Beautiful minds: Aurora envisions new dawn for artists in recovery

Artful approach: Lori Greenberg hopes to open Aurora Studio & Gallery sometime next year in the River Arts District. The studio will be for artists struggling with mental illness, addiction and homelessness. Caitlin Byrd

Homeless, stressed and dealing with a family crisis, the woman hardly seemed a goddess when she entered the Neil Dobbins Center in Asheville. But for drug-and-alcohol counselor Lori Greenberg, this woman would become her muse.

"She was a phenomenal artist," Greenberg recalls. "She was a painter, but she could take paper and make amazing little things out of them. She could create out of nothing."

That inspired Greenberg to do some creating of her own. This May, she founded the Aurora Studio & Gallery for artists struggling with mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

"I've seen so many people come through that are marginalized in our culture. They're homeless, they don't have the right insurance, they can't get their medications, they're dealing with addiction problems," she explains. “But they're brilliant minds. They're brilliant, creative individuals that are just having a hard time getting a leg up.”

Greenberg hopes the facility she envisions will give artists in recovery the encouragement and support they need — providing both a space to create and a place to heal.

"For people who’ve experienced trauma,” notes Greenberg, who’s worked in the field for 30 years, “it’s usually better expressed through a visual medium, as opposed to spoken word.” At this stage, Aurora is operating under the umbrella of local nonprofit Arts2People until the studio/gallery can get its own 501(c)(3) certification. Greenberg says she’s focusing on fundraising in hopes of opening a brick-and-mortar venue in the River Arts District next year.

"It's such a vibrant place, and you can feel the art,” she notes. “You can feel the creativity.”

A studio of one’s own

Greenberg first observed the link between healing and art while working in an expressive-arts program for young people in the mid-’90s. But she wants a more holistic approach for her studio.

"We would start the day with yoga, then work, take a break, work some more and then come together at the end of the day for some journaling," she recalls.

It’s not about providing art therapy, however.

"The vision for the studio is to give these artists a place where they can work on their art,” Greenberg explains, adding, “I see it more as a collaborative effort” that might also include bringing in nonlocals via an artist-in-residence program.

In these tough economic times, however, Greenberg and her board members have had to think creatively, too. The group needs to raise about $120,000 to cover startup and overhead costs, she estimates. To that end, the nonprofit is holding a Traveling Arts Raffle (see box, “A Moving Experience”).

An artist's inspiration

When Greenberg met informally with local painter and sculptor Emil Bekavac at The Gourmet Chip Co. earlier this year, inspiration struck.

"I took one of my pieces off the wall and said, 'Here: Use this and take it with you, because you're using it well.' I fully support her ideas," Bekavac explains.

Bekavac grew up in a blue-collar town near Pittsburgh. Options for artists were limited, he says, and rejection was the rule.

"Growing up, I didn't have the support that artists need. There's this attitude that it's OK to paint when you're a child: Coloring is just something to do. But as I got older, I was told if I wanted to paint, I could go paint the garage," Bekavac recalls.

And though he didn’t become addicted to drugs, he saw fellow artists who did.

"When you want to be an artist, you meet this resistance; when that happens, then you hit rejection,” says Bekavac. “Then you turn to some substance that takes that ugly feeling away, and it feels good for a while — but now you've got two dragons breathing down your back.”

Pointing to the subtle repetition of circles in one of his paintings, he continues, "But people can recover and shake those chains. As we heal as a nation, they're able to see that, become productive parts of society, realize their self-worth — and get the recognition they need."

For Greenberg, that’s what Aurora Studio & Gallery is all about.

"Aurora kind of means ‘new beginning’ or ‘new start.’ It's also a natural phenomenon that's seldom seen," she explains. "Some of the individuals whom I've worked with see the world differently from the way many people do, and I feel that they also have a vision that's seen by few."

After a pause, Greenberg adds, "I love helping people heal, and art in itself is healing."

Send your health-and-wellness news and tips to Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@mountainx.com or mxhealth@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 140.

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