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In ancient Greek mythology, nine muses governed the arts and inspired creativity: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (choral poetry), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astrology). At the 9Muses Art Center in Lauderhill, the range of creative expression is as broad, if not broader: It features creative writing, poetry, piano, guitar, voice, percussion, photography, decoupage, mosaic, sewing, clay, ceramics, pottery, framing, drawing, pastels, acrylic, watercolor, and even computer-based design.
At the eclectic but not-well-known cultural center, a dozen instructors teach classes in the aforementioned disciplines as well as other, more prosaic subjects such as exercise and anger management. There are also workshops for bipolar and anxiety disorders. 9Muses, you see, is part of the Mental Health Association of Broward County. The center provides opportunities for people with mental illness to express themselves and recover through the arts.
Membership in 9Muses is free to anyone with a psychiatric diagnosis, but that requirement is highly flexible. Shane Weaver, the center's gallery coordinator and manager of its in-house frame shop, says the clientele ranges from people who have had, for instance, a major episode of depression to more seriously ill patients who are bused in from mental institutions during the week. There are more than 3,000 members, and 50 to 75 use the center on an average day.
As the center's web page (mhabroward.org/9Muses) explains, 9Muses is also open "to those in the community who are without diagnosis but interested in pursuing the arts and engaging in stimulating activity without regard for stigma or labels." There's a $100 membership fee for people without a mental illness (and Weaver suggests that fee could possibly be reduced or waived in exchange for a donation of in-kind goods or services).
It all sounds suspiciously like something out of the freewheeling 1960s, and indeed, there's a communal vibe at 9Muses that feels strangely out of sync with the current era. In these recessionary times, the arts are among the first things to go on the chopping block when budgets are slashed.
And yet, the good folks at 9Muses soldier on. Classes are offered six days a week, and the prevailing philosophy here seems to be that, when times are tough, art is more necessary than ever. Toward that end, the center provides a common studio space where classes are taught and artists work. One corner features a frame shop that's open to the public. Another area serves as a library.
9Muses also offers members the opportunity to display and sell their work. Adjacent to the studio is a lounge area where the "permanent collection" is housed. Individual artists get wall space and a brief biography posted alongside their art. One wall is devoted to a monthly minishow highlighting the work of a single artist.
This month, the focus is on Rita Maria Yebra, a Cuban-born artist from the seaport town of Antilla. She's clearly gifted, not to mention versatile. There's an especially impressive large mixed-media piece incorporating photographs, text, and a painted historical map of Havana. Other works demonstrate a flair for architectural renderings, and Yerba's bio indicates that she studied architecture at the University of Havana before taking up painting in 1998.
On a quarterly basis, 9Muses also stages a larger-scale group exhibition. The current show, "The 'C' Word," features roughly 30 works by more than two dozen artists who were invited to explore, in the words of the brochure, "the meaning and experiences of being labeled with a mental illness."
As with any theme-based group show, the work is of variable quality. Although many renowned artists have famously struggled with mental-health issues, a diagnosis doesn't automatically give someone the ability to produce great artwork. But some of the artists participating here have gotten in touch with their own muses in startlingly direct ways. My choice for Best in Show would probably be Bill Sera's A Secret Ordeal, a dark mixed-media piece that includes pencil images of battered children and embedded text such as "Put your hands behind your back!" The piece is a painfully visceral evocation of what it's like to be the victim of child abuse. What it lacks in technical sophistication it more than makes up for in sheer emotional impact.
The same could be said of Denicia Howard's Spare Parts, a jarring mixed-media installation about gender identity, or Mickey Ray's Fear 1 and Fear 2, the latter of which won one of four honorable mentions from juror Faith Popick. Ray's acrylic paintings are neo-expressionist close-ups of faces that convey terror as convincingly as Edvard Munch's iconic The Scream.
The common denominator of the best art at 9Muses is its sense of urgency. Sometimes, making art is not a luxury but a necessity. That's well worth considering in these times.