A month ago I put forward the idea of an art project that would consume the year ahead of me called I Am More – a series of portraits of MA residents celebrating the gifts and contributions of those living with mental suffering. Instantly the doubts crept in. How would I find funding here on Cape Ann? How could I learn to take photos of people for my drawings? How could I throw an art show about such a sensitive subject without getting sucked into the darkness?
It started to take me longer to get out of bed each day to face the situation. I had a stack of library books about photography, I had a group of individuals to approach, and an empty drawing table, having finished my last portrait series, Selfie.
I started by going down my list of potential subjects and emailing them my proposal. The responses took me right out of my head and into their worlds. There was excitement; there was hesitation; there was polite refusal and there was some gut-wrenching reality. A friend and advisor posed the most eyebrow raising question: what if someone replies to you with the belief that they are not more than their pain? How will you respond? She reminded me that I’m in a specific place in my journey, but everyone is in a different place, and some may not be ready to see past their suffering. I found this hard to believe. Everyone has something that makes them special, that gives them joy. I didn’t see this as an issue. That’s when I learned to listen to the expert.
One of my potential subjects didn’t reply for a week or so. I thought he might have overlooked my message, so I followed up with a second email. This time he replied and his words were like a punch in the gut. “’I am more than my depression….’ and then what do I say…?” It was like my friend had peeked into the future. He continued, “My life didn’t work out the way I thought (whose does?).” I assured him that there was plenty of time to think about it, he didn’t need to commit to anything. This began a back and forth conversation. He wrote me his thoughts as this all turned over in his mind–maybe he could give it some more thought. At one point he said, “You’re opening up a can of worms for me–I don’t like looking at my life cause I don’t like what I see.” In one reply he said, “Thank you for considering me. I’ve suffered from this since about 15 years of age. And still do. Could be therapeutic for me…“ Progress. A few days later I got the message I had been waiting for, “You can count on me for your project if you would still have me. Upon a couple days of thought, I think it would be a good thing for me to do for myself as well as others.” Hallelujah.
I was also faced with the concern from a potential subject that they might be ostracized professionally. They had experienced backlash in the past and had since chosen to keep their struggle private. This could cost them employment. As a homeschooling artist I had never been faced with this concern. What could I say? I assured them that the door would remain open to them and we could talk about it further.
As of now, I have thirteen subjects of ages 15-77 committed to the project in some form, with three more under consideration. Their struggles include grief, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, eating disorder, and my old nemesis, depression. Some I know well, and some I’ve never met. I suppose one advantage of my personal struggle is that I’m approaching them as a peer; we’re going through this process together with some apprehension, but with a determination that by sharing our faces and our stories we will make a difference in someone’s life.
It turns out that grant money for individual art projects is pretty hard to come by these days so I was advised to look for private and corporate sponsors to help fund the project. I am very happy to report that I’ve received an anonymous donation from my first sponsor with the encouraging instruction, “Get to work.” If you know of any individuals, businesses or organizations who might be interested in supporting this project they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to follow the project over the next year you can see updates on my Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. I have many exciting conversations coming up about collaborations and partnerships that I’m looking forward to sharing with you. This has evolved from more than just an art show to a way to start a broader conversation about mental health, a platform for expression, and a way to connect people with the resources available in their community. You can help by spreading the word about the I Am More project with anyone you think might benefit.