Transforming away from stigma

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I spent some time with artist and gallerist Jennifer Pepin today. We met at her gallery, the cozy, modern, and distinct J. Pepin Art Gallery in the Pearl District. On the door is the gallery’s name, logo, and tagline.

J Pepin Art Gallery logo [Image description: A glass door reflecting cars parked along the street. Painted on the glass is “j. pepin art gallery. hope. dream. believe.” and a logo made of delicate, sweeping lines reminiscent of the shape of a deep serving dish.]

What is not apparent on the door is the rationale for why Jennifer started this gallery: to feature contemporary artists who are reframing the perception of mental illness. Her website states that “working together we can transform the landscape of mental health to be one of hope, dreams, and believing in a more accepting world.”

Did you notice they didn’t mention a cure for mental illnesses? They didn’t mention overcoming adversity, funding research, or anything that asks the artists to change who they are, be changed, or follow some expected path. People who live with or experience mental illness face regular, ongoing stigma, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. This is the community’s history and current reality. While all of the artists who show in the gallery have unique experiences and perspectives, one thing they share is their experience of being stigmatized either because of a medical label, their perceptions of the world, or both. The gallery’s logo itself asks the artists not to hope and dream to change who they are; the hopes and dreams are about becoming accepted and for society to transform to become more inclusive.

The art on the walls is gorgeous, complex, dynamic, and vivid. On occasion, someone might come into her gallery and be shocked by the high quality of the artwork. Could that really be created by someone with mental illness? Either they’re not really mentally ill, or they didn’t really make that! Perhaps ideas like that are meant as a sideways compliment. But they highlight stigmatizing views about people with mental illness as well as a strange notion that one person can define another person’s experience simply by viewing one painting they made. I don’t know about that one.

Please visit J. Pepin Art Gallery at 319 NW 9th Avenue Tuesday through Sunday.

But if you’re more in the Vancouver, BC area, check out Gallery Gachet and their current Call for Submissions.

Since I haven’t met those folks, best I can do is paste in info from their website and let it speak for itself: “We welcome proposals that challenge mental health stigmas, barriers to full social, cultural, and economic participation; as well as ideas that focus on public engagement…, disability arts, or art for social change. We actively look to create and maintain collaborations within the mental health and cultural sectors….Gallery Gachet supports artists that have experienced marginalization through their mental health, trauma, and/or abuse, by working for cultural and economic justice.”

10 artists from the Gallery Gachet community collaborated with Carmen Papalia and Kristin Rochelle Lantz in a project last year called “Nothing About Us Without Us.” The project explored access, in terms of disability access in visiting museums and also in terms of whose work is shown and who is invited to be in discourse around art. And who isn’t? This is specifically why the show borrowed the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” from the disability rights movement. And this is why I think their current project around mental health stigmas and barriers to inclusion will be fantastic.

I’m very late on this call to artists. The call closes Thursday, July 31st. My apologies! Please hurry on over and submit. The more art we have from within the mental illness/mental health communities, the more access we all have to sharing what makes us distinct as well as what makes us all so very human.