Jenna Bass wrote an autobiography in watercolor.
As the Hunterdon County, N.J., artist began to recover from the eating disorders that were ruining her life, blood reds receded and bright pinks proliferated in her work.
"Looking back on these paintings is really profound for me," says Bass, 26. "They're so far from where I am now."
I meet the stylish and personable artist at the Mount Laurel offices of the Renfrew Center, a rehabilitation program specializing in eating disorders. Bass was an inpatient at Renfrew's Philadelphia facility in 2009 and 2010.
She brought along a portfolio from what she calls her "Recovery Series," as well as more recent pieces.
Her paintings have been featured in Renfrew calendars, displayed at the facility, showcased at traveling presentations about eating disorders, and sold.
"I started painting when I was 10 or 11," says Bass, who spent what she describes as "a charmed childhood writing, painting, riding horses, and playing musical instruments" in a scenic small town in Hunterdon County.
Private lessons helped develop her technique and "illustrative and whimsical" style, she says. "But when I was 15, my eating disorder started to kick off, and by the time I was 18, I no longer painted at all."
A perfectionist who used "pretty words" to keep people at bay, Bass began using her body to communicate her emotional distress. Her flesh became a canvas of sorts as she overexercised, binged and purged food, and cut her skin.
"I wanted to look sickly and frail because that's how I felt inside," she says. "I wanted to be as small as possible, because when I was small, I felt safe."
Bass recalls being unable to put what she was feeling into words. And "I had this fear that if I really dared to say what was going on in my head, no one would listen," she adds.
It was at Renfrew in 2009 that she met creative arts therapy supervisor Sondra Rosenberg. "Jenna took to art therapy right away," she says.
In the process, patients can "tap into parts of themselves they may have shut down," Rosenberg says, adding, "Art gives them a safe place for this to emerge."
What emerged for Bass was sometimes startling. In one painting, she depicted herself trapped in the belly of a whale; in another, she clutches her distended belly and forces herself to disgorge bluebirds.
"Jenna would start working on a piece and not know what it meant," Rosenberg says. "Once she had it on paper, there was a chance to step back and reflect."
The length and breadth of the Recovery Series "is unique," the therapist adds. "It's a story, playing out in visuals."
Bass, who lives independently and works in the service department of a car dealership, shows me three successive, representative, and powerful pieces from her series: "Mercy of the Fallen," "Lifeline," and "What Is Good."
Richly detailed, confidently drawn, literal as well as metaphoric, the paintings feature a solitary female figure in stark, dramatic surroundings; a froth of blood-colored waves, a precipice, and, in the last, a stream of light.
The woman is illuminated as she releases dirt from her hands and into the waves, which are rendered in more pleasing shades of green and periwinkle blue (the artist's favorite color). And the picture includes splashes of pink, "which is representative of hope in my work," Bass says.
As her recovery continues, the content of the paintings, as well as the look and the palette, has shifted.
Bass shows me "Souls on Fire" - a vivid, realistic closeup of horses in motion.
"I'm increasingly drawn to horses," she says, calling them "the physical manifestation of freedom."