An oversized red bandanna covers her small head of brown hair. She’s missing a tooth. She stands in front of flowery green and gold wallpaper, her cherubic face exuding warmth and innocence.
It’s this image her mother clings to in her darkest moments. “I can’t let her grow up without a mother,” writes Alice Blessing, who painted her 7-year-old daughter’s portrait. “So I have to get better.”
Blessing’s painting, along with nearly 50 other high-quality pieces in the exhibit “What’s Left,” can be enjoyed, safely, from afar. But these artists hope we will step closer, cross the line of comfort and denial, to a more intimate space.
A space where honest dialogue about mental illness and suicide can begin.
“I want people to see the person and not the illness,” said John Bauer, a Grand Rapids, Minn., public radio host who produced the exhibit and is taking it across Minnesota.
“We have to be able to talk about mental illness, not in whispers or disrespectful laughter,” said Bauer, reflecting on the show that runs through April at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minnetonka.
“We need a culture shift. We have to break the stigma.”
Bauer’s daughter, Megan, died by suicide in 2013. She was 33, and a social worker. “Megan would never tell me the depths of her depression,” he said. “She hid her pain behind a great smile.”
Bauer was mad as hell at the world after she died. He felt like an “imaginary person,” he said. Nobody knew what to say to him or to his wife, Janeen, who also are parents to a 32-year-old son.
His doctor prescribed antidepressants, which got him through the first six months. Then he started digging to learn everything he could about mental illness, mostly through the personal stories of those affected.
Eventually he was ready to move forward, to create a safe space where others could talk about and listen to an issue that most would prefer to avoid.
The idea of a traveling exhibit quickly took root. Bauer, a photographer, hoped that two dozen artists might step up. More than 50 did — painters, poets, sculptors, glassworkers.
Some struggled with their own mental health challenges. Others had family members who did. Each piece is accompanied by a story.
“The Empty Desk” features cruel taunts etched into the wooden arm of a school pupil’s desk, signaling the dangers of bullying. “Phone Booth” encourages adult visitors to step inside, pick up a phone and hear real voices of those in crisis. Bauer is photographed in sepia tone, staring out the window of daughter Megan’s bedroom.
But the exhibit offers sunny moments, too. The creator of a broken wooden bowl notes that it is “able to be rebuilt.” A painting meant to lift one’s spirit is titled “Falling Up.” A turquoise nesting egg “represents hope, potential, expectations, a new life, protection ... a reminder to have faith.”
“What’s Left” opened in 2015 at the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, and has traveled to churches, art galleries and colleges in Rochester, Duluth, Red Lake, Bigfork, Virginia, Bemidji and Hibbing.
A $27,000 Arts Tour Minnesota grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board will allow Bauer to take it to more locations.
Mandy Licklider Bond spoke at the show when it opened at Bethlehem’s Minneapolis campus in March. More than 300 people were at the opening. Many have come more than once. The show moves April 2 to the church’s Minnetonka location.
Bond’s 37-year-old sister, Megan, took her life in November. Although her sister was open about her struggles with depression, “I didn’t know it was that bad for her,” Bond said. “You do and you don’t. It’s this terrible thing. It’s very detectable and preventable but, as a society and culture, we’re just not attuned and we just don’t want to be.
“We’re a culture of just-get-it-together.”
Bond is grateful to Bauer and to Bethlehem, whose foundation funded the exhibit, along with St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, Mental Health Connect, Thrivent Financial and private donations.
“John is so gracious in sharing his story,” she said. “That’s what I love about this exhibit. It provides an honest and safe space for people to say, ‘I am struggling.’ Or, ‘I lost somebody and I have no one to talk to about it.’ ”
A church youth minister and mother of a 3-year-old, Bond is heartened by a growing willingness to have these difficult conversations. Bethlehem, she noted, provides trained counselors on-site during the show’s hours to talk with those who desire support, as well as a resource table.
“The conversation about mental health is where we need to be,” she said. “It’s a very hopeful exhibit for me. There is light, and the light is bigger than the darkness.”
Bauer agrees. The feedback, he said, “has been tremendous. You’d think with such a controversial subject you’d hear, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
“Instead, it’s been ‘It moved me.’ ‘It made me look at things differently.’ ‘Thank you for bringing this to light.’ ‘I felt like I wasn’t alone.’ ”