In a year marked by historic distress, mental health has become ever more crucial. A Mobile therapy group has turned to a local arts advocate to foster a necessity they perceive for emotional healing.
“When words fall short, art is a medium used to express deeper human experiences. So, our hope is that everything reflected in there tells a story, that everyone can find something to identify with,” therapist Leigh Hurley said.
An Azalea City native, Hurley and her Louisiana-bred husband, Andrew, established an Eastern Shore therapy practice years ago. When they sought something in Mobile, they settled on a historic home at the intersection of Julia Street and Springhill Avenue. Then they crossed paths with Riley Brenes in the standard Mobile way.
“They hooked up with me through ties with people they know. They mentioned, ‘Hey, I have a Gee’s Bend quilt that I need cleaned,’” Brenes said.
“I grew up in Mobile, but we had a hunting camp in Gee’s Bend. We grew up going there in the winters and my parents built a home on the Alabama River in Wilcox County,” Hurley said.
While Brenes has worked with Mobile’s at-risk youth in the last decade — through the Boys and Girls Clubs and Strickland Youth Center, and as the transitional program coordinator for the Juvenile Court of Mobile — his original forté was the arts. That’s how he made his award-winning splash, launching a grassroots gallery in a vacant Dauphin Street building and furthering window installations in another location. That artistic background is why he was pleasantly surprised when he saw the Hurleys’ unusual Gee’s Bend treasure.
“This thing was like a bed quilt, not like one of the ones you would buy in a gift shop, and it was mid-century. It’s beautiful. They bought it at auction,” Brenes said.
He quickly approached a local cleaning company, a startup business run by a friend and his wife. They welcomed the job.
“They said they would be honored. Hearing their response to this made me realize how important these quilts are,” Brenes said.
His connections with the local arts community prompted more involvement. The Hurleys tasked him with “filling the place with art.”
“I’ve got Chris Noerr. I’ve got Caleb Morris, Walter Simon, Shane Reynolds. I have some pieces from Brad Robertson, Nall. I have Jim Hayward,” Brenes said.
He also brought some of his own collection, some acquired from former Mobile Arts Council Executive Director Bob Burnett. There were loaner pieces from local arts patron Bill Appling. Brenes estimates there are about 25 to 30 pieces in place right now.
“There’s quite an eclectic range of artwork, from still life to abstract to the bizarre,” Hurley said. “It’s a beautiful building with beautiful art that is hopefully reflective of all the various life experiences. It’s the good, the bad, the ugly kind of thing.”
The last of that stated trio is just as important. More than just relaxation summoned by sublime beauty, the Hurleys want the art to provide a bridge to the hidden.
“We see the darkest parts of people, parts that don’t get airtime because they don’t know how to give voice to them. Part of our role in giving voice to that is helping [patients] give voice to it, so they make sense of it in their life, then heal the damage,” Hurley said.
The therapist pointed to Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” portrait of a Dust Bowl refugee as a prime example. The subject is framed by her forlorn children, one of her hands at her chin and weathered face. Her distant stare encapsulates a despondent tale.
“We have really worked hard to avoid the stigma attached to mental illness and mental health knowing we’re all on the spectrum of suffering somewhere,” Hurley noted.
The therapist said the pandemic has heightened existing issues. There’s the expected uptick in couples counseling from prolonged quarantine, but isolation has also compounded anxiety disorders and depression.
“We all struggle, and I think art is a way of putting us all on level ground with the human experience,” Hurley said.
The work on the new building has already reached one person in an unanticipated way. It’s renewed his insight.
“I hate to say it, but being a bureaucrat has kind of ‘coldened’ me, if you will, to that warmth in art and the important significance of it, the fact that it’s cherished,” Brenes said. “I should be taking it more seriously. This isn’t so much about prestige or beauty but impact.”
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