Four days ago, psychiatrist Linda Frey received a drawing from one of her patients. The imagery -- at once overt and cryptic -- was startling.
"I think there's some pain here," she told the patient, James Knabel, as the two again looked over the pen-and-ink work yesterday.
The 9-by-11-inch image showed a wide-eyed face above a demonic one. Next to the two faces, three others bent toward a clock and pointed toward a row of skulls. Knabel had written three words -- "Help Me Think" -- in the middle of it all.
"Pain?" Knabel, 32, asked Frey. She said yes. "I guess you could say that," Knabel said.
Knabel and Frey were among about 200 people who gathered to display and view art made by people who suffer mental illness. The event, at Seneca Creek State Park, was presented by a Montgomery County group that sponsors social outings. The group believes that although new drugs have improved the lives of some who are mentally ill, many patients remain crushed by isolation and lack of confidence.
In Knabel's case, he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. He takes Clozaril, an antipsychotic drug. He has been seeing Frey for about 15 years. He sorts mail at a government agency.
Although Knabel shows promise, he had not drawn in about a dozen years. Just sketching the heads on paper seemed to help, allowing him to express things he has trouble putting into words. He and his doctor now try to determine what the drawing might mean. Was the lowest face the devil?
"I'm not sure. It's what came out," Knabel said.
One picnic table over, Gino Parisi, 46, stood next to a series of his watercolor and oil paintings. A professional-grade artist, he sold five works -- ranging from $10 to $40 each. .
That did not surprise one of his former art teachers, Richard Klank of the University of Maryland. He said Parisi is among the six most talented of the more than 10,000 students he has taught. "He should be well-known," Klank said. "He's brilliant."
Through high school, Parisi, who grew up in Montgomery, did not display any symptoms of mental illness. He struggled after enrolling at Georgetown University -- lack of motivation, lack of concentration -- and eventually his schizophrenia was diagnosed.
One thing that seemed to help was painting. Using a six-foot canvas, he would create a piece in two hours, laying on colors to form abstract images. His art offered a break from his symptoms.
Parisi's father, then a Georgetown linguistics professor, set up a studio in his basement. He and his wife would watch in amazement as their son painted. "It's a freedom from his condition," Gino Parisi Sr. said yesterday.
Parisi Sr. hung his son's artwork throughout his Potomac home. Friends started hanging them in their homes, as well. About 10 years ago, local gallery owner Francisco Marin-Price saw a Parisi in a private home.
He thought it evoked the work of 20th-century American abstract artist Mark Tobey. Marin-Price tried to sell some of Parisi's paintings at that time. The large canvasses, priced at several thousand dollars each, did not sell.
"That's a comment on the gallery as much as the artist," Marin-Price said, explaining that his clients then favored traditional works. He now has more clients who like abstract art. So Parisi's paintings soon might return to the Marin-Price gallery in Chevy Chase.
Parisi keeps his best works at his parents' house. But those he brought yesterday caught the attention of Cristle Guinn, who works at a gallery in Cumberland, Md. "You can tell there's a lot of passion put into this," she said.
The event yesterday was geared toward those who suffer from mental health and those who treat it. Pete Warner, the event chairman, runs a group called the Bethesda Beatniks Dinner Club, which hosts gatherings for people with mental illness and their friends and family. Another group, On Our Own of Montgomery County, also helped yesterday.
Warner said he was disappointed that more doctors did not come or encourage patients to come. He said some clinicians have been concerned about liability and others might not appreciate how important it is for mentally ill people to socialize or display their artwork.
Similar events are being held across the country, said Stanley Passy, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"You do have a voice," he tells patients whose art he encourages. "You do have a way, maybe through art, to show what you're struggling with."