Arts & Theater

Artworks capture the struggle to overcome mental illness

“Freedom” by Ryaunna
“Freedom” by Ryaunna Courtesy of Journey of Hope

Walking through the Journey of Hope exhibit at the Elk Grove Fine Arts Center feels a bit like reading someone else’s diary.

The display is personal and intimate. All 32 pieces are inspired by the written stories of Sacramento residents who have struggled with, and are in recovery from, mental illness.

Each writer handed a story of survival – from depression, schizophrenia, compulsive disorders or other psychological conditions – to a coordinator with Sacramento County’s, “Mental Illness: It’s Not What You Think” campaign. The coordinators gave the stories to 32 local artists and asked them to bring the words to life.

Event planners aimed to bridge the gap between those who have experienced mental illness and those who have not, said coordinator Laura Bemis, who is also part of the county’s Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau. She hopes that displaying the works and stories in the gallery will help reduce the discrimination that people with mental illness feel every day, Bemis said.

“The public can look at the art and see mental illness through someone else’s eyes,” she said. “The stigma is there for everyone. Nobody is immune. It crosses race, ethnicity, gender, all ages, all paths.”

About 80 people attended an opening reception Saturday. The exhibit is in its second year, but is in the fine arts center for the first time. Last year it was up for one day only, while this year it will be up for more than two weeks.

At the reception, writers met their artists and saw their pieces for the first time. Elisabeth Lucien, a 24-year-old survivor of depression, said seeing the acrylic-and-copper painting her artist had made brought her immediately to tears.

“I felt like she just captured the essence of my story and my struggle,” she said. “I really feel like she knows me.”

The piece features a female figure (Lucien), reaching toward a bright sky, climbing up from a dark area where she’s left behind a broken mask. The mask, Lucien said, represents the facade she wore around friends and family while she tried to hide her severe depression and cutting habits.

After multiple suicide attempts over seven years, Lucien revealed her struggles to a friend and eventually sought counseling, she said. Now, she’s headed to the University of Southern California to pursue dreams of becoming a social worker.

She wants to share her story to encourage others to seek help, she said.

“I was afraid of being rejected. I thought I was crazy,” she said. “Now, I’m proud of who I am. It’s a challenge I work with every day, but now I can show others that they can be successful. I’m just blessed to be a part of this.”

Emily Falcone, a 24-year-old with bipolar disorder, said seeing her piece gave her a huge confidence boost. The ceramic sculpture features a woman looking confidently upward, in spite of the small, nagging figure that is relentlessly tugging at her hair.

Falcone, who has been taken to multiple hospitals and residential programs for suicide attempts and other crises, said the small figure represents the manic thoughts she constantly fights off.

“It’s grueling, having bipolar disorder,” she said. “I’ve been trying harder, and everything falls into place if I let it – if I take my meds.”

Channeling someone else’s lifelong struggle into artwork is a tough task, said Jane Hansjergen, the artist who sculpted Falcone’s piece. She spent about a month, on and off, creating the piece.

“You’ve got a person’s heart and soul in your hands,” Hansjergen said. “They’ve put themselves out there. It’s very nerve-wracking.”

Still, she said, she stuck with the task because she felt it was “an admirable way to bring people’s attention to mental illness, and the hope and recovery behind it.”

The exhibit, part of the county’s wider mental health stigma reduction campaign, is funded by Proposition 63, also known as the Mental Health Services Act, and will be on display until Aug. 25. For more information about Journey of Hope, call the Elk Grove Fine Arts Center at 916-685-5992.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola