May 28, 2008
Survivor Art Illuminates, Heals Shattered Souls
Healing can be found in the creation of art.
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It's a powerful lesson, one that transformed Quogue resident Candyce Brokaw's life.
For many years, Brokaw was a married PTA mom with three kids who juggled the usual routine of softball games, school fundraising and ferrying her children to ballet lessons.
But when she was 38, Brokaw, a survivor of abuse, found herself haunted by the dark specter of her past.
"I had a bit of a breakdown and it was at that point that I had to deal with all of my issues," she said. "Writing and drawing were really my saviors."
Four years later, in 1997, the artist began a journey that would help scores of other survivors find solace and healing. Brokaw founded Survivors Art Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to empowering trauma survivors with expressive outlets via an Internet art gallery, outreach programs, national exhibitions and publications
"People with all types of disabilities and traumas can benefit from the arts," said Brokaw. Sharing their individual experiences, she said, can help survivors to realize that they are not alone – an experience that can serve to de-stigmatize those who may have suffered collective lifetimes of isolation.
In 2002, Brokaw organized "Breaking the Walls of Bias: Art by Survivors," an exhibit of artwork that opened at the Hofstra Museum at Hofstra University. And now, East End residents can view this show in Westhampton Beach. The exhibit, which opened on May 17, runs through July 1 at the Galerie BelAge, located at 8 Moniebogue Lane. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, June 7, from 6 to 9 p.m. and is open to the public free of charge. An educational panel discussion will be held on June 22 from 1 to 3 p.m., moderated by actress Cathy Moriarty-Gentile (Raging Bull, Analyze That, Soap Dish), who is also the spokesperson for autism.org.
Brokaw, curator of the exhibit with Robert Deets, director of Galerie BelAge, features art by individuals who have found their way out of life's darkest moments including physical and mental disabilities, racism, war and trauma.
The exhibition features artists from the around the world, including faraway locations such as the Netherlands, Canada and Guatemala – as well as artists from nearby communities such as David Joel of East Hampton, Bennett Blackburn of Cutchogue and Brokaw of Quogue.
"There is an amazing array of trained and self-taught art, in all mediums, by adults and children who have overcome some disability or trauma," said Brokaw.
Art, said Brokaw, shed light into a dark period of her life. "It was such a cathartic thing – it helped my self-esteem and helped me to get my feelings out," she said. Art is therapeutic for survivors, said Brokaw, because it provides a means of expression. "It's very hard to articulate difficult feelings you're having, whether it's sadness or anger, or 'Why did I get cancer?'" she said.
The foundation has been received with open arms by many survivors. "People are happy just to see we exist," she said. "They look at the website and say, 'I thought I was alone.' They see other people who have let it all out, and who are healing through art. Just the fact that you're breaking the isolation – the connectivity is the first step."
Showing their work and getting positive feedback is also instrumental in the healing process, said Brokaw. "So many people are isolated," she said. "There are so many forms of isolation, and people need to know there are others who care and relate to them. It doesn't mean you have to create a pen pal relationship, it just means you know in your heart that you're understood."
Moriarty-Gentile, who has dedicated her life to raising awareness through her work with groups such as autism.org, said her life has been transformed after having met young artists such as Fahiym Williams, an autistic Long Island teenager whose artistic talents have helped his inner light to shine.
Helping others has been Moriarty-Gentile's passion since she was a young girl growing up in The Bronx. Today, she is a far cry from so many celebrities who only lend their name to a cause. Instead, the actress spends her days as a hands-on advocate for children with autism and their parents, sharing insight – and offering hope with her steadfast conviction that inside everyone, there is beauty to be discovered.
"I believe in every child," she said. "Knowing someone believes in you," she said, can make all the difference. "Then, most of all, you are finally able to believe in yourself."
Moriarty-Gentile, a mother of three, believes that every child has a light inside of them. Every survivor of abuse, physical disability, or autism, she said, "is fighting a war. Most people in the world have tunnel vision."
Survivor art, said Brokaw, has given her insight into herself. "It's taught me that I'm stronger than I thought I was," she said. "It helped me get on my feet and it helped me to see my inner strength by advocating for others."