Columbia High School students explore mental health through their artwork

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MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Curtis Grayson III’s art students at Columbia High School have been drawing their brains.

They’ve been spending the last few months working on a project that revolves around mental health, visualizing their interpretations of what that looks like. Some are drawing on their own experiences and some aren’t, but all of them have found that it’s been art therapy during a tumultuous year that kept them out of school physically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can’t Google and find images of it, besides maybe some clip art,” Grayson said about mental illnesses in an interview with the News-Record on May 21. “We wanted to create a visual of what we think this looks like. There are so many ways to look at mental health. It hits every generation, ethnicity, male and female. It’s all there.”

Drawing, art 1 and art 2 students have been creating pieces; Grayson has participated himself and done work with the same theme. He and school administrators are planning an exhibit for the fall, which will incorporate programs for students to talk about mental health with school counselors and invited health professionals.

Bonney Donache’s piece shows three faces with different expressions, all reflecting how she’s felt during the last year.

“It’s more about my mental health in the past year,” Donache said in an interview with the News-Record on May 21. “Every time I try to relax, my brain tells me I should be doing something. That’s really only started in quarantine, and I’m not sure why.”

Molly Mendoza visualized depression in her piece, not using much color to illustrate how depression makes things feel drearier in black and white.

“Part of the drawing is in black and white to show how you’re numb and don’t feel anything,” Mendoza said. “Then she has her hands covering her face, with the color melting off her hands.”

Another of Grayson’s goals with the project, in addition to making it easier to talk about mental health, was to make the isolation that students were in for much of the year a little easier to bear through making art. Mendoza said it worked.

“It’s mindless,” she said. “It’s nice to have something to do after being talked at for hours on end over Zoom.”

Angelina Garg said making art has been a way to express her feelings.

“In some communities, it’s really not talked about much at all,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on May 21. “They don’t believe in mental health. It’s not a big thing. This is a form of expressing feelings. It can help you get your feelings out.”

Diana Arevalo explored ADHD in her piece, drawing a person being pulled in more than one direction at the same time.

“It’s supposed to represent the things that go through your head,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on May 21. “There are so many different directions to go, it makes it hard to even get to one. I think a lot of people misinterpret mental health and think the worst thing first, when it’s not that.”

Even though they couldn’t be in an art classroom for much of the year and still aren’t completely back to normal yet, art student Corrine Jin-Hendel was glad to be able to adapt to virtual learning.

“I think it was an important class to have,” she said in an interview with the News-Record on May 21. “Not that others aren’t important, but I’m not going to think back on COVID and think about the math homework I did.”

Photos Courtesy of Curtis Grayson III

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