The tribute to Centrepieces given by one of its volunteers at the AGM on 22 June.

I have a mental condition. I am an artist. I like to believe it is infectious, and if it is, then Centrepieces will continue to grow.

One of the symptoms of this condition is that I like to re-invent life as a series of my own metaphors. As a toddler people saw it as cute that I saw the roots of a tree as a claw gripping the ground, or a gash in the mud as a smile of earth. When I was seven, and I started copying my father’s drawings, I found out that having artistic talent bought you love, admiration and attention. As a young teenager, breaking and entering the art classroom to be on my own and paint pictures rather than sit in a cold playground, singled me out as a strange child with issues, and there were issues.

I found I could use my creativity to paint a rose tinted-life for my sister and I who were surviving a life with our father Tony Cassio – professional wrestler, artist, inventor, scientist, occasional hell raiser, genius both good and evil and general mad man. I love him dearly, but life was confusing to say the least. 

I created a bedtime story for my little sister called, The Dream Train where she and I could escape into the night onto a flying steam engine that took us into any adventure that suited us and equalized the fear and uncertainty of our childhood at the time.

I formed a habit of escaping into my imagination. I often appeared to be in a daydream when I should be paying attention, and blurted out uncomfortable observations when I should have kept quiet.  Whenever reality got too much, I could always fall back on my powers of imagination, turning a boring bus journey into a disastrous situation where a group of passengers come alive with their true colours, or turning a walk through a woods into a Disney adventure to another dimension. It was my way of masking the hurt, and confusion of a reality that I wasn’t equipped to deal with in a practical way.

Around the time of my 40th birthday, my stepfather, developed liver cancer, and I made a promise to him and my mother to help him through the illness without treatment, and to support him in his wish to die at home. 

At the same time my real father showed the first signs of Lewey Body Dementia giving him horrific hallucinations. My sister and I were put under the enormous pressure of caring for him, moving him to a more manageable house, dealing with his mental and physical decline and eventually having to move him to a care home.

My imagination ran dry: the shit had hit the fan, and there were no Disney animals to help me clean up. Finally, the pressures became too much, depression took over; my life had changed faster than I could cope with and this led to a breakdown and a short stay in Rohampton Mental Hospital. In my week there, unable to talk about how I was feeling, I started to draw. 

I drew eyes surrounded by prison like structures and I drew doors in walls with various obstructions. I started to label parts of the drawings, and from there was able to slowly start to speak about what was happening in my mind to the therapists trying to help me.

I left the hospital, feeling broken, ashamed, mentally and physically weak, paranoid and confidence at the lowest. I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with life or go back to any normality, but I had one silver lifeline to hold onto. My art!

I knew that I couldn’t cope with a regular job, and after numerous failed attempts to find a place for myself and my art in an area where it seemed there wasn’t much interest, I was introduced to Centrepieces. 
When I walked into the lodge, I wasn’t sure if I was in heaven, or hell. It seemed to me that talent was dripping from every wall, a language of colour, darkness and light! Looking at all those paintings I felt that I was in a dimension of despair, hope, and joy! The paintings expressed levels of depression and of celebration! Words were unnecessary, the language here was art and I felt I had found a world that I could understand!

I met Geoff Norris and Dawn Tomlin in their grotto-like office, where my manic firework display of enthusiasm was met with reserve and apprehension, but as always, they were desperate for volunteers and were happy to take on any lunatic.

I have to admit, I came in like a bit of a Tasmanian Devil, but I had found my tribe and rather than made to feel like an outsider, I was guided, encouraged and sometimes reprimanded, until I was able to offer a more harmonious contribution. 

I cautiously took on the role of Sculptor Tutor at the lodge when my suggestion to apply for a grant to develop our sculpture department became a reality. 

I don’t believe you can really teach art; what I do is enhance and encourage the unique talent that is in each person, but I can teach techniques and in the year that I have been guiding the Centrepieces artists in the techniques of stone carving, woodcarving, casting and ceramics, I have seen the fundamental qualities that Centrepieces is bringing to the community. 

People come to Centrepieces suffering mental illness either from inherent conditions, or from the traumas that they have suffered in life. They come to Centrepieces almost as a last resort, not really sure of what the therapy of art can do for them. 

However, in most cases, what I see is a glimmer of hope as they learn techniques that produce something that they can recognise, enjoy, and give to the world. That glimmer of hope becomes pride and appreciation in themselves and their new found ability. I feel honoured to be able to witness that pride become confidence as I watch the members of my art group start to teach new comers and create art of their own, expressing feelings and thoughts that were trapped inside a mind that perhaps felt ashamed and persecuted for who they are and how they cope with the world.

Through Centrepieces, I have found an extended family with a common goal, to keep art in the community alive, to show the importance that it brings to people, as a form of communication, and freedom of expression. 

As I see it, art is a doorway into a world where there are no rules, where miracles can be created and for those people who step through, it can be very difficult to make sense of a world that likes to pigeon hole, label and control everything. To be an artist, in my opinion is to be free of the restrictions that are often necessary to fit into a clockwork society. To fly as a bird, between the cogs and wheels of society is a scary thing, and often feathers and wings can be caught and crushed. 

The charity Centrepieces is such an important stronghold for these creative people, offering a safe environment to heal and to grow.

I have experienced the life changing support that Centrepieces can offer and have seen first-hand the powerful changes it has brought to people’s lives. I am so thankful to all of the people that volunteer their time to keep Centrepieces alive, all of your contributions, your interest, every bit of support helps to generate more interest in a social environment that can alienate people with mental issues and struggles to find a functional reason for art.  

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