KITCHENER — Twelve years ago, aspiring artist Jay Lefler forgot how to hold a paintbrush. A severe mental health disorder had stripped him of all artistic memory. Hospitalized and “dispirited,” Lefler began his journey toward recovery when his mother Judith Rosenberg brought him charcoals and a sketch pad.
“Painting and drawing helped me find myself again,” he says. “It played in a huge role in the healing process.”
Together, the mother-son pair founded Spark of Brilliance, a Guelph-based mental health organization that promotes healing through the arts. Today, it has five chapters in area communities, including a Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge branch.
Past projects include the Spark of Harmony choir and the Stand Up for Mental Health comedy tour.
Next week, Spark of Brilliance is presenting a concert in downtown Kitchener with the help of a Canadian songwriting icon.
James Gordon of Guelph, creator of the hit Frobisher Bay — recently used as an audition piece for the TV show Canadian Idol — will lead performances on Tuesday, June 29 and Wednesday, June 30 at the Queen Street Commons Café, 43 Queen St. S.
The concerts are the culmination of three months of songwriting workshops involving Spark of Brilliance participants. They will be recorded as a compilation album titled Dreamkeepers to be released later this summer and sold as a fundraiser for the organization.
“I was blown away,” Gordon says of the improv sessions held during the workshops.
“In less than two hours, we would compose an original song from scratch. Not just any song, but something meaningful that belonged to all of us.”
Spark of Brilliance works with people of a wide range of mental health concerns and life challenges, from depression to eating disorders.
What brings them together, says Rosenberg, is creativity.
“From writing a poem to working in a garden, there’s a bit of an artist in everyone.”
Colin Lee, head of Wilfrid Laurier University’s music therapy program, says that scientists have long studied the therapeutic value of music and art.
“Music therapy was first used to help war veterans in the early ’50s recover from post-traumatic stress,” says Lee. “Since then its usage has expanded to include many different areas from divorce to pregnancy.”
Research has found music’s healing powers come from its ability to stimulate certain parts of the brain, says Lee. While he stresses the difference between music therapy and community workshops, he says the idea behind them is similar.
“For people who can’t speak or find speaking difficult, it can be a whole new way of communicating.”
For Rosenberg’s son, art “became his voice.”
Lefler had a gift for drawing as a boy growing up in Guelph. He attended an arts-based high school in Toronto and was an Ontario Scholar.
When he was accepted for the University of Toronto’s art program, his portfolio was so good the school skipped him from the first-year studio drawing course to the second-year level.
But something held Lefler back.
“He had a lot of social anxiety,” says Rosenberg. “Things weren’t gelling. Life was just more difficult for him.”
At first, his mother thought it might just be “teen angst” or “artistic temperament.”
But the symptoms got worse and by his late twenties Lefler was having episodes of paranoia and delusions. And at 31 he was hospitalized for acute psychosis and diagnosed with schizoaffective bipolar disorder.
Characterized as a loss of contact with reality, psychosis can be a symptom of a number of underlying mental health disorders. Three of every 100 people will experience an episode of psychosis in their lifetime, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Psychosis is treatable, with many people only experiencing a single episode. But for Lefler one of the side effects was temporary loss of self-identity, including his skills as an artist.
“It took a long time for him to recapture the essence of who he was,” says Rosenberg. “There’s a whole residual loss that happens.”
Lefler’s rediscovery of the arts and creative expression put him on the road to recovery.
“He decided that the same brain that gave him his mental illness gave him his art,” says Rosenberg.
“It became his voice. He painted what was going on inside. If you line up the body of work he’s created since that time, you can actually see his journey to recovery.”
Today, Lefler has his own graphic art and website design studio in Guelph, Golden Brain Studio, and speaks at mental health advocacy events.
Gordon, the singer-songwriter, became involved with Spark of Brilliance as a longtime advocate for local arts, civic and environmental causes. He was awarded the Guelph Mayor’s Award in 2008 and is a co-founder of the city’s Hillside Festival.
“I have a family member that has a mental illness,” says Gordon. “From working with him, I knew the profound affect that music can have on improving your mood and confidence.”
A seasoned songwriter, Gordon says he learned more from his Spark of Brilliance workshop pupils than they did from him.
“As a professional songwriter, I sometimes get writer’s block. But they seemed to speak straight from the heart without worrying.”
Many of the contributors to Dreamkeepers, 30 to 40 in number, had never tackled a lyric. But the songs they produced are mesmerizing. On one of them, Seasons of the Soul, members sing:
“The River’s emerging and surging with hope
Colours converge in a kaleidoscope
First song of the sparrow as winter months break
The earth it was sleeping and now it’s awake.”
Crystal Challis, 21, one of the songwriters, says she can relate to the other group members. After she was briefly hospitalized for a mental health disorder two years ago, art became her life.
“The first thing I painted while I was in the hospital was a little wooden box with rainbows. After feeling trapped for so long, it made me feel lighter and happier . . . Art and writing helped me make sense of what happened to me and put the pieces of my life back together.”
Today, Challis hopes to start training to become a medical office assistant in September.
For Rosenberg and Lefler, every day can still be a “struggle.” But the success of Spark of Brilliance keeps them going.
“Things happen for a reason,” says Rosenberg. “Our purpose is to show people that healing is possible. Within everyone there is a creative spirit, and this is the spark that will lead to recovery.”
Spark of Brilliance concerts take place June 29 and 30, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Queen Street Commons Café, 43 Queen St. S., Kitchener. General admission is $5, or pay what you can.