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Mental illness exhibit aims to eliminate stigma through art

SARASOTA — For Robin Snuttjer, creating a self-portrait through her medium of glass beads was a chance to experiment.

While 45-year-old Snuttjer typically creates beads overlaid with designs, a face was a new challenge for her.

“I hadn’t done faces before,” Snuttjer said. “I had to figure out what a sad face looked like.”

The final product of her work became three different faces on blue, red and green beads, representing a spectrum of emotions, sad, angry and happy. The process of crafting this work, a self-portrait of sorts, encouraged her to reflect on her own experiences with mental illness, from her schizophrenia diagnosis at age 29.

“It really made me realize the amount of struggle I went through,” said Snuttjer, whose piece is titled “Sixteen Years of Struggle.” “I was just very happy that I had finally gotten to a place where I was looking forward to waking up each day.”

Snuttjer and her boyfriend, painter Leonard Hoffman, were just some of the more than 70 participants whose artwork is displayed in the Selby Public Library as part of reporter Carrie Seidman’s project, FACEing Mental Illness: The Art of Acceptance.

On Sunday evening, more than 250 people mingled in the atrium of the library for the opening of the exhibit, which runs through the end of March. Blue panels dotted the edges of the library’s center, showing the self-portraits, a short quotation of the artist’s experiences and their photograph. Multicolored flags hung from the top floor, and white columns displayed portraits that had not taken the form of a painting, such as Snuttjer’s glass beads and clay sculptures.

The exhibit is the culmination of Seidman’s yearlong project aiming to expose and reduce stigma around mental illness. Many of the artists shared their personal stories with Seidman and took part in one of the six art workshops held in the community. Now that the art is displayed, Seidman said she hopes it will serve two purposes.

“We are using art as a means of both allowing people to be creative in exploring their feelings and also as a way to educate others and make them aware of the issues surrounding mental illness,” Seidman said. “The art is just the means to get to the end, hopefully, to eliminate discrimination against individuals with mental health conditions.”

As visitors walked around the exhibit on Sunday, many of the conversations turned to their own experiences with mental illness. Two women, clearly friendly, stood by one of the portraits, deep in conversation — both of their sons have a mental illness. One of them, Linda Cournoyer, gestured to her son, Chris, the man playing the bass. He created the project’s original self-portrait.



“It was very exciting for my son, who did participate, to be in the public and not feel stigmatized to be seen,” Cournoyer said. “There aren’t too many opportunities like that.”

Many of the artists, volunteers and Seidman spent much of the weekend setting up the exhibit. One of those volunteers, Robert McNutt, said he was inspired to help out for a very personal reason — his son has paranoid schizophrenia. While his son wouldn’t participate in the project, McNutt said it has been a positive experience for him. He was moved to tears by some of the art in the exhibit and especially encouraged by the public response. On Saturday, he wore a shirt emblazoned with the “FACEing Mental Illness” logo. As he walked, he said multiple people stopped him, wanting to know more. That, to him, was a sign of positive change.

Volunteer Linda Cameron, who worked on the project from the very beginning, said it has resonated with so many because the topic touches everyone.

“All of us has some sort of mental illness in us,” Cameron said.

So now that the project has reached its conclusion, what remains for Seidman?

“I feel like I gained 70-some new friends,” Seidman said, smiling. “I have so much admiration for all of the people who participated.”

“FACEing Mental Illness: The Art of Acceptance” exhibit runs March 5 through 31 at the Selby Public Library, 1331 1st Street, Sarasota, FL, 34236.

Click here to see the original Herald-Tribune article.

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