BY ANNA IRRERA
Ever since she can remember, 52-year-old Paula Isaac has had art to help her through life’s struggles. Growing up in a large family of West Indian immigrants, she used pencil and paper to make herself heard. “At home I felt like an outsider, and drawing was a way of expressing myself and finding a way to be somebody somewhere,” said Isaac. At the age of 25, after she earned an associate degree in fashion illustration at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the next 10 years in and out of hospitals. “I always painted on the side to escape from what was happening,” she recalled.
Isaac’s oil on canvas, “Intimacy of you and me,” is part of “Brand New Work,” a group exhibition at the Fountain Gallery, at 702 Ninth Avenue at 48th Street, New York City’s first venue to represent artists with mental illness. With delicate hues, Isaac’s painting portrays a woman and a man in the kitchen of their home. “I like to capture the moment, a particular frame in time and then leave the audience the chance to interpret the story behind the scene,” said Isaac.
Founded in 2000 by the non-profit organization Fountain House, which provides services to New Yorkers struggling with mental illnesses, the gallery sells art works and collaborates with a network of curators and cultural institutions: in 2009, Agnes Gund, President Emerita of The Museum of Modern Art curated the gallery show “Is White A Color?” The gallery’s programs are funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and by the support of private donors such as The Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation and The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust.
“This is a key place as a stepping stone to help us gain the courage to move back into art world,” said artist Martin Cohen, whose 11-by-22 inch figurative oil on paper, “Madonna,” and “Triple Portrait of Iman”, are part of the new show. Cohen, 51, holds an M.F.A. degree from Carnegie Mellon, and creates abstract expressionist oil paintings. Before joining Fountain Gallery, he owned a gallery in the East Village. “I was under too much pressure, it was hard to make enough money to pay for a studio, an apartment and a gallery,” said Cohen. In the early nineties he suffered a mental breakdown.
While most of the gallery’s previous shows featured a smaller number of artists, “Brand New Work” opens the fall season with a presentation of more than 40 works by nearly 30 gallery artists in media including oil, acrylic, gouache, charcoal, and digital photography.
“This is one of the largest group shows we’ve ever had. We wanted to capture what each person was working on right now without limiting them to a special theme or a certain medium,” said Fountain Gallery Director Jason Bowman, who formerly worked for Fountain House. Unlike most of the previous exhibits, the pieces in “Brand New Work” were selected by a steering committee composed of artists and volunteers who have been operating the gallery since it opened.
“We looked at over 200 pieces and narrowed it down to about 45. This enabled us to give feedback to the artists. Not judging what they are doing, but critiquing the evolution and execution of their work so far,” said Bowman. To select the pieces, the steering committee looked for the artists’ strongest and most communicative work.
Anthony Newton’s paintings, “Baby Girl” and “Pull Your Pants Up,” are colorful portrayals of hip-hop culture in inner-city America. “Having experienced every form of abuse as a child, painting helps me transform pain into positive energy,” said Newton, 40, who after studying at FIT experienced a mental breakdown in the mid-nineties that led him to homelessness. Newton joined Fountain House in 1997 and received help getting back on his feet and finding low-income housing. He has also exhibited at the Deshong Museum of Art in Chester, Pennsylvania and the Art Culture Center in Brooklyn.
“I see the canvas as an infinite place of expression. Everything can be done in art if you try,” said Newton.
“Brand New Work” will run through November 9th at Fountain Gallery. The gallery is open from Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.