One might assume an art show featuring artwork by those with mental illness would focus on mental illness—its symptoms, struggles, and pain. But Artability at APOLLO is about something much bigger. It’s about artists and art-lovers coming together to celebrate the very essence of what makes a community strong—the sharing of their skills and talents for the benefit of the common good. And it’s about making space in our society for everyone—including those of our friends, neighbors, and family members—who experience mental illness.
The main purpose of the event is to celebrate the creativity of those with mental illness and the contributions they make to our communities. Many in society still see those who suffer from mental illness through the lens of stigma, and getting away from the “mentally ill” label is one of the toughest challenges for those who have the disease. For many artists with mental illness, the very process of doing art gives them a place where they can escape the labels and express themselves—whether it’s pain or joy, confusion or exhilaration, heartache or hope—and see themselves in a new light. Artability is also a place where we, as a community, pause to listen to what they have to say—and see those with mental illness in a new light, too.
Over 85 artists collectively exhibited over 330 pieces of artwork at last year’s three-day show, and for many artists, the program is the start of something big. Artist Vue Vang exhibited his artwork for the first time last year—and won first prize in drawing and sold his first piece of art. “It was the first time I really took myself seriously as an artist and recognized my abilities,” says Vue. “I feel at home when I do art, and being with people with mental illness makes me feel that finally someone understands who I am.”
Vue was born in Laos and spent three years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. at the age of seven. Diagnosed with major depression at a young age, things became worse for him following the death of his father a number of years ago. “My world really collapsed—I felt really confused, and to escape I started to draw—at first because I wanted to draw a picture of my father. But then I discovered that drawing helped me make sense out of everything. Artability has helped end my isolation—the workshops and the exhibit let me focus on something positive. I am so grateful to those who support Artability.”
Shelley Jutila came to recognize her talent just a year or so ago. “I like to do knitting, beadwork, and weaving—but my sister and mother were the artists in the family. One day an art teacher suggested I try drawing—at first without looking at what I was doing, a technique that keeps you from trying to be perfect. It turned out much better than I thought—it was extraordinary. I still do all of my drawing that way.”
A native of Wayzata, Shelley studied art and music in Marshall and wanted to go to graduate school, but bipolar disorder got in her way at the age of 27. “It wasn’t really obvious that it was bipolar disorder because my high phases are relatively short—it’s called hypomania,” Shelley explains. “I tend to be mostly in the depressed side. I’ve felt really suicidal sometimes—it’s scary, and I’ve been hospitalized quite a few times. Luckily, I have a wonderful husband who really supports me, and that helps a lot.”
Winning the Artability t-shirt and poster contest this summer has helped to transform Shelley’s view of herself. “I was hoping to win, but when I actually got the news, it was such a thrill! Taking my art more seriously is changing my life—it gives me a purpose and has boosted my self-esteem immensely. I can’t tell you how wonderful it feels.”
Artability is a community-funded event underwritten by generous grants from The Boss Foundation and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. This year there’s an addition—an endowment fund set up by Bart and Lynn Galle in honor of their son Alex Galle. Alex, who suffered from depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, died accidentally at the age of 20 while in a treatment center for drug abuse and mental illness. “Some of Alex’s happiest times were painting. Some of his more private paintings were expressions of pain, but many of his watercolors expressed joy and humor. He loved painting them, but he loved giving them to other people even more.”
For more information contact Barbara Nichols, Resource Development Director, at 651-288-3504 or Barbara.Nichols@PeopleIncorporated.org