Read “Recovery and Homeless Services: New Directions for the Field” to learn more about the need for recovery-oriented care in homeless services. It’s part of the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services”.
Matt Van Buren is a self-described outsider artist and participant in South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health’s Art of Recovery program. Outsider artists are typically defined as people who have no formal training. Matt believes that there are plenty of outsider artists who have significant training. “The public does not always understand us, but we celebrate each other and our lives, using bright colors, convoluted lines. No meaning is necessary. We like to look at this art as a total celebration of who we are,” says Matt.
Before our interview, Matt sends digital images of vibrant, colorful paintings with depth and momentum. Seeing them, I am energized and hopeful. When we talk, Matt explains his perspective on recovery from mental illness and substance use. “I have heard people describe recovery like a dream come true, a fairyland. For me it is creative living. It is everything to do with seeking creative solutions,” says Matt.
I ask Matt if he is comfortable publically disclosing his experiences with mental illness after he has shared his story with me. He explains that he tries to be as transparent as possible. His girlfriend has a clear plastic handbag, and all of its contents are clearly visible from the outside. He says, “I am that transparent.”
Based on his experiences, Matt observes that the stigma attached to mental illness can be very pronounced. “If I tell people that I have a mental illness, then the perception is that I am weak, stupid, and lazy. I would never give up the mind that I have for anything in the world. I perceive the universe and reality with a different lens,” says Matt. He has been in recovery and responding to treatment from schizophrenia and substance use for 26 years. He explains that even in recovery, his perceptions of reality are simply different.
As a child, Matt was very nervous, until the night he found alcohol. “I was no longer a nervous child. It was a panacea and initially, it was fun,” explains Matt. Consistent periods of substance use were combined with unmanageable anxiety attacks. By his junior year in college, things changed drastically when he was asked to leave school. “I became a lone wolf, drank alone, and returned to my parent’s home. My family saw that something was wrong. I was becoming very confused and I ended up in a psychiatric hospital by the age of 22.” Between the ages of 22 and 26, Matt narrowly escaped homelessness. At age 26, he entered recovery and remained sober until another episode two years later.
During a moment of altered thinking, he entered a convenience store, saw a man with a South Carolina T-shirt and within a very short period of time, found himself in South Carolina. Admitted to a state hospital in South Carolina, Matt explains that he had never felt more lost, confused, or powerless. After receiving treatment, his view of his life shifted. “From this point forward, my life began and for the first time I knew and understood that good things were going to happen,” he says. He was right. After completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in design and studio art, his artwork began to evolve in synchronicity with his recovery.
His view of life has guided Matt to generate what he calls “jazz art.” “What jazz musicians do with sounds, I do with images. At first it was hard for me to figure out what I was doing, but eventually I found my groove.” In addition to painting, Matt plays the horn, the harmonica, and writes jazz poetry.
As a participant in South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health’s Art of Recovery program, Matt is part of a community of artists in recovery from mental illness and substance use. “Through our talents, abilities and shared lived experiences, we are really expressing ourselves. Our artwork is real, and about freedom and honesty. Lately it has been a celebration of our unique lives.”
The Art of Recovery participants have shown their work at the Columbia, South Carolina Museum of Art, libraries, art galleries, and hospitals. Their efforts are lead by Sue Perry, who received a prestigious Elizabeth O'Neil Verner Award from the South Carolina Arts Commission, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the arts in the state. “While Sue received the award, it was for all of us.”
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