For many of the first-timers who walk into the Bridgeview Community Support program, mental illness has become defining.

It has strained relationships, hindered careers, and in some cases, resulted in hospitalization.

Now, a new north-metro studio space stocked with supplies and staffed by an art coordinator is nurturing a new, more hopeful identity — that of an artist.

Bridgeview is a nonprofit drop-in day center for adults living with serious and persistent mental illness. It’s part of the Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health and Well-Being in Anoka County, which last year provided low-cost mental health services to 4,000 children, adults and families in the north metro.

When Bridgeview moved from Spring Lake Park to a new, larger building in Fridley last fall, it was able to set up a more modern art studio and expand its art program.

Last week, Bridgeview artists held their first exhibit and art sale in the new space.

“They can now say, ‘I am an artist. That is my first identity,’ versus saying, ‘I am an adult living with persistent mental illness,’” said Robin Getsug, Bridgeview’s art coordinator.

Bridgeview’s art program, started in 1984, helps to develop talent and build friendships and also serves as a form of healing, Getsug said.

“Creating art in and of itself is therapeutic,” she said. “It can be good for illness, trauma, depression, autism, anxiety, all different kinds of things.”

Each week, Bridgeview offers 15 hours of art studio time, with 12 to 25 people participating in each art session. Artists often work on individual pursuits. Getsug also holds more organized art sessions where participants are asked to express their responses to questions including, “What is your safe place?” or “What does you heart feel like today?”

“My biggest job is to just listen to them through their art,” Getsug said. “Rather than having a therapy discussion, we are making art together, and they are telling me their stories and history through their art.”

Art as a balm

At last week’s show, Leo Sauvageau had written “artist” on his name tag.

Sauvageau, of Maplewood, started coming to Bridgeview about four years ago.

“I was having a real bad bout of depression,” he said. “I went to the hospital; then I went to day treatment.”

He now stops by Bridgeview, where he’s active in the art program, three days a week. He paints, draws and sculpts.

Art is now a daily part of his life and helps him process emotions, manage anxiety and be more social.

“This is my means of getting things out,” Sauvageau said. “ … Really, what it allows me to do is be mindful, be in the moment.”

One of his sculptures, titled “BLANK!,” is of the Greek mythological figure Narcissus peering into a pool of water.

“There is an emptiness that can be inside when you try to figure out who you are. You don’t always know what you are feeling,” said Sauvageau of what inspired him to create the piece.

Making art also inspires confidence.

“I am proud of what I do,” Sauvageau said. “I like to have the opportunity to do it.”

Charlene Gile, of Blaine, started drawing and painting at Bridgeview this year. Nature inspires her; she likes to paint birds, butterflies and flowers.

“It helps reduce stress and anxiety,” Gile said. “I never thought I’d ever like it.”

James Paul Ross, a digital concept artist from Andover, recently sold one of his pieces for $400. The artists keep all the proceeds of their sales.

VSA Minnesota, the state organization on arts and disabilities, provided $15,000 to set up the new arts space.

And now a $10,000 grant from Metropolitan Regional Arts Council will help fund a series on nontraditional self-portraits and living with mental illness. Seven artists will teach in several different mediums. The goal is to publish a coffee-table book featuring Bridgeview artists’ self-portraits.

“It’s about expressing the way they feel. It’s a means of survival with their mental illness.” Getsug said.