According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults will experience some form of mental illness in a given year. Mental illnesses are more prevalent than cancer, diabetes or heart disease and can impact all people, regardless of age, race, religion or income level. Despite the ubiquity of mental illness, approximately sixty percent of people who suffer will not seek treatment. Often the social stigma attached to the phrase 'mentally ill' can prevent an individual from taking a proactive stance in response to his or her illness.
Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art, currently on display at Pittsburgh's Society for Contemporary Craft until March 26, explores the personal and social impact of mental illness through the lens of contemporary craft. This groundbreaking exhibit features 33 works by 14 contemporary artists, all of whom have either been diagnosed with mental illness or been affected by it. All pieces utilize traditional craft materials, such as metal, ceramic, glass, wood, fiber and found materials, in new and experimental ways.
"Artists have unique problem solving abilities and offer fresh perspectives on complex issues through their artwork. In many cases, a handcrafted object communicates layers of emotion and experience in a way that words cannot," explained Executive Director Janet McCall. "We use art to build community through exhibitions that tackle social justice issues such as mental health. We want to create a safe place for community conversation to occur around topics that are difficult to address in other situations."
The show embraces the difficult questions that drive our national mental health discourse. What is 'normality'? What is the genetic basis for mental illness? How does mental illness contribute to dysfunctional family behavior? What role do pharmaceuticals play in treatment? How does our modern lifestyle exacerbate stress and anxiety? How can we more effectively respond to the mental health needs of veterans and victims of war? What does it mean to be an immigrant or outsider in our culture?
Mindful employed a crowd-sourcing approach during all phases of the planning and implementation process. Contemporary Craft consulted with numerous social service agencies and thought leaders, including NAMI, The Allegheny County Office of Behavioral Health and UPMC's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. A mental health literature section is available at the entrance to the building and mental health-related lectures and presentations are scheduled to occur. A hands-on weaving activity designed by artist Grace Kubilius allows visitors to experience the contemplative, healing power of art-making. Visitors are encouraged to submit their reactions to an ever expanding Thought Cloud.
Rose Clancy's 'All for Naught, Forget Me Not', features a life-sized white statue of a pigtailed young girl stands atop a tricycle seat. She reaches, in vain, for a group of metal keys suspended from the ceiling.The keys, which symbolize a possible solution to a mother's illness, which included depression and agoraphobia, and worsened as she aged, dangle tantalizingly out of reach. On the floor lie a pile of discarded keys. The mother is represented by an empty, folded wheelchair in front of a window, her space adorned with favored objects from an earlier life: books, gardening materials and a religious statue. The girl is separated from the mother by a tall, dark bookshelf.
Meredith Grimsley's 'Foundress' likens the recurring events and behaviors inherent in dysfunctional family dynamics to the annul swarm of yellow jackets produced by a queen bee. A sense of beauty and distortion characterize Grimsley's work, constructed from fabric, hand made paper and acrylic paint, and features a pair of human hands extended forward, fingertips pressed together, releasing their 'swarm' into the world.
Brooklyn-based artist Swoon's mixed media work 'Memento Mori', fashioned from handprinted block print with coffee stain and cut out on mylar, explores impact of mental illness and physical addiction on future generations. The family matriarch, skeletal with oxygen tubes in her nose, holds her daughter who also cradles a toddler in her arms. Future generations are depicted below."We need to understand people's actions in a different context so that we're less hateful or judgmental towards those who have experienced traumatic situations and are therefore at much greater risk," explains the artist.
Sophia Jung Am Park's 'You Are Not Going Under' is a wearable sculpture constructed from copper, acrylic paint and patina. Park was inspired by bonsai trees, bound by wire as they grow, to achieve a certain pattern. The piece, which resembles a tree branch, restricts movement when worn and acts as an analogy for the way mental illness can constrict the body and mind.
Jessie Albrecht, a ceramicist and veteran, explores the mental health impact of war, including PTSD in veterans, in his earthenware piece 'The Hammer.' The implications of the issue are myriad: What are the motivations for war? Why are some people profiting extensively from war? Who will care for veterans?
Grace Kubilius' 'Junk Bones' is an exploration of what it feel to live as if 'tied up'. A figure wears outfit constructed from cotton, canvas, burlap and coffee filters, string and other objects. Kubilius' work explores concepts of "gender, identity, trauma, self-image, ugliness and objectification."
There is a hopeful bent to Lyn Godley's 'In Flight', which features charcoal renderings of birds in flight, fiber optics and LED lights. The piece calls to mind the science behind light lamps used to relieve seasonal mood disorders. "Lighting holds deep meaning for me. In my work light reads as the connection between a constellation far above, and the soul's energy deep within; as an aura that connects us to something beyond, something that gives hope," explains Godley in her artist statement.
Artists Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Edward Eberle, Kaitlyn Evans, Joan Iversen Goswell, Michael Janis, Allison Saar and Ian Thomas also explore the ramifications of mental health in impactful and resonant works.
Visitors to Mindful can meet artist-in-residence Daniel Baxter, and watch as he creates whimsical dolls on a sewing machine. Each doll encompasses a unique set of emotions, from carefree and ebullient to shy and reserved. "Everybody is one of a kind, and everybody needs something special and unique," explains Baxter. "The world is not a ready-made place and art is a vehicle for conversation."
Visitors can also page through 'Osprey' an illustrated fable featuring Western Pennsylvania birds, by local artist and author Nathaniel Taylor. 'Osprey' cautions against the dangers of stigma.
Mindful will be at the Society for Contemporary Craft at 2100 Smallman Street in Pittsburgh until March 26, 2016 and will then be on display at museums in Ohio, Virginia and Minnesota until October 7, 2017. Admission is free. Contemporary Craft is open Monday-Saturday, from 10am-5pm. More information and a full schedule of events is available at contemporarycraft.org or exploremindfulart.com.
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