TALK BACK: Artists and Mental Illness


TALK BACK: Artists and Mental Illness

By: Louise Kavadlo & edited by Ariel Willmott

I attended a lecture on Sunday, May 19th, 2019 called “Breaking Down” that was held in coordination with the exhibition “Talk Back” at Flux Factory in Long Island City. The panelists for the lecture were Fountain House artists who suffer from Mental Illness and they discussed how their mental illness related to them pursuing the Arts. 

Lexi Ho-Tai and moira williams created the exhibition TALK BACK for disabled artists in order to promote disability awareness and help fight stigma. 

Fountain House member Laurie Berenhaus conceived of the panel discussion “Breaking Down.” 

Questions asked at the panel: 

  • How has having mental illness affected your self-image? 
  • How has mental illness affected your art making/art career? 
  • What are some ways you’ve felt stigmatized from cultural references, friends, family, and colleagues?
  • How do you feel like the art world perpetuates mental illness stereotypes?
  • Have you adjusted your art practice to meet art world expectations? How much of your “story” do you tell? 
  • How can the art world be more supportive of artists - and especially artists with mental illness? What do you think your role as artists with mental illness is in trying to change or drive the narrative of the mentally ill artist?
  • What is your dream for artists and people with mental illness? What would your ideal art world look like? Housing? 

Speaking notes from the four panelists:

Laurie Berenhaus is an artist with mental illness. She's a sculptor, does animals, and uses movement to tell stories. She poignantly stated that she tore paper with her fingers to create an abstract design while she was in a mental hospital. Reason: The staff at the mental hospital denied her the use of scissors due to fear of dangers; hurting herself and/or other people. Laurie stated that mental illness isn't exclusive to art. Laurie twisted various papers, which was a long process that finally created an abstract design, which was shown at the lecture. 

Keith Pavia: Brooklyn artist who paints, draws, and does commissions. Keith is bipolar and used his medication bottles to create a sculpture. Keith was a landscaper.  He does abstract art. He mentioned the movie SPLIT, which he said depicted mental illness as monstrous.  Keith believes groups are fighting to improve the lives of mentally ill people. Keith also stated that what other people see as normal seems insane to him, like doing the same task for 9-5pm every day.

Susan Spangenberg: Susan stated that her relationship to art began when she was 3 years old.  Her art is her voice and her works are in the FH Gallery. She stated that society and psychiatry marginalize mental illness. Susan said she used a "stage name" to hide mental illness from her family. She mentioned that today, it's fashionable for celebrities to reveal their mental illness. She also said that sensational news stories about shootings do injustice to mental illness community. 

Miguel Colon: Miguel has been a FH member for 1 year. He stated that mental illness isolates people and that one out of 4 people suffer from mental illness. Miguel Colon has a degree in Fine Arts. 

Moderator, Ariel Willmott: Mentally ill people often lose jobs and symptoms abate and reoccur. She stated that the art world should be supportive to mentally ill people.

Summary: This lecture, "Talk Back" is about understanding people with mental illness through arts. I attended this lecture and took notes.  I have Asperger's syndrome with concomitant learning disabilities. I'm a tactile-visual learner. 

About my experience, Louise Kavadlo, with disability and the arts:I have an Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education from Borough of Manhattan Community College. My art is often a rendition of other artists' works and I find that I do better in a group setting. When I was 3 years old, I astonished my parents by drawing a beautiful rooster with a "comb." I didn't understand homonyms at that age and wondered how a rooster could have a comb when a comb is for your hair. At age 3 years old, I attended Pickwick Nursery School. Because my disability wasn't understood, my mother had to see a therapist in order for me to attend nursery school.  One evening, during "bath time chats," my mother told me this story: "Dorothy Donnaff, her therapist visited me at the nursery school. I drew a picture of a baby and it was displayed on the wall." I don't remember Dorothy Donnaff nor drawing a picture of a baby.  I remember my League School days: I loved painting and drew a rooster there. I also drew photo-realistic paintings of the president-elects: John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  Currently, at FH, my art journeys are collage (rom used calendars, magazines,), watercolors, pastels ( chalk and oil stick), intricate paper-cuts, book marks, infant foot/hand prints, flowers, plants, scenes. I do artwork for the FH gallery in order to promote mental illness awareness. I use black charcoal and conte crayons to portray psychiatric wards, prisons, and poverty.  Sometimes I use children's books for my art inspirations.  I take art classes at FH with Karen Gormandy.  

More information about the exhibition TALK BACK at Flux Factory:

TALK BACK centers the lives and leadership of disabled artists and organizers, asserting that deep-rooted cultural changes must be made within the art world to become more inclusive and accessible. TALK BACK believes that disability must be included in conversations about diversity. One part of affecting change in the art world is by placing disabled artists and organizers in positions of influence within the arts to effect change from within.

TALK BACK imagines a reality yet to exist, shifts able-normative assumptions to make room for every body and illuminates non-binary futures. TALK BACK envisions and celebrates joy, pleasure, mindbody, radical care and inclusion, sovereign bodies, crip time, community building, non-verbal and alternative forms of communication. TALK BACK disrupts through fluidity, quiet protest, overt and mass protest that includes multiple ways of showing up and being present. TALK BACK works within and against capitalism, classism and medical ableism to redefine value, time, productivity and worth. TALK BACK makes room for criticism, restoration liberation, coming out, ownership of one’s mind and body, access demands, intersectionality and utopias to offer multiple entry points to TALK BACK. 


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