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Aurora Studio is Lori Greenberg’s creative act

September 22, 2015

PAINTING IT OUT: Aurora Studio founder Lori Greenberg says a recent group show gave Aurora artists the recognition they deserve — and raised awareness of how art-making in community helps people heal.

[This piece is the original version of the article Mountain Xpress posted here.]

The key to any successful enterprise is identifying a pressing need and filling it. Creating Aurora Studio & Gallery, Lori Greenberg has done just that, adding dedication and loving kindness into the mix.

Working at a local crisis stabilization and detox facility, Greenberg observed women and men arriving for treatment. She saw a homeless man clasping his only belongings, his sketchbooks, to his chest. She saw a destitute woman passing her time in the day room sculpting figures from paper napkins, the only medium left to her. Greenberg understood: “Doing art is what kept her stable.”

“It just kept happening,” she says. “I’d see people who were artists, and they lived on the streets.”

Holding a master’s degree in counseling, Greenberg has worked in the field of human services for more than thirty years. Having led expressive arts programs in New England and knowing their therapeutic value, Greenberg thought, “This is Asheville. There must be some kind of art center that caters to folks struggling with mental health issues, addiction issues.”

From conceiving to creating

In 2010, she started looking for such a place. Finding none, by 2012 she had created Aurora Studio & Gallery. Aurora Studio equips both emerging and experienced artists to do their creative work in community, generating the mutual support that sustains their psychological well-being, social stability, and freedom from addiction.

The first classes took place in a West Asheville storefront with a core group of participants and in collaboration with local artists and healing arts instructors. “We’ve been doing classes ever since,” says Greenberg. “Because the feedback from the participants showed that people were really interested, and they kept the momentum going.”

The project has continued to attract participants through word of mouth as well as through the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective, psychotherapists, and physicians. Last June, Aurora moved to a downtown space, complete with utility sink and storage, donated by Susan Durrence of Mountain Lights.

Infused with Greenberg’s enthusiasm, Aurora has become a magnet for generosity. Other well-wishers — including Jonas Gerard, BlackBird Frame & Art, Roots Hummus, and Everyone Cooks — have donated paint and paintbrushes, canvases, lunchtime snacks, and special event refreshments. BlackBird Frame & Art volunteered framing for all the pieces in Aurora’s recent group show at the Asheville Area Arts Council.

“The Arts Council and executive director Kitty Love have been very supportive of this project,” says Greenberg. She rates Aurora’s group show at AAAC’s Grove Arcade Gallery as an impressive achievement: “It’s a feather in our cap.”

“Before the show’s opening reception,” she adds, “the group gathered in a circle to share their intentions for the evening, gain strength from each other, and calm any pre-show jitters. Several artists expressed their gratitude for being in Aurora. Another said we could all hold our heads up and be proud of the beautiful show we created.”

Since 2013, Arts2People — under the auspices of former and current directors Jen Gordon and Aaron Johnstone — has acted as Aurora’s fiscal sponsor. This arrangement has allowed Greenberg to bypass recruiting and managing a board of directors, time-consuming tasks for a woman who keeps Aurora going entirely on a volunteer basis.

From creating to sustaining

Greenberg is not by nature a night owl. But to make her daylight hours available for organizing classes, shopping for supplies, and scheduling visiting artists, she’s choosing to work the night shift full-time, thirty-four hours packed into three nights a week.

Working nights is exhausting, Greenberg admits. “There are times when I think I can’t do Aurora anymore,” she says. “But I’ve wanted to see how far I could take it. And I love every one of the folks that we have. I have deep admiration for them. It’s been a great group of people and it’s wonderful to see everybody grow as a person in different ways.”

PAINTING IT OUT: The artist known as Medication Medium contributed several paintings — including this one, titled “A Cutter’s Nightmare” — to Aurora Studio’s recent group show.

She describes how Aurora has contributed to people’s lives: “Some people were artists and they could sit and create art, but they were isolated. And they didn’t have any support. What they really needed was the human connection around something that’s important to them, and to make friends. Other people were doing art because it helped them in their recovery but they didn’t have a lot of training. Those people are gaining support and they’re getting to learn new skills.”

Each weekly four-hour class in Aurora’s eight-week sessions begins with a brief check-in and continues with painting, sketching, or hand-building with clay. A visiting artist may offer instruction. At the end of each class, participants reflect on their creative process.

“It’s not art therapy,” explains Greenberg. “It’s a supportive community in which people do art.”

From the outset, participants have created guidelines that ensure the group will be a supportive experience. Participants agree, for example to come to class sober; be nonjudgmental about each other and each other’s art; respect their own and each other’s feelings; keep confidentiality; follow through with their prescribed mental health treatment; recognize that art is a process, not a destination — and have fun.

Now numbering ten artists, Aurora Studio is at capacity. Over time, says Greenberg, conversations develop regarding difficult subjects such as medication and relapse prevention. With a bigger group, she says, “it would lose its intimacy, the ability for people to feel comfortable sharing.”

When Greenberg has interviewed prospective participants, she hasn’t asked for their diagnosis. “I let people define their needs for themselves when they apply. I look for how somebody might need extra support because they’re not able to attain some of their personal goals for either their art or their social functioning. Aurora helps give them that extra boost.”

Greenberg describes her perspective on mental health: “My take on a lot of mental health issues is that there have been multiple traumas in people’s lives, which then manifest in how they learn and how they relate to the world.”

“We all go through moments,” she continues. “For many of us there are moments — times of upheaval, anxiety, depression. But for most of these folks, it’s been more than a moment. It’s been several years, if not their whole lives, that they’ve not been quite able to function in everyday life in a way that meets their own needs.”

From sustaining to transforming

Safety and friendship are themes that thread through participants’ comments about their experience with Aurora. One woman recalls: “The environment fostered a feeling of friendship and unity among everybody. So I felt like I could express myself freely without being afraid of judgment.”

Another reports: “Since I’ve been in this program I’ve been able to start another art class that is for the general population. As far as I know, I’m the only person in that class who’s recovering.” She’s been able to talk to the class leader and ask for what she’s needed because she practiced communicating her needs at Aurora. The studio became her “jumping off point” into the larger world.

“We came together as a group of strangers,” reflects another woman, “and we ended up as friends, people that you look forward to working with. We concentrated on the work but it was an experience where you knew that people wanted you to succeed. People were encouraging, supportive. It gave me courage and confidence. And I did things I didn’t think I could do.”

Greenberg describes the value of making art in community: “When everyone comes together, there’s energy for witnessing, listening, understanding, respecting. That allows people to turn their attention toward creating, and that’s restorative.”

At the moment, Aurora depends entirely upon a team of volunteers to keep going. Greenberg envisions that continuing community support will allow the program to stabilize and grow. Additional funding, for example, will enable Aurora to offer classes several times each week and serve more artists moving beyond mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.

Greenberg sees herself as an organizer, not an artist. “But I’ve had a huge amount of fun,” she says, “not only having a vision and seeing it come to life but also doing the classes, because lots of times I’ll participate. That’s been great fun for me. So while I’m doing the work of getting this organized, I have a time to play, too.”

Aurora’s recent AAAC opening featured a message from Rita Zoey Chin, author of Let the Tornado Come. A writer and poet, Chin has applied her creative process to resolving the panic attacks that used to paralyze her. She said — and Aurora Studio artists would agree — “Art can save your life.”

An enterprise that provides people in distress a way to save their lives — to bring “something beautiful out of something very dark,” as Greenberg says — is meeting a pressing need indeed.

More Info:

Aurora Studio & Gallery

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