Out From The Darkness

Out From The Darkness

Society For Contemporary Craft Mindful Showgoer

A “Mindful” showgoer adds a message to the Thought Cloud area, reflecting on the objects and stories of the exhibition. Photo: Brian Cohen

An exhibition shines a light on mental illness. 

In September, when the Society for Contemporary Craft opened its exhibition “Mindful: Exploring Mental Health Through Art,” an unprecedented crowd – more than 1,300 people – showed up, far more than any other weekend opening at the Pittsburgh art space. People have been moved, enthusiastic, and grateful. And they’ve continued to flock to the show, which runs through March 12 before traveling to other venues.

Why has “Mindful” been such a draw? The answer may lie in the prevalence of mental illness in society at large. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four American adults – more than 60 million people – experiences mental illness in any given year. Some 14 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder.

And yet, as common as it is, mental illness is not exactly cocktail-party conversation. It’s not something people freely discuss. So, in featuring artists whose work explores mental illness, SCC staff are venturing into sensitive territory.

It’s not the first time. In 2013, they launched “Enough Violence: Artists Speak Out” – and saw a similar outpouring of support and gratitude. The impact from “Violence” was internal as well as external. “When the show ended,” executive director Janet McCall says, “we understood that something really significant had shifted at our organization. We were changed as individuals. We had changed in the way we worked as a staff, and we understood ourselves as an organization that had the potential for greater impact.”

So, as they did with “Violence,” SCC staff planned “Mindful” slowly, carefully, relying on outside experts. Over about two years, McCall and director of exhibitions Kate Lydon met with mental health experts – leaders at the Allegheny County Health Department, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, among others. They learned about sensitivities, priorities, and challenges, coming away with a sense of how the exhibition could support mental health in the community, humanize mental illness, and offer a sense of hope. We asked McCall what SCC had in mind with the show.

Why do you think the show has engaged so many people?
Well, it’s a topic that really touches all of us in some way – but it isn’t really talked about. That’s what people are responding to, the fact that there aren’t usually opportunities for people to come together around mental health. This opportunity has really resonated.

You say mental illness touches all of us. Can you elaborate?
You hear of mental illness, and you might think of major depression, schizophrenia, suicidal ideation. You might think of the big, very serious, chronic areas. But, in fact, the kind of lives we are all leading – fast-paced, hectic, a lot of pressure – all of us, at some point in our lives, are going to have times where we are struggling with mental health and being out of balance. At one of our early staff meetings about the exhibition, when we began talking about our own stories, everyone around the table had a story to share – if not their own story, a family member’s or a close friend’s

Everyone – that is striking. And I would think that sort of personal connection really affects your motivation, your investment, in an exhibition like this.
Yes, absolutely. One staff member, for example, decided that she wanted to respond to the call for entries and submit work for consideration for our companion “Community Voices” show. So she used this opportunity to create work about her own family situation, and really, it was an opportunity for her to speak out about it. It was very, very powerful. And I’ve been able to share with artists, with visitors, with others who are struggling – to say, yes, we have a history of mental illness in my family, and it has impacted us; here’s my story. I think it’s very empowering for people to feel they’re not alone.

You are giving people permission to disclose what is normally private.
Yes. I saw that when I passed out our marketing materials. We had these small round cards that I was distributing to promote the show in advance. On one side it says “Resiliency, compassion, and mindfulness,” and then you turn over the card and it says “Someone you know lives with mental illness.”

I was really moved by the fact that, as I would hand the card to someone – it might be someone whom I had just met or a casual acquaintance or someone I had known for a long time – frequently, they would read the card, and there would be a pause, and then they would start to tell me their story. It was like a door had opened, and they felt that I had invited them, at last, to share what they had been carrying around. And I learned things about people I hadn’t known – in many cases, people I had known for a very long time.

In a sense, it’s understandable that people don’t typically share this information. Keeping it to yourself seems more prudent. What is the danger in that?
It’s incredibly important for us to move forward as a culture, to be able to begin to have open dialogue about mental health. It’s very unhealthy to keep it hidden. The result is shame, stigma, isolation, people feeling hopeless about their situations – that they’re all alone, that they can’t ask for help. And it can lead to suicide. Actually, an individual whom we had known as a team through our previous projects – a colleague in the community, a cheerleader for us – committed suicide while we were in the planning process for the show. And we had no idea. And this was an individual who was always up, always outgoing, always full of energy. This was a firsthand example of what he had hidden from all of us.

That sounds very difficult for all of you.
Yes. Several artists in the show talk about how important it is to speak out and to encourage friends and family members to talk about what they’re going through and offer help – because you can make a difference.

Clearly, the exhibition is encouraging openness. Are there other benefits?
Yes. There are unique possibilities offered by the arts in supporting mental health that don’t even occur to people. The simple idea of stress reduction – you sit down before a work of art, and your worries and troubles kind of recede, and you can immerse yourself in something beautiful, something calming.

Actually, just the other day, one of my colleagues said a friend had stopped in with some distressing news. She told me: “I took my friend right out into the gallery, and we sat down in front of the large Lyn Godley wall of birds, In Flight. We sat there together for half an hour and looked at the work and talked. And it was such a good thing to be able to go out in the gallery to have that conversation.”

Looking at art can be calming. And, of course, making art can be therapeutic.
Yes. Shawna Barnes, whose work appears in “Community Voices,” is an Iraq War veteran. She had been a medic in the war, and when she returned, she realized that she had PTSD, and actually it related to an earlier episode in her life that had been undiagnosed, untreated. And she turned to clay, and she said clay has been her release.

Artmaking allows the unspeakable to be spoken – whether that’s conscious, something that the artist knows they’re holding in and can’t put into words, or whether it’s something that’s unconscious that may bubble up through the process of making.

In the exhibition catalogue, Lisa A. Miles broaches the idea of a “spectrum, having at one end mental health and the other mental illness,” which I found very interesting. What are the implications of seeing everybody on a mental health continuum?
It’s basically saying that we’re all in this together, as human beings. There are times in our lives when we are struggling, and there are other times when we move into health and balance.

What do you hope the public takes away from the show?
Well, certainly artists have always understood that art helps you maintain balance in life – to recover from trauma, build resilience, heal. And yet so many people don’t think art really has anything useful to offer them in their lives. I hear, over and over, “I’m not creative. Art’s not really for me.” And I feel that the message that we’re trying to share is that working with your hands can help you to navigate and process complex feelings and experiences that you’re going through in your life in a way that nothing else quite is able to do for you.

We want people to realize that just this idea of being mindful, being present for a brief period of time, can reduce stress, take you into a different place. We want people to realize that there’s a very powerful connection and that there’s something that can be gained, really, for everyone. \

Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.