Fountain House Gallery Honors Boosters of Artists with Mental Illness

June 17, 2015

By Jim Luce

Fountain House Gallery, New York City’s premier venue representing artists living with mental illness, recently held its End of Annual Meeting Season Celebration. I’ve come to know this yearly event as an effervescent evening of cocktails, music and a splendid array of more than 100 original artworks exhibited for sale by Gallery artists. But on this night the event held particular significance as a throng of well-wishers joined Fountain House Gallery in honoring two of its most ardent supporters: my friends Ellen Philip and Cal Donly.

Ellen and Cal, partners in business and in life, founded the event with their great friend Carl Hagberg, a longtime Board member of the Gallery’s parent organization, Fountain House. After being introduced to Fountain House by Carl more than ten years ago, art lovers Ellen and Cal decided to transform their annual party into a more meaningful event. They merged party, mental health organization and art to create this unique celebration, which since its inception has raised nearly one million dollars to benefit Fountain House Gallery.

Gallery Director Ariel Willmott said to the assembled guests, “The artists of Fountain House Gallery have grown deeply fond of Ellen and Cal, and of the kind guests who attend this event. You as attendees have engaged with our artists in a manner devoid of all stigma. You have treated them as the extraordinary individuals and talented artists that they are rather than as people with mental illness.”

Fountain House Gallery Director Ariel Willmott.
 Photo: Leslie Barbaro Photography/Fountain House.

Many attendees have formed relationships with artists whose works they have acquired over the years; some have commissioned unique pieces for their collections. It’s a kick to observe veteran collectors and first-timers as they select artworks for purchase, and to see exhibition walls adorned with bright red “Sold” signs.

The “annual meeting season” referenced in the event’s title is the period each year when shareholders cast proxy votes on corporate matters. Ellen, Cal and Carl, esteemed professionals in the shareholder services industry, have for many years been intimately involved in this arduous process. The “End of Annual Meeting Season Celebration” is a much-anticipated opportunity for these diligent professionals to relax with friends and colleagues after bringing this grueling yearly endeavor to fruition, while at the same time supporting the gifted artists of Fountain House Gallery.

The event took place at Fountain House’s home base on West 47th Street in Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Fountain House Gallery’s exhibition space, established in 2000 as a cooperative business located on Ninth Avenue at 48th Street. I’ve attended Fountain House and Fountain House Gallery events at impressive venues around the city, but being at “The House” engenders a special sense of good will.

Fountain House Gallery artists.

Photo: Leslie Barbaro Photography/Fountain House.

We convened in the Fountain House Horticulture Unit and garden. A number of guests toured Fountain House throughout the evening and saw firsthand the units in which members and staff operate successful employment, education, wellness and housing programs and work as partners to perform all of the functions that keep this community going.

Founded in 1948, Fountain House has grown to become the model for mental health recovery programs in more than 340 locations in 32 countries. As a testament to its global influence, Fountain House/Clubhouse International was the recipient of the 2014 Conrad N. Hilton Prize, the world’s largest and most prestigious humanitarian prize.

Fountain House Gallery has had a big year, too. In addition to presenting and selling original artworks at regularly scheduled shows at the Gallery, these artists participate in all manner of exhibitions and events in the larger New York art world and beyond.

One such artist is Mercedes Kelly, who made a splash at the 2015 Outsider Art Fair, where her fanciful and witty dog portraits sold like hotcakes and where a number of collectors commissioned her to create custom-made renderings of their pooches.

Gallery artist Mercedes Kelly. During the program, Mercedes spoke of her inspiring recovery from mental illness. Photo: Leslie Barbaro Photography/Fountain House.

Mercedes moved the End of Annual Meeting Season Celebration audience with a heartfelt account of her recovery from serious mental illness. Citing her initial hospitalization and diagnosis during her college years, she said, “I am forever grateful to Fountain House and Fountain House Gallery because I have not had to put those pink hospital slippers back on since becoming an active member over

ten years ago. Thanks to Fountain House Gallery, I have the opportunity to display and sell my artwork and to be a part

of something extraordinary. My participation in the Gallery helps me to stay well.” Mercedes noted that honorees Ellen and Cal had first acquired her artwork eleven years ago.

The event invitation and exhibition catalog were adorned with an art image of two bunnies frolicking amidst green grass and wildflowers. I was not surprised by this choice of theme, as I was privy to some inside info: Honorees Ellen and Cal keep company with a furry companion, a nine-year-old rabbit by the name of Pepper. Fountain House Gallery artist George Penon created this painting expressly for Ellen and Cal, and the original work was presented to them at the event. (I’ve since heard that this distinctive art piece is now displayed “in Pepper’s room,” making her — like me — an official “collector” of Fountain House Gallery art!)

Ellen Philip and Cal Donly are exceptional human beings, giving generously of their time and resources to uplift humanity. The power of their example is exhilarating. I was proud to be on hand as they were recognized for their prodigious support of Fountain House Gallery.

Written with Camille Tibaldeo.


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