BERNARDSVILLE – A four-by-six foot canvas filled with bright, vibrant colors hangs above a fireplace in the Community Hub, the former Bernardsville Library building on Route 202 that now serves as home to Community In Crisis (CIC).
The abstract painting was a collaborative effort by students and local artists who came together for a program designed to allow teens to creatively express themselves on a path to improved mental health.
The exhibit, “Blank Canvas,” also includes separate works by more than 16 teens who participated in two workshops at the Community Hub this fall. Their works were shared during a reception Sunday afternoon and will remain on display through January for the public to view.
CIC, a non-profit coalition of community groups formed the help combat the opioid crisis, partnered with the Basking Ridge-based ARTsee organization to offer the innovative program.
Bernardsville resident Susan Gast, the ARTsee project coordinator, said the idea stemmed from a conversation she had with CIC Executive Director Andi Williams about putting some art on the walls of The Hub, an historic building in the center of town.
Gast said she then went to some of the ARTsee artists to see if any would have time to offer some youth workshops.
“The aim was to show the teenagers that there are many ways to have an outlet and that art is an absolutely wonderful way to do that,” she said.
Two, two-hour workshops were offered to local teens at The Hub in November. They were initially given a “brief presentation on perspective, on stigma, on how they see themselves in the world, how they see the world and how the world may see them,” Gast said.
“We gave them the tools and we stepped back. It wasn’t a teaching workshop – it was to facilitate. There was no pressure and they enjoyed it. It was really quite a thing to watch.”
While the resulting art includes landscapes, flowers and abstract images, the works, she said, are all really self portraits where the students were able to express themselves visually.
“So it really was not about skills, talents or contests,” she said. “We all have creativity inside of us and sometimes it helps to give a little perspective. Sometimes we don’t have words. Art is a way to express yourself in any way you choose. Our aim was to say there’s different ways to see yourself and to express yourself.”
Several of the teens who participated were on hand Sunday during the reception.
“It was a great opportunity to just sit back and paint and relax with the other students,” said Sarah Skalski, a junior at Ridge High School. “I appreciated this whole effort to bring together the community with artists. It was really nice.
The teens worked independently, she said, but were still able to view each other’s works in progress.
“It was nice to see so many different styles, so many different perspectives on art, because we were all given the same medium and we all interpreted it a little bit differently, she said.
”A picture tells a thousand words,” she added. “It’s easier to show your emotion on a canvas rather than trying to express it.”
Others said the process was fun.
“I really liked it because you were able to create your own work of art and able to make it based on how you were feeling in the moment,” said another participant, Emily Keller of Long Hill Township, a sophomore at Watchung Hills Regional High School.
“I’ve never done something like this before,” added Kylle Horner, a sophomore at Ridge High. “It was different and fun. You can be creative and do whatever you want.”
Diana Mrugal, an ARTsee member who worked with the students, noted that many students worked with an palette knife instead of a paint brush for the first time.
“That’s why so many of the paintings look so rough because it wasn’t brush work,” she explained.
“They were all very free and expressive,” she added. “They used a lot of colors. We all had a lot of fun doing it. They didn’t have a lot of time so they had to do it quickly and they did.”
Williams, a resident of Basking Ridge, said she hopes to repeat the project again in the future to bring more kids to The Hub.
“The idea was from our Youth Leadership Council,” she said. “Their idea was to give them some kind of fun activity to do.
“When we talk to them about what’s going on in our area, they say there’s just not a lot to do if you’re not involved in sports, or Scouts or something like that.
“What we keep hearing over and over again is let’s do this again,” she added. “We hope that with ARTsee’s support, we can start doing this on a more regular basis. It was just a really nice experience. There was lots of smiles.”
According to its website, ARTsee’s mission “is to build camaraderie among area artists and promote our vibrant arts community.”
For more information, visit www.artseenj.org.
CIC offers bi-weekly support groups for families struggling with addiction, innovative educational opportunities in the school environment, and more.