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Art increases stability, autonomy for this special artist

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Alana Barrell is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who uses art to maintain her stability and increase her autonomy.

Her work is featured in her first solo exhibition, on from March 7 to 31 at the Centre d’Aprentissage Parallèle, 4865 St. Laurent Blvd., the mental health clinic just south of St. Joseph Blvd. The vernissage is 5 to 8 pm and RSVPs are required.

The exhibition is part of the Mental Health Ambassadors project, funded by l’Agence de la santé and Fondation du Grand Montréal.

The project encourages people with psychological challenges to develop artistic work under the best possible conditions, using creativity to work through disturbing emotions and toward well being.

Barrell, 33, says living with schizophrenia is difficult but she chooses to focus on the positive.

“I wanted to capture some of my best memories and influences, like dancing at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, where I lived for a time. Ethiopian art has been a big inspiration to me,” she says.

Painting is more than a coping mechanism to process the hallucinations and delusions she faces regularly, she says. It is her way of expressing the various worlds she sees.

Originally from South Africa and having travelled extensively, Barrell combines cross-cultural ideas with her unique point of view in a style known as naïve art, where the artist creates without having traditional formal education.

“Each painting tells a different story,” she explains. “My zebras show how important it is to love each other, that we have to appreciate the animals.”

Barrell prefers oils but also works with acrylics, ink, and mixed media, and has learned how to weave, knit, make stained glass, and other art or craft techniques from funded social programs such as the Centre d’Apprentisage Parallèle.

She considers these programs crucial to her continued healing and recovery. “I’m so thankful to the centre, my family, doctors, social workers, nurses, and friends. It isn’t easy, but they keep me going and encourage my work.”
Alana divides her time, living with her mother, Julie Hessler, in Verdun, and her sister, Liesl Barrell, in NDG.

“Programs like these are absolutely essential,” says Liesl Barrell. “Alana’s illness was so severe she had to quit school at 15. But as an adult at these centres, she has slowly developed the confidence and skills to build a life and vocation of her own, despite setbacks.”

“We need to keep these important programs running and make them more accessible,” Barrell says. “They save lives. There are incredible hardships for those with mental health illnesses and their caregivers. People sometimes have trouble understanding that mental illnesses like schizophrenia are serious and demand recognition and support, just like heart disease or cancer.

“Alana lost her two closest friends within six months of each other, and we also lost our aunt to suicide, so the threats are real and ever-present. We take nothing for granted and are grateful to be living in a country and a community that is trying to address mental health issues.”

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