Step Up on Second proves that Art Heals

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Artist Matt Lord works in Julie's Room, Step Up on Second's art studio that just opened. Malibu resident Joy Anderson endowed the room in honor of her daughter, who has struggled with her own demons.

The work of artists who’ve struggled with mental illness will be on display and for sale at the annual fundraiser for the organization that helps those suffering from such illness.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The writer Maya Angelou said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” So when Step Up on Second offers its fourth annual art show, Art Heals 2007, exhibiting selected works from its members who have struggled with mental illness, you can expect big stories.

“Art Heals,” taking place Step Up, the nonprofit facility that provides opportunities for diagnosis, treatment and reintegration into a normal social structure for people suffering from mental illness.

Kimm Baersch, developmental director for Step Up, believes the art show is one of the more rewarding means of raising the organization’s profile in the community. “Art Heals is a terrific way for patrons to meet the people they are helping and see how empowering their generosity is,” she said.

“Art gives expression to our members’ hopes and dreams, as well as their pain,” Baersch continued. “And when a piece sells, the artist gets 100 percent of the proceeds, which is validating for them. Step Up only keeps funds raised from ticket sales and sponsorship.”

Susan Dempsay founded Step Up on Second in 1984 when her search for care facilities for her mentally ill son proved that few services were available at the time. Believing that a supportive environment with productive activities was the key to transitioning mentally ill people into functioning members of society, Step Up was created to provide permanent housing facilities as well as outpatient services.

This year, they will serve 40,000 hot meals to chronically mentally ill people who have nowhere else to turn. “Frequently, the unfortunate adjunct to mental illness is homelessness, which only serves to exacerbate their condition,” forensic psychologist Joel P. Leifer said.

Providing permanent housing and job training are only a part of Step Up’s successes. Its art classes, offered in a professional studio facility, gives expression to souls sometimes locked in a daily struggle with reality.

Malibu resident Joy Anderson recently endowed an art studio for Step Up, called “Julie’s Room,” in honor of a daughter who battled her own demons.

“My daughter had been through revolving doors of mental health facilities for years and Step Up on Second was the only place that offered authentic help,” Anderson said. “They give their members real skills to cope and help them find self-esteem again by contributing to their own wellness.

“Mental illness has such a stigma, yet it is as real a disease as Parkinson’s or cancer,” Anderson continued. “But there’s no such thing as a creatively handicapped person.”

She said she is thrilled to see artists who’ve worked in Julie’s Room exhibiting at the fundraiser and hopes to see plenty of sales. “If everyone just puts in a little drop, we can fill up the bucket.”

Ferenc Csicseri left his native Budapest in 1989 and found his way to California, eventually working at the celebrity hair salon, Umberto’s. “But I was isolated,” he said. “And someone introduced me to crystal meth. I soon lost everything and was living on the streets. I had no insurance, so I could not afford the medication I needed for my mental condition. I tried suicide three times.”

Csicseri ended up at Step Up and plunged into art therapy, fueled by a lifelong passion for art history. “You know how during the Renaissance they used things like honey and egg yolk to bring light to their painting?” he asked enthusiastically. “Artists like Vermeer inspire me. When I run out of paint, I use lady’s makeup or nail polish.”

Csicseri will exhibit seven paintings and two sculptures at the Art Heals event.

Through psychiatric help, group work and art therapy, Csicseri has been clean for six years now. “I don’t use drugs to self-medicate anymore,” he said. “I use herbal remedies like my grandmother used to make. I have my own place now and it’s all because of Step Up. No one should ever have to be homeless.”

Sheila Finley is a member whose work has won awards in the Los Angeles Times Magazine’s annual photography contest. She is a longtime resident of Topanga Canyon who spent many years teaching English as a second language, including at Wasco State Prison in Kern County.

“Mental illness is a huge invisible problem in the U.S,” Finley said.

In fact, the National Alliance for Mental Illness estimates that mental illness touches one in four families in this country.

“I have much to be grateful for from Step Up,” she said.

The Art Heals fundraiser Sept. 19, 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., will feature live music and a catered buffet dinner, as well as exhibiting more than 60 works of art by the Step Up members. Tickets can be obtained by calling 310.394.6889 or online at www.stepuponsecond.org.