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Painted Brain Builds Community Through Creativity

  • Alumni
Painted Brain
Artist Larry Rozner, chief illustrator for Painted Brain, in self portrait: "the brain of the painted brain."

Dave Leon, MSW ’03, was working at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services as a therapist and case manager for young adults aged 18-30, after graduating from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. It was during this time that he first began to think about the concept that would become Painted Brain.

“What I saw pretty quickly working individually with them was that they were very isolated,” Leon said. “In the same place, but not really seeing each other or meeting each other.”

While mental illness impairs social contact and social skills, Leon explained, it does not impair people’s creativity or desire for connection with others. Group art activities allow for both.

Leon started an art group with the specific intention of getting them to socialize with each other. After running the group for about a year, they had produced poetry, cartoons, paintings and drawings. “That’s when we, as a group, decided to compile it into a magazine,” he said.

And in 2006, Painted Brain, the magazine, was born.

Leon was working against the norm by trying to get clients to meet and socialize with each other. Painted Brain is intended to be a good attachment object for people facing mental illness. People can get deeply involved, or glancingly involved, or anywhere in between.

“There’s potential for a really amazing, dynamic kind of counterculture of people living with serious mental illness that are completely isolated from each other and really need to find each other,” Leon said.

Today, Painted Brain is a professional nonprofit, creating lasting community-based solutions to mental health challenges through arts, advocacy and enterprise. With Leon positioned as founder and executive director, it is an amalgam of mental health professionals and individuals living with mental health challenges responding together to America’s mental health crisis.

The focus is on art as an effective method for building community.

In the beginning…

For the first five or six years following the initial publication, Leon worked directly with groups of young adults diagnosed with serious mental illness to work on the magazine. The process of producing the magazine was the same method he had used to connect those who were isolated when he was a counselor at Didi Hirsch.

In 2008, after becoming a sponsored nonprofit, Painted Brain was able to request donations and get just enough to cover the cost of printing and to create a social work internship.

The County of Los Angeles approached Painted Brain in 2012, requesting Leon develop an arts and mental health workshop for staff and peers in the mental health system. The workshop provided Leon with the resources to launch Painted Brain as an independent, small business.

Painted Brain started to provide group activities at different mental health facilities, including housing and drop-in centers for homeless youth. The two main goals were to promote social interaction among the people who are meeting―helping them get to know each other and work better together― and to develop a larger community of artists and contributors to the magazine.

Modern history

Painted Brain opened its current community center in September 2017, with art space, tech space and a clothing and art boutique, and a social worker and peer leader onsite. It is a “come as you are,” safe place off the street, where individuals will not be judged.

“We’re a drop in center. We can get you involved right when you come in,” Leon said.

The biggest challenge for people with mental illness is interaction with others and socializing, Leon said. This becomes more intense and more challenging as the illness grows in severity. The group services at Painted Brain are based on the idea that very light social activity, such as group art activities or a supported or guided conversation by a group leader, is an effective way to bring people with mental illness together to socialize and make lasting social connections. 

“The main thing which is light but is really, really vital is that we’re trying to help people actually have fun with each other with the knowledge that a lot of people that have serious mental illness have lost the awareness that people can be fun or helpful at all,” Leon said.

What Leon has witnessed through the community center is that individuals with mental illness tend to have a strength in one area, but then many challenges in other areas. People have significant creative, emotional or technological strengths, often to the detriment of other strengths. Painted Brain tries to meet and enhance these strengths.

The program has helped the more emotive people to become group leaders and peer leaders, the creatives to become artists on their own, and the tech savvy to receive workable training and enhance their employability.

“Most of our staff, including myself, identify as mental health survivors ourselves and we're all pretty open about that,” Leon said. “And we really like to challenge the idea of what a peer is.”

At Painted Brain, any person that has a serious mental illness is a peer, whether they are a psychiatrist or young adult with life experience.

The community center brings actors, artists, writers and yoga instructors in to lead activities and classes.

"We're open to pretty much any creative activity that someone wants to bring into our space,” Leon said.

Functioning in the COVID-19 pandemic

Given that Painted Brain is about connection and the world is under strict isolation advisories, Leon said that the stay-at-home order to combat the coronavirus has been an enormous setback. The community center is closed for the time being and their group services have been impacted. They have had to make cuts and are looking at additional cuts.

Painted Brain’s Chief Operating Officer Rayshell Chambers and Chief Technology Officer Eli Israelian, who helped Leon build the organization, have become vital to programming and planning, thinking about ways to do online activities and promote online communities, as they all face this crisis together.

In the past couple of years, they have received state contracts to train peers in the mental health system on how to use apps and technology to assist with their mental health support. They also won a large contract from the California Community Reinvestment Grants Program to provide job training, job development and to work with their current agency partners to get people with legal histories, especially jail time, back into the workforce.

“We're staying in touch with our community members and our participants from the California Reinvestment Grant by phone and email,” Leon said. “We're trying to stay as supportive as possible.”

For the people living in group housing, Leon says they are trying out some virtual ideas to allow them to run groups offsite. They are also doing outreach in Antelope Valley for students that are now cut off from school and isolated, trying to identify their needs and ways to get them involved with online activities, including watch parties and virtual art activities where people are in different spaces but all working together.

“We’re trying to be innovative, and if it’s successful it might open some new avenues for us to work in other parts of California without having to travel,” Leon said. “Crisis is always a little bit of an opportunity as well as a danger.”

Back to where they started

The chief illustrator for Painted Brain, artist Lawrence Rozner, created a coloring book that is for sale through the main website. It contains a series of Rozner’s drawings, along with his writings describing what his thought process was in creating each design.

Rozner is an adult with autism and a member of the first art group Leon started in 2004, and has been involved with Painted Brain ever since.

“He is not outwardly social within the community center space—he keeps to himself in front of a computer screen or a tablet of drawing paper,” Leon said. “But he also consistently reports feeling a part of the community, having a place to show his work and feel accepted.”

The initial plan for the coloring book was to celebrate Rozner and his work over the years, and to bring him an additional income source. However, the timing of the creation of this book with the COVID-19 pandemic has fostered a perfect opportunity.

“This is an art activity that people can do on their own,” Leon said. “I think there’s a benefit here.”

Painted Brain has launched a second website, devoted to art and literature only, with content contributed by therapists and mental health survivors alike. The new website is intended to become a launching site to get back to the print magazine, which has not been published since 2013.

“We are trying to get back into that now that we’ve established ourselves as a professional nonprofit,” said Leon. ‘Back to where we started.”

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