During her stay at the Renfrew Center, where she was recovering from an eating disorder, artist and Fairmount native Aimee Gilmore was presented with a limitless array of art materials – including everything from watercolors to clay to magazines for collaging. The colorful tools were usually accompanied with a simple prompt for the artists.
Often, the prompts guided patients to create visual representations of their eating disorders.
Although Gilmore found it challenging to talk about her struggles in the traditional therapy setting, she discovered solace in discussing her artwork with other patients.
“Because of the language of art, it didn’t feel as overwhelming or as scary,” Gilmore said.
As a child, Gilmore said she was constantly coloring, sewing, creating and crafting. Prior to beginning art therapy treatment, she viewed art as a comfortable pastime rather than a career option.
“It was a hobby, but I never studied in any sort of a class environment before,” she said.
Today, Gilmore’s “hobby” is a full-blown profession, with her BFA in 3D fine arts and a minor in textiles from the Moore College of Art and Design.
Gilmore is one of the featured artists at “The Art of Recovery,” an ongoing exhibition devoted to showcasing the works of women struggling with or recovering from eating disorders. At the New Leaf Club in Bryn Mawr, where the exhibition is located, Gilmore will present a lecture on Feb. 23 discussing her personal path to recovery as well as the artistic inspiration that flourished during her treatment at the Renfrew Center.
“It was really the catalyst to starting my career as an artist,” Gilmore said.
Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Renfrew Center has treated more than 65,000 women suffering from eating disorders since its initial commencement in Philadelphia. Its various locations now stretch from Atlanta to Boston to Los Angeles, and the foundation has treated international patients as well.
Before Renfrew established its Roxborough location in 1985, there was not a single residential facility devoted to the treatment of eating disorders in America.
Early on, Renfrew’s specialized, intensive treatment differed vastly from the regime that patients underwent in hospitals. Wendy Cramer, Renfrew’s professional relations representative, said before the creation of facilities like Renfrew, those suffering from eating disorders were sometimes force-fed, monitored or placed in a psych ward, devoid of personalized treatment.
“I think what makes us so unique is the fact that we don’t just put a Band-Aid on the symptom; we really focus on helping women understand the issues,” said Cramer, a graduate of Temple’s master’s program in counseling psychology.
The Renfrew Center entails both group and individual counseling sessions for women dealing with anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorders. Renfrew’s services and faculty also provide psychological support for patients enduring ailments ranging from depression and anxiety to post traumatic stress disorders and addiction problems – diseases that often possess comorbidity with eating disorders, according to Cramer.
Along with traditional verbal psychotherapy sessions, Renfrew possesses a cluster of nonverbal therapy programs involving the creative arts: movement and music therapy, psycho-drama and the art therapy that changed Gilmore’s life.
Years later, Gilmore is freely talking about her work as well as her pathway to recovery in front of audiences – this is neither her first time presenting her story or showcasing her art with the Renfrew Center’s exhibitions, which are free and open to the public.
The exhibition will display Gilmore’s 2013 piece, “50 Worries.” The project began with Gilmore sending herself a hand-written letter once a week, each message stating a worrisome thought – some worries were trivial, while some loomed dauntingly. After compiling the letters, Gilmore wrote them out all at once with a fine-point Sharpie over an intimately close photograph of her own face.
She compares the messages to a combination of battle scars and bodily adornments worn by different cultures.
“The more that I thought about the piece, I thought that it made sense to wear these worries,” Gilmore said.
“50 Worries” is one of more than 30 pieces, all created by women who have battled eating disorders, that comprise the exhibition. Each work contains a statement written by the artist, explaining and clarifying the message of her art.
“The art is very compelling,” Cramer said. “I have seen grown men who have never been exposed to mental health issues literally cry looking at some of the art and reading about the artist’s journey. It’s just really amazing, very moving work.”
Cramer will be introducing the speakers on Feb. 23 during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and attendees will have the opportunity to learn about identifying, perceiving and finding treatment for eating disorders.
Although research and resources have grown in the past several decades, there are still common misconceptions about eating disorders.
Cramer said she especially recognizes the assumption that eating disorders solely affect white, upper and middle class teenage girls, although in reality, the disease impacts all genders, socio-economic backgrounds, races and ages. She added that women over the age of 30 are beginning to make up a large portion of those suffering, according to Cramer.
Cramer also pointed out that eating disorders possess the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disease, whether those deaths come from medical complications or suicide.
“These are very complex and complicated patients and they don’t resolve quickly,” Cramer said. “These are long-term issues.”
Another misconception about eating disorders, Cramer added, is the supposition that those diagnosed with eating disorders will never recover. Cramer insisted that recovery is possible, which is why she believes in the importance of proper, thorough treatment.
Gilmore said she realizes that the first piece she created in art therapy, a rolling landscape, was centered on hope.
“It was very uplifting and beautiful and serene, and looking back on it now I can see that my will and drive to recover was there,” she said. “Even though it didn’t seem like it was, it was in me somewhere.”
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org