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Art for Self-Expression

Network, Spring 2004

Jay Lefler was a promising young artist. He had studied Renaissance art at Thornton Hall Junior Private School, graduating as an Ontario Scholar, and he continued to pursue his art education at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Art. Then, in 1998, he experienced an acute psychotic episode.

From the age of 18, Jay’s mental health had been deteriorating, marked by an increased lack of motivation, isolation, inability to complete school assignments, and diminishing self-esteem. He suffered with delusional thinking, suicidal ideation, paranoia and finally severe psychosis. At age 31 he was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility where he was given treatment. During this terrible time, his mother, Judith Rosenberg, looked for ways to reach past the darkness of his psychosis and find the ‘spark’ that would give her son a reason to live.

‘I had lost my identity,’ explains Jay. ‘My mother brought me all kinds of pictures of myself, old scrapbooks, anything to try and reach me.’ Finally, in an attempt to reignite the love Jay had had for drawing and painting, Judith delivered charcoals and a sketch pad to his hospital room. Slowly Jay began to make heavy black smudges on the paper. After a while he started to sketch the other patients, and as he did so memories of his artistic training began to come back to him. But the detailed work he had produced in school, the Renaissance art he had studied, did not appear again. Instead, in its place, came large canvases covered with brilliant colours that articulated his journey of confronting and banishing the demons he battled.

The two years following his release from hospital, from 1998 to 2000, was a time of painting through the confusion and questioning. His art was all about his illness, with canvases that carried titles such as Thorn in My Side, or Out of the World, or Oceans of Dialogue. In 2000 his first mainstream art show took place, at the Nathan Schiff Gallery in Toronto. That art show was pivotal for Jay. He sold over 30 pieces of work and was greeted with critical acclaim. His work began to take a new direction. No longer fixated on the mental illness that had dominated his identity for so many years, Jay showed a softer, lighter influence in his paintings. He also began to work collaboratively with other artists, removing himself from the solitary and isolated existence that had trapped him for so long. Now his work ‘is all about the art, not about my illness,’ says Jay. ‘It’s art for self-expression, not torment.’

Nevertheless, his art is still the way in which Jay can make a statement, and hopefully shape a different understanding of mental illness. ‘I have friends who are impressed with the things I’m doing, and I think it changes their perspective on what a person struggling with mental health issues can do and can achieve,’ he explains. ‘There are a lot of people out there who aren’t diagnosed. They are struggling, living their lives and denying accepting the category of mental illness. Through my art I am trying to show that you can accept the diagnosis and still live your life — still achieve something worthwhile.’

We are all expressing ourselves, he continues, whether through art, music, dance, theatre, poetry, writing or the spoken word. It all becomes the voice, says Jay, but without an audience it is just a scream in the dark. ‘My creativity is my life blood. It is the vehicle through which I connect with new relationships and sustain current ones. Collaborative art, music with friends, bands, concerts, art shows . . . we are a community of artists.’

Jay’s art was the beginning of his road to recovery, and it is still the common thread that sustains him. ‘Once I didn’t have an identity for myself. I didn’t have an answer when I was asked, ‘What do you do?’ Even that sets you apart in our society.’

It’s unrealistic, Jay believes, to expect that people will not put a label on you. ‘Society needs a label, unfortunately, but that’s what we are trying to change. Just because we have a mental illness doesn’t mean that tells the whole story about us. Everyone has many facets to who they are. You might be an engineer or an architect or a doctor or a dentist, but you can also be a wife or a husband, a mother or a daughter. It’s the same for someone with a mental illness. We have other parts of our life to pursue, other identities. For me, one of those important identities is my art.’

Jay Lefler paints and is actively involved in graphic arts and website design at his studio, Golden Brain, in Guelph, Ontario. He has won numerous awards for his contributions to mental health and for his personal journey and accomplishments, including the Courage to Come Back Award from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2000 and 2002), and the Big Heart Award from the Schizophrenia Society (2002). He continually gives back to his community by speaking in schools about his experiences and encouraging early intervention for first episode psychosis. In 2002 one of Jay’s paintings was purchased by the Homewood Foundation as a statement of the healing powers of creativity. Jay has had numerous art shows, most recently in February 2004, a successful show that resulted in eight out of the 12 pieces on display being sold. Jay is currently working on a series of pieces depicting the human story. Based on the Book of Genesis, the paintings depict 12 steps of the human form beginning with Purpose, Tranquility and Integration, moving through to Union and Life.

» Return to Network, Spring 2004 – Contents