Authentic Abstraction

Former Pawtucket firefighters Brendan McCarthy and Edmund Dalo stand in front of one of their many works of abstract art exhibited last Friday night, at Monument Square Arts in Woonsocket. Their work is the result of strategies they used to cope with the stress of being firefighters, and emphasizes creativity and being in the present moment, and together they call themselves “Authentic Abstraction.”

WOONSOCKET – Authentic Abstraction is the work of two former firefighters whose creative explorations together have helped in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from their time on the force.

The artistic partners, Edmund “Eddy” Dalo, 31, and Brendon McCarthy, 32, have more than 10 years’ worth of experience as firefighters and EMTs. They have known each other for more than a decade, but did not start sharing their art together until this past summer. Now they paint side-by-side nearly daily as they continue to use art as a form of expression and therapy to work through their PTSD.

“Art went from a coping strategy to deal with the horrors of our work as firefighters to being the gasoline and ignitor to the new fire we won’t be fighting – the fire of activism and advocation, painting, writing, connecting, listening, creating, and thinking,” say the artists.

Authentic Abstraction opened its first gallery at Monument Square Arts, located at 2 Monument Square, Woonsocket, last Friday, April 1. The gallery will be on display through the month of April, with open hours on Thursday and Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m.

The pieces are made in true partnership, with each signed with the simple tag “Just BE” for Brendon and Eddy. While the aesthetics of their art lives within the genre of its namesake, the paintings and poems by Authentic Abstraction evoke a clear depiction of the emotions that were poured into each title.

Each painting is hung with a hand sculpted wooden frame, and is partnered with a poem encased in glass that highlights the emotions behind each paint stroke. Some paintings pop with vibrant greens and blues, and the accompanying, lyrical poems emphasize these vivid emotions. Other paintings use darker colors and imagery depicting the more difficult moments of living with PTSD from their time as firefighters.

“That diagnosis unfortunately cut our calling – our dream job – short,” Dalo said.

There were difficult times when McCarthy was really sick, struggling with symptoms of his PTSD, and Dalo said they spent time together bonding over music. Before leaving the job, Dalo played the guitar each shift at the fire station to help cope with symptoms of this diagnosis. He and McCarthy made an instant connection bonding over music. As this friendship continued to grow and they spent more time at each other’s homes, Dalo discovered paintings McCarthy had made.

“The ones I connected with – I’d take them,” Dalo said. “He really wasn’t well, and I started kind of saving his paintings … If something was nice, the next day I would come over, and he’d have painted over it.”

In time, they began to do more than writing music together. Dalo picked up a paint brush and the “free-for-all” team style paintings came naturally. They started painting side-by-side on the same canvas. Other times they will start a piece on their own and then hand it off to the other for continuation. This same collaboration comes into play when writing the accompanying poems, they said.

“I consider it, like, no-ego art,” McCarthy said of the collaborative style.

“You just kind of know when it’s done, when it feels right,” Dalo added.

You may find errors in the writing, or some slop on the paintings, they said, but Authentic Abstractions evolve during the emotional expression process of creation that may take minutes, hours or days. They view their paintings as “snapshots in a moment in time,” and it reflects their emotional state or the events of their life at the time.

“Our work is sometimes obsessed over. Burned, broken, drowned or slashed. Loved cradled and grieved over when they pass. We believe there are no mistakes, only good and bad outcomes,” the duo writes.

Dalo and McCarthy were both members of the Pawtucket Fire Department, with McCarthy spending part of his career as a member of the Johnston Fire Department. McCarthy returned to Pawtucket for a brief time before leaving the career entirely.

While the duo never fought a fire together on the same call, they still attributed their cohesiveness to time as members of firefighting teams. McCarthy said this team dynamic encourages firemen to be comfortable relying on each other. This “ride or die” trust helped break down inhibitions and allowed them to be their full emotional and creative selves around each other.

“He gave me the confidence to allow myself to feel how I was actually feeling,” Dalo said of McCarthy. “I was doing anything to avoid how I was actually feeling — drinking, vacation, working more, playing music, you name it.”

McCarthy said it took almost two years of dealing with his symptoms to seek therapy for his PTSD. Painting, he said, allowed him to get out emotions that were bubbling underneath. Dalo echoed this sentiment, and shared the story of his painting titled “1000 cuts.”

“That stopped me from hurting myself. I sat in the basement and counted 1,000 cuts on that canvas,” he said, making a striking motion through the air in front of him. “When I came through and thought I still wanted to hurt myself, I did a 1,000 more…”

After hours, he finished, threw the painting on the floor and didn’t look at it for days. When looking at the painting, he said, he can still feel these negative emotions that were released into the piece.

“When I saw it, I thought I could feel the almost tornado-like inner turmoil, but there’s a light inside that’s contained by the cuts all around it,” Monument Square Arts Gallery owner Kim Celona said of 1,000 cuts.

“Some pieces are dark, but they’re each a glimmer of hope for us,” McCarthy said. “Even if it talks about cutting himself, that was his glimmer of hope that he didn’t hurt himself … Each piece has given us a reason to keep stepping.”

“We’re better than we were, but we’re always working,” Dalo said of their PTSD. “... The real you wants to live and be happy, but the illness is so strong…”

One piece, “Stress,” depicts a sense of being boxed in with a blackness encroaching on a colorful center of the canvas. “Self Care,” a painting with bright greens and oranges on the top half, and a world of dark blue, black and red swirling underneath, evokes the struggle of depression and the effort to maintain an intentional positive mindset. The painting and poem “Father Time” are inspired by the sense of being present in a moment.

“If you read the poem, it says ‘Father time was disgusted when I learned to turn minutes into moments’,” Dalo said, quoting their own original poem.

In addition to creating the paintings and poems on display, the pair has authored a poetry and art book. “Hanging by a Thread” will be released this coming July. The idea for the book came about last summer, Dalo said, and is what sparked the broader endeavor that is Authentic Abstraction.

As they continue to create, the duo said they hope their work breaks down the stigma around mental health that may prevent other firefighters and first responders from seeking help if they’re experiencing similar struggles.

“We used to save other lives, now we’re saving our own lives here,” McCarthy said.

In addition to creating their personal paintings and writing, Authentic Abstraction also makes custom art pieces called “custom expressions.” They zoom with clients and have them complete a questionnaire to explore the clients “story and vibe” before making their piece. The artists then develop the painting based on the client’s answers. Testimonials from customers can be found at authenticabstraction.com.

Celona said she was thrilled to have the new artists as one of the first galleries in the space. The gallery opened in October 2021, and Celona said she wants the gallery to become a space where artists can show their work, hang out and meet other creatives.

Authentic Abstraction will be participating in an Artist Salon night at Monument Square Gallery Thursday, April 7 from 6 to 9 p.m. Celona said the salon nights are a way for creative minds to collaborate and is inspired by the famous literary salons of Gertrude Stein and the French Salons. They are regularly held on the first Thursday of each month.

Additionally, Authentic Abstraction will be participating in Arts in the Alley on April 23. They will be creating a painting live, which will be raffled off, and all donations will go to St. Michael’s Ukrainian Church here in Woonsocket. The Arts in the Alley event will be hosted at Lops Brewing, 122 North Main St. in Woonsocket, from noon to 4 p.m.

More information on the local artists can be found online at AuthenticAbstraction.com, or on Instagram @authentic_Abstraction.

For more information on the Monument Square Gallery and upcoming events, visit monument-square-arts.business.site/, call 401-573-2255, or email monumentsquarearts@gmail.com.

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