Wilfred Charbonneau speaks in front of gallery wall with artists statement and photographs of his carvings in background.

Russell Sage College Fire Safety Coordinator Wilfred Charbonneau remembers introducing himself to Expressive Arts in Mental Health Assistant Professor Tracy Gilbert last year.

“I said, ‘Hey, you teach creative art therapy. I’m an artist, and I’m in therapy.’ She said I made her late for her next class.”

During that conversation, Charbonneau showed Gilbert some photos of the exquisite sculptures he carves out of the antlers of moose, elk, and other animals.

By then, Charbonneau had been creating art for almost 30 years — just a little less time than he spent as a professional firefighter. He was a wood artist until a magazine article inspired him to experiment with antler carving.

“I felt a connection to the energy,” he said of what became his preferred canvas for depicting intricate nature scenes.

Carving helped him cope with some of the extreme stress that built up in the aftermath of the fires, car accidents, health crises, and other emergencies, including search and rescue service after the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center, that he experienced as a first responder.

Charbonneau told Gilbert how his pieces were featured in juried art shows from Maine to Wyoming before severe PTSD took his ability to concentrate. He also shared how therapy was helping him to recover some of what he lost to PTSD — including his art practice.

“Every time we’d see each other, we’d get chatting about it,” he said. “She asked if I would speak to her students about art and how it works for me in therapy. I said ‘Sure!’”

Gilbert subsequently invited Charbonneau to exhibit photographs of his work at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on Sage’s Troy campus this spring. The exhibit, which features photographs of his carvings and sculptures, is on display through mid-April.

Charbonneau wore his fire captain’s uniform when he spoke to Gilbert’s students, to challenge their assumptions about showing authority and showing vulnerability. He then described his PTSD and its connection to the pieces in the exhibit. He knows his pieces can come across as serene but said they are all stories of life and death struggle for him.

Charbonneau has previously shared his story publicly, including on a New York Emmy-nominated segment with WTEN News10’s Christina Arangio. He wants to destigmatize mental health struggles and urge anyone who needs support to seek it. Speaking with students offered him an additional opportunity to encourage future professionals in an area where they are

“I am really thankful for them,” he said. “I told them, you have no idea of the impact you are going to make.” He hopes to return to speak in future classes, perhaps in conjunction with a practicing therapist.

Charbonneau joined Sage in 2019 after retiring as a captain in the Cohoes Fire Department. He’s responsible for ensuring all college buildings, and the fire extinguishers, sprinkler, and alarm systems within them, meet or exceed safety codes.

“I’m still in a position where I get to keep people safe,” he said, ”and there’s an art program!”

He’s connected with RSC’s Art + Extended Media BFA program, too: he’s one of the artists who participates in Fire Night, an annual event for which artists create sculptures that transform as they burn in a cathartic community bonfire.

“Being here at the college is good for me. There are days I wish I could carve full time, but this interaction is good,” he said. “The college is a positive place. I hear the struggle – the students have a lot of struggles. Mental health is more of a topic than ever, and I appreciate the students who are going to commit their lives to it [as professionals].”

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