Struggles, creativity and connection
A new art exhibit explores links between art and mental illness
Don’t be afraid, but shit’s about to get deep.
This month, Sacramento artists are digging into a tough, often taboo topic: mental disorder.
As part of a new, ambitious exhibit, dozens of pieces at two venues will spotlight mental illness in the hopes of increasing awareness about artists’ needs for treatments, health benefits and creative outlets.
Diana Dich knows the subject well. The Sacramento artist, who says she’s struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, uses art as a way to turn pain into into something positive.
“Sometimes I feel like if my insides could be on the outside, things might be easier,” says Dich, who has teal hair and a knack for twisting wire into intricate, three-dimensional sculptures.
Dich is one of hundreds of artists who submitted to Patterns of Disorder, a multivenue, multidisciplinary evening of art that will take over Midtown’s Menagerie Gallery and the Red Museum for the night on Saturday, January 28.
The event was put together by Sacramento’s Retrograde Collective, a nonprofit that hosts salons, forges partnerships and, ultimately, aims to bring medical and retirement benefits to artists.
The evening will include cocktails, stand-up comedy and music by Electric Baby Jesus. In addition to the art, performances, readings and a live art-making booth will keep guests entertained.
Also on display? Debilitating anxiety, PTSD, mania, depression and maybe even an eating disorder or two. Cheers.
It’s not your average gallery show, says Retrograde’s co-creator Arielle Robbins.
“It’s a progressive evening of art,” she says.
The point of the event, she adds, is to stop the stigma surrounding mental disorder, especially where artists are concerned.
“You have to speak to the commonalities that all of us possess,” she says.
The evening will start as a straightforward viewing of the exhibit at Menagerie and then progress to a panel discussion and Q&A booth with mental health experts from Stop Stigma Sacramento at the Red Museum.
“The art is like the first step,” Robbins says. “Are you ready?”
Don’t be scared off by the psychological probing, though. And if you’re the anxious type, unnerved by crowds and the thought of mingling, that’s OK, too.
“You don’t have to talk, you can just look,” says Menagerie’s curator Sarah Hawkins.
Hawkins gets it. For years, she says, anxiety stopped her from submitting her work to local shows, even though she’s been coaching peers and curating a gallery. Like Dich, art is her safe space.
“There’s that stigma that we have from our moms and their moms that we don’t talk about things that aren’t happy,” Hawkins says.
Such avoidance can lead to social stereotyping, she adds, which makes lobbying for artists’ health care an even tougher challenge.
“I want people to look around the room and realize that these are everyday people,” Hawkins says. “These are nurses, professors, students and baristas. Even in my family now, it’s something that no one talks about. The other side of the family still says, ’You’re eccentric. You’re an artist.’”
So what does depression look like in 3-D? In Dich’s sculpture, it’s manifested into wire that’s twisted into the shape of a young girl with a slice out of her neck, arms splayed open and her organs spilling out of her torso.
For papercraft artist Irena Azovky, mental disorder looks like 9-by-9 inch squares of meticulously cut pop culture photos interwoven into eye-crossing collages. A naked body, a vintage Nikon camera and what looks like a pile of kittens are connected, basket-weave style, into one square.
On the other end of the artistic spectrum, Benjamin Martins uses one color and blank white paper to create haunting watercolors. Imagine the twins from The Shining painted in blood-red watercolor, floating on a blank canvas and staring you in the face. Martins’ watercolor technique is loose, meaning that his figures don’t have eyes so much as sockets, and their limbs look a little bloated, like a corpse that’s been floating in the river too long.
“It’s crazy intimate,” Hawkins says.
For artists like Dich, who says she used her sculptures to heal after an abusive relationship, and Martins, who’s been grappling with the impact of coming out as transgender, this interactive show is a chance to explain their art.
As for those who attend, the organizers and artists hope it makes for an interesting, even therapeutic evening. You could just show up, avoid eye contact by perusing art and clutch a wine glass to keep your hands busy all night. You wouldn’t be the only one. But maybe, for the well-being of artists who are a working part of our community, you open up a little.
With Patterns of Disorder, Retrograde offers casual browsers and serious collectors an opportunity to learn about the people behind the art, and their struggles. It goes beyond the usual Second Saturday experience, Hawkins says.
“I feel like the community uses Second Saturday as a way to go have fun and get free wine,” she says. “But when you buy art, you want to know the background of the artist and their work. Second Saturday is like speed dating. This is the real date, where people lean in.”
One objective is to inspire public dialogue, which can breed understanding. Organizers also hope the exhibit helps better connect artists with resources.
“One of our goals for Retrograde is to offer artists some sort of benefits over time,” Robbins says.
It will take more than an art show, of course, to make that happen, she adds. It will take a push for city leaders, investors and patrons to commit to support not just the arts, but also the artists themselves, in a meaningful way.
“[With more city funding], you could have a venue that’s all up to code. You could have stipends for affordable housing, health benefits and retirement,” Robbins says.
This show is just the first step in that journey, Hawkins adds.
“Art is not a priority budget-wise,” she says. “But it should be.”