– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –

A struggling art studio and gallery in Asheville, North Carolina, is shining a light on a way plein air painting can help people recovering from addiction and other mental health issues, and its approach and underpinning will sound familiar to most plein air artists.

Lead Image: Artists at Aurora Studio & Gallery use art to help them recover from addiction, behavioral health needs, and homelessness. Photo by Lisa Sarasohn

The Aurora Studio & Gallery, an initiative headed by a resourceful but overworked woman named Lori Greenberg, operates close to the edge of solvency, as many non-profits do. But its work in getting adults dealing with addiction and behavioral issues to stand on steadier ground through art has some area artists energized.

Sandra Brugh Moore is one of them. The North Carolina artist is working with Greenberg to create a program in which Aurora’s clients can paint outdoors and participate in urban sketching. “I work with folks who have experience with mental health and addiction, most are low-income, some are fairly isolated and have limited experience,” says Greenberg. “Others are emerging artists and use art as part of their recovery. So a focus on art about nature and plein air is the perfect thing.”

Robert Ransom teaches a class at Aurora Studio & Gallery, in Asheville, North Carolina.
Robert Ransom teaches a class at Aurora Studio & Gallery, in Asheville, North Carolina.

It’s probably no mystery to plein air painters why painting outdoors might help those with mental health issues. Just listen to the reasons Moore and Greenberg give for using plein air painting at Aurora.

“One of the things we try to focus on when we meet as a group is mindfulness exercises,” says Greenberg. “Being in the present moment and really noticing what is going on around them. We talk a lot about nature and what in nature helps them feel grounded. It’s about being outside and listening to birds or a babbling brook. Sitting underneath a favorite tree and having an animal they like to look at outside. It’s about the connection, the smells and the sights, about how that feels for folks.”

Plein air day at Aurora Studio & Gallery
Plein air day at Aurora Studio & Gallery

Sound familiar? It should. Why do healthy artists like and crave the same qualities of plein air painting as those struggling with life? Ask a psychiatrist and they will tell you that the major difference between plein air painters and folks like the artists in Aurora’s program is simply that ordinary plein air painters have figured out what they need to do to stay healthy.

Listen to Moore talk about plein air painting. “Being outside is refreshing. It feeds you, not just artistically, but by connecting you with the world. I need to go out to paint. I can paint in the studio, but even there, my mind is outside, remembering what the colors were like. I think it heightens the senses. Mostly, I want to be in the space where I am, and be aware of it. I want to connect with patterns, colors, and shapes and be mindful and let go of everything else.”

Sandra Brugh Moore is one of the local artists who help the clients at Aurora Studio & Gallery
Sandra Brugh Moore is one of the local artists who help the clients at Aurora Studio & Gallery

Plein air painting, with its ruthless deadline set by the changing light, requires some forgiveness for oneself. “Mistakes can get worked into the design,” Moore points out. “You have to let things happen, in a mindful way.”

Plein air painting is problem-solving. “It can be frustrating outside, but dealing with those things in a positive way is part of it,” says Moore. “But mostly, it’s just getting there and just being there.”

A plein air piece by Moore
A plein air piece by Moore

Plein air painting can thrill and nurture artists of all kinds, in all types of situations, at all levels. Greenberg sees the effect on Aurora’s participants.

“When I observe and speak with our artists, I see that they get pulled into the art, as opposed to being pulled into their own thoughts,” says Greenberg. “Instead of going with whatever is going on in their heads, they are painting what they see outside.”

“Bird Sanctuary,” by Sandra Brugh Moore
“Bird Sanctuary,” by Sandra Brugh Moore

“They are dealing with so much more than a lot of us,” adds Moore. “But they are committed to this group and are so supportive of each other.”

If you want to help Aurora Studio & Gallery in its programs, visit its donation page.


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