By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — At times, Kate Mayo says her brain can feel so loud it’s like static.
“Like loud, painful static,” she said.
The next moment she could feel weighed down by depression.
“Almost like the ground is sucking me down into it.”
The jarring contrast is a symptom of bipolar II disorder, which she was diagnosed with about a dozen years ago. Now, the artist and Rockford resident has put those feelings on public display for the first time in an exhibit that allowed artists to illustrate their experience with mental health disorders.
Mayo is one of about 25 artists with mental health disorders whose work is included in Comorbidity, an exhibit at 317 Art Collective that runs through the first three weeks of May. It will be on display this Friday and Saturday during the Spring ArtScene biannual gallery walk.
“I shied away from expressing that part of myself in art for a long time because I was worried about how people would interpret it and the stigma,” Mayo said. “I feel like even though the stigma has improved, we still have a long way to go.”
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But at 317 Art Collective, located at 317 Market St. in downtown, Mayo said she found “a safe space where I can just lay it all out.”
The exhibit is the brainchild of Laura Gomel, the director of 317 Art Collective and curator of the show.
“It kind of gives people who maybe don’t know anything about that a little more insight into people’s minds,” said Gomel, who has her own work depicting depression included in the show.
That insight can open the door to more conversations about mental health.
“Don’t be afraid to have a conversation while you’re here,” Gomel said.
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Each of the pieces on display is accompanied by a message from the artist that includes their diagnosis. That inclusion can give viewers an aha moment of sorts that helps them connect with what they’re seeing, Gomel said.
“When you look at the pieces and then you read what the diagnosis is you can be like – ah – I can almost understand where that transferred over to here,” she said.
Gomel reached out to mental health treatment organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stepping Stones of Rockford and Rosecrance to find artists for the show. Some are professional artists, others are amateurs or first-timers and one was a high school student.
Each has their own experience with their mental health, whether they’re living in a halfway house, in and out of treatment or working full time without any outward signs of their disorder. One artist, who goes by Angel Cat, created each piece that’s on display while at an inpatient behavioral health facility for suicidal ideation last month.
“We were only allowed a single set of Crayola markers for coloring sheets and I had to specifically ask for blank paper to create something of my own,” Angel Cat wrote on a display at the exhibit.
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Artists in the show reside both locally and across the country, with the furthest one coming from Alaska.
“We really wanted people to have a voice. That was the main goal of the show,” said Gomel, whose brother is Rosecrance CEO David Gomel. “So everybody who submitted I chose at least one piece.”
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Mayo, who is 38, is one of the newer artists. She has two pieces on display with pop art and surrealist influences.
The first is a mixed media self-portrait with a digital piece printed on enameled metal and put inside a shadow box half-filled with empty capsules that resemble the Cymbalta medication she takes. That piece represents the chaotic, static-like states she can experience.
Beneath it is a water color with ink painting that depicts her melting into a couch.
“I think these are pretty mild as far as how uncomfortable art built out of mental illness can be, but I think fear of judgement kept me from doing it,” she said.
“I got a little teary eyed when I saw my stuff on the wall because I’ve never shown anything,” Mayo said.
Mayo moved to Rockford, where her parents live, from Austin, Texas. The native of Warner Robins, Georgia, said art has helped her work through mental health issues for years.
“I’ve been hospitalized several times and art is what helped me get through that, when we do the art therapy sessions,” she said.
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This exhibit helped again by creating a sense of community and togetherness among the artists.
“It’s like a validation that there’s other people out there like me,” Mayo said. “Mental illness can feel very isolating. … and to see other artists with similar diagnosis to mine and see how they express themselves it just really made me feel like I’m not alone and just proud of them and proud of myself.”
That feeling, Gomel says, is “mission accomplished.”
“I think you gave a lot of people a really good gift,” Mayo told her Tuesday.
Know before you go | Comorbidity and Spring ArtScene
Comorbidity will be on display during Spring ArtScene from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday at 317 Art Collective, 317 Market St., Rockford.
There are nearly 40 galleries, stores and shops with art on display for ArtScene, and the event kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday with the Poetry Prelude at Rockford City Hall.
Comorbidity will continue its run through the first three weeks of May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. 317 Art Collective is open noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and by appointment.
This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas.