guided by a step-by-step process. Whether a teaching artist or teacher, art is still surrounded by creativity in all forms, but we didn’t want anyone to feel like there needed to be an order to art. That is the pressure-free environment we offer.”

Steadman is not only the director but is also a professional artist that helped to create the program, alongside CEO Bill McCarthy and others at Stairways nearly seven years ago.  “Stairways has always been involved in the arts. I initially worked with them through an artist-in-residence program at ArtsErie to create a mural, and we developed a great relationship. Through this, they brought me on to help develop this program. Since the inception, we’ve gone from the 12 participants to the nearly 700 that participate today.”

The CCA increases access to the arts by providing high-quality, multidisciplinary programming for members of Stairways and the community at large. Once individuals become comfortable, they are introduced and encouraged to participate in and attend arts related events – such as exhibits, theater, music performances, to name a few.

As for the broader community, CCA offers workshops and weekly classes for senior adults and an arts academy experience for high school students. In addition, the classes are now open to anyone in Erie County. Steadman emphasizes, “We don’t know anyone that enters – to us they are just artists. Anyone can come in and take a class.”

While the classes are open to everyone, they are currently only held between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., which Steadman acknowledges is a bit difficult for those working during the day. “We are in the process of developing evening classes, which we hope to be starting soon. However, anyone is always also welcome during their lunch hour to just come in and create.”

Media in which students create include weaving, fused glass, gourd art (which utilizes hard shelled gourds), painting, drawing, and printmaking. Special classes include jewelry, metal arts, basic digital photography, fabric arts, basic graphic design, and much more.

Also fitting to this time of year is their Holiday Art Show coming up this weekend. According to Steadman, “We provide a venue through which students can sell their work – and the majority of the proceeds, 60 percent, go back to the artist. There are literally a couple hundred of artists involved, including several local ones. It is a very cool spot to purchase really eclectic gifts that have a good mission. It’s a gift you can feel good about.”

So, while it’s important any time of the year to give to back to the community, this venue provides not only a place to do a little holiday shopping while supporting a local artist, it allows us the opportunity give back to a charitable organization all at the same time. It’s one of many altruistic acts of giving around the holidays that we can personally participate in.

And in bringing me back to reality, Steadman laughs  adding, “oh, and of course we also take plastic.”

That sounds more like it to me: throw in a glass of wine (or two) for good measure and there’s your trifecta of goodness – buying art, drinking wine, and enjoying the presence of fine people in a warm and inviting environment,  all of which yours truly plans to be a part of this coming Friday night.

The Holiday Art Show is held Friday, Dec. 2 as part of “Gallery Night: Holiday Edition,” which is hosted by several art galleries in the area. It runs from 7 to 10 p.m. and will also extend into Saturday, Dec. 3, running from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, check out Center City Arts on Facebook.

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