South Bronx artist Miguel Colón struggled to make art during his youth due to his mental illness. He came from a household of abuse and trauma.
But at age 53, Colón found an environment that gives him the emotional and financial support he needs to understand his mental illness at Fountain House Gallery.
Fountain House, a national mental health nonprofit, offers memberships to artists who live with serious mental illness.The organization will hold its annual “YELL! Art Auction & Benefit,” on April 20 to raise funds for supplies, workshops, studio space and visits to galleries across the city for its member artists.
The organization operates on a clubhouse model, pioneered by Fountain House in the 1940s, with the idea that community is therapy. Fountain House currently operates in Manhattan and in the Bronx on Walton Avenue, through community-based locations designed to support the recovery of those living with serious mental illness.
“There are a dozen clubhouses in the city replicated after this model, 200 across the country and 100 across the world,” said Minhee Cho, the group’s director of media strategy. “They’re not all affiliated with Fountain House, but based on the model and it shows that it doesn’t just work in New York City, this is a model that really works to treat those with mental illness.”
As he grew up in the South Bronx in the 1970s, Colón struggled to attend class in high school and find his way in art with his mental illness.
“Looking back, I realize I didn’t eat for nutrition. I ate to fill a hole in me, and later on that started happening with alcohol and drugs” said Colón. “It was in my early 20s I realized I was having a lot of dysfunction and I needed to seek out some help.”
At his first art school, High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, he described himself as very internal, and would often only show up for the second to last class to see the few friends he had. He credits his art teacher, Irwin Greenberg, who encouraged him to attend his morning painting lessons that began an hour and a half before school. It was a turning point for Colón, who said it was the first time someone told him that his art was good enough to work towards.
Colón went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the School of Visual Arts, and has studied under painters Jack Potter, Marilyn Minter and Kenny Scharf. In 2001, he was the recipient of the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Workshop Grant at the National Academy of Design.
The art auction, which will be held at Prince George Ballroom in Manhattan, will feature two works by Colón, titled, “Reasonable Accommodation,” and “Krystal,” both made of vinyl paint on canvas. The former is a captivating portrait of a crouched figure, surrounded by purple walls, and aims to convey Colón’s frustration with stigmas around mental illness and limited housing resources.
Colón became a member of Fountain House in 2018, and believes a community-based environment is a monumental resource for artists who live with serious mental illness.
“It was huge. I’ve always felt a little out there or odd, but the great thing about Fountain House is that they help you with those things,” said Colón. “I found the resources of the studio and the gallery, being able to show my work on a regular basis and submit in the exhibitions, it’s really a happy place to work as an artist.”
The annual art auction raised over $400,000 last year, and is part of Fountain House’s mission to support artists with serious mental illness and to dismantle cruelties in the criminal legal system. At this year’s auction, the group will honor the Art for Justice Fund with the Esther Montanez Leadership Award, a non-monetary award, for their work in criminal justice system reform.
This year’s event is curated by writer Roxanne Gay, who was touched by the organization’s mission. “Our gallery director just contacted her as a cold pitch, and she was really moved,” said Cho. “It’s a huge honor.”
Colón’s advice to other Bronx artists who struggle with mental illness is to take time to understand the illness, and to look to clubhouse models that encourage community and wellbeing.
“A huge part of mental illness is denial and not seeking help,” he said. “Look into clubhouses, it’s a great source of happiness to be around people.”
The art auction will begin at 6:30pm, and tickets can be found here: https://www.fountainhousegallery.org/show/fountain-house-gallery-yell-art-auction-benefit.