Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Feb. 15, 2022

The Wilderness Diary: Mental Health and Art in Roxbury

The Wilderness Diary: Mental Health and Art in Roxbury
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Delaware County artist Jessica Farrell was inspired by her aunt's journal from the 1960s and '70s to create "The Wilderness Journal," a series of portraits of adolescents who would go on to struggle with mental health issues. These portraits, in addition to a companion book and an audio narration of aunt Barbara's journal excerpts, is now on exhibit at the Roxbury Arts Center, in Roxbury, NY. Join us for this special program on mental health, advocacy, and art in the Catskills.

Thanks to our sponsors: the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce and The Mountain Eagle

Also mentioned:
The National Alliance on Mental Illness

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Barbara was the fun spontaneous aunt and plenty of games, lots of candy, and just a little wild streak that was exciting. Artist Jessica Farrell's aunt Barbara is the inspiration for The Wilderness Diary; an exhibit now on display in Roxbury, New York. Aunt Barbara wrote about her struggles with bipolar disorder in the 1960s and 70s, and those journal entries accompany Jessica's portrait of her, along with eight other portraits of people with mental health challenges, all depicted in their youth, with an animal companion, and a Catskills backdrop. We met with Jessica at the Roxbury Arts Center, where The Wilderness Diary is on display through March 5th. I'm Jessica Farrell. I live in Delaware County, New York, and I'm so happy to bring The Wilderness Diary here. I really envisioned my work here after I had the project complete. The series was inspired by the writings that my aunt sent me. She suffered with bipolar disorder in the 1960s and 70s, and she kept journals that were letters to herself, I would say, and letters to Charles Baudelaire, she wrote to her doctor, a lot of those things probably were never sent. I think she was really trying to work out what was going on in her mind. So yes, I was very inspired by her. She was integral to my life growing up. I felt very privileged that she trusted me with these writings. This was the first of 14 shock treatments. After having more, my memory seemed to get worse, although it did improve in time. What's it like to spend a day, a week, a month in the psychiatric wing of a hospital? It all ends up being rather a bore. You arise in the morning around seven or 7:30. There's coffee to drink while you wait for breakfast to arrive. If you've had a treatment due to the anesthetic, you have to be awakened by an aide or an orderly. Your name is called and you go get your breakfast tray. Breakfast time is also pill time. Barbara was the fun, spontaneous aunt; plenty of games, lots of candy, and just a little wild streak that was exciting. Late nights, listening to records, and eating lots of candy. So it really was a kid's dream come true to be there. Did you know anything about this other side to your aunt at that time, but she was struggling with? Actually, I didn't. As an adult, my aunt started to share more of the story, and then I reflected a lot on, you know, the years prior, and it really broadened my respect for her because she was truly suffering but never showed that side of herself and always presented herself as basically the world's best aunt. You know, there were a few things that I think back on. There was a time when I saw that she had all of her clothes in her car, and I think what was going on then, you know. I never really asked her those specifics, but I know that she was in and out of hospitals but also a very hard worker, very focused person, worked in manufacturing and held a job despite these challenges. Excerpts from Barbara's journals narrated by Jessica play through the exhibit space, underscoring Jessica's portraits with a striking color palette at a style that might complement a Wes Anderson movie set. Barbara, the child, stares at the viewer, fox in hand, dramatic Catskills sky in the background. Jason holds a white rabbit tight in a stark winter scene. Martha at a deer seemed to comfort each other as a storm moves through a cornfield. This is a portrait of Barbara Fox Smith. She was really an animal lover, especially large rowdy dogs. When I painted it, I wanted to bring animals into the work because it was very integral to her recovery, and also I chose to paint people either as children or young, maybe adolescents because a lot of mental illnesses present at that time. So I was really fascinated by a photograph that she'd sent me along with the writings. I tried to show mental illness in a more subtle way by using the sky, her eyes, and somewhat the animal too, and of course, the background is the Catskill Mountains; I live here, and I always say we have the best skies in the world. Because they're really changeable because of the mountains and sometimes they're very ominous, and, you know, I think there can be an isolation in this area too. So I tried to use those elements to kind of personify mental illness rather than showing suffering. I thought about each person greatly about being a kid, and how do you handle this, you know. Some were having suicidal thoughts, serious things, just as they were entering adolescence. The majority of the people I painted are peers, they go out, they tell their story, and through their story, I think in the end, you have a lot of hope. For people with mental illness, certainly helps families having these struggles in their home. To me, they're just heroes. They're heroes, because they survived this very difficult thing, and then they use that and they go help other people. It's very brave, I feel it's very brave. So I was really honored that they shared their story, that they allowed me to paint them, and, you know, even just gathering the photos was difficult because they had to kind of revisit this part of their life. I did get photos from the period when they were in struggle, and some of the photos look like they'd been put away kind of folded and, you know, people didn't want to revisit it. Some of them go into the high school period, and a lot of people were starting to see some change at that time. I am worried about Delaware County and actually our nation, in regards to mental health care, because it's, it's sorely lacking, the statistics are scary. One in five suffer with a mental illness. 80% of the inmates in the Delaware County Jail have some form of mental illness. Colleagues and I started a group called the Mental Health Justice project in Delaware County and Otsego County, because we are concerned when we heard those numbers, we do what we can. It's a large county, Delaware County. Rural America is really in crisis with with mental health, because there are a lot of barriers like distance, lack of services and stigma. Because if you live in a small community, and you're labeled, it's gonna be hard. But we're making progress, and I'm always hopeful. So, you know, when I was making the work, it was kind of my dream to take it on the road. I wanted to show it in all kinds of places and just say, and bring my friends with me who I painted, and, you know, we could just sit down and have conversations, but unfortunately COVID came in and made that challenging. But we are still continuing with that mission, and so we've had two zoom talks that discuss the issues; my colleagues tell their story. It's just bringing people together and I think it brings self esteem also and self confidence to my friends and all of us. Me too, you know, to say yes, we know this, we know mental illness. At Jessica's Wilderness Diary art opening, we had a chance to speak with some fellow advocates for mental health in Delaware County, and the Catskills. I'm Bill Hayes. I'm the affiliate leader for NAMI of Delaware and Otsego Counties; National Alliance on Mental Illness. And I'm Rena Reba. I've been with NAMI for a number of years, and NAMI as a national organization; calls itself the largest grassroots advocacy organization for people living with mental illness and their families, supporting in providing advocacy for getting programs and services and getting attention to the needs of people living with mental illness and improving quality of life. I was a professional in the field for decades as a therapist particularly with kids and their families, but also work with people coping with all kinds of stresses in their lives. Illness contributed by stress, or stress resulting from it. I also have some family members who have had, and currently have, issues with mental illness, and that's something that we share in common within NAMI, either we ourselves have some issue and or somebody that is in the family system that has had or currently is dealing with issues, and that has ripple effect on on all of us. And we try to support one another as we can, and advocate for a better perspective than most people have on mental illness, and advocate for adequate access to services that make a difference in people's lives. Delaware County is as large as the state of Rhode Island, and access to services is a challenge. Access to Children's Services is a greater challenge as a subset, because there are only a handful of therapists in the area who have experienced with or are willing to work with younger kids. Insurance companies drive the dynamics of a lot of what is accessible, and what's affordable. There's a whole host of issues. And when we talk about mental illness as we do with substance use disorders, you know, the person is not the illness necessarily. The illness may be part of their life, but what else is going on in their life? And what other what supports do they have? What relationships do they have? What potential do they have? I'm Michael Reisman, and I just relocated to this area; just moved to Margaretville from the city. I suffer from depression, OCD, ADD, probably a few other acronyms, and during the pandemic, I resorted to artwork to express myself. Was really struggling working from home, and art was just a tremendous outlet for me; a big relief. And I happened to just walk by a gallery in Delhi and asked a couple of questions about maybe showing my artwork and went on their website and found Jessica and read her bio and about this project, and I was immediately drawn to her and, and her artwork and she recommended this organization and I'm one of the new members, and it's just been tremendously eye opening for me. It's really a dream come true to be upstate, doing artwork, and getting connected with these folks. You know, I've gotten to a place in my life where it's time to pay back some people that stepped up in my life and made a big difference, and if I can do that for somebody else, that's kind of what my goal is for the for the rest of my time here. So I have to do this, you know, this is, I was lucky. The fact that I'm here, standing alive and painting and, you know, hanging out with these people is is it's hard to explain, but it's, it's life changing, and if I can do that, or help somebody else in a similar situation, that's what I'm here to do. And to look at Jessica's work, if you go up closely, it almost looks like a photograph. It's so clear, it's so concise, but it also has a feel; the backgrounds, the Catskill theme is just amazing. And I've gotten a chance to hear about some of the people in the artwork, just amazing stories, you know, big success stories, and it's profoundly moving. I just think this artwork is is incredible, and it tells such a story, and if you read some of the written letters, I can relate to it, you know, and I think some people read it and are probably shocked that people can feel that desperate, but I know that level of desperation. I worked for a big financial services company and on the outside you would have never known what was going on inside me. And I want to help de-stigmatize, you know, people that are suffering because it's an awful way to live and and people just need help. They just need, you know, somebody something; medication. There's a host of ways to to help people. And I think Jessica, you know, displaying her artwork and the story is it really opens eyes. Barbara was an advocate in her own way. She'd had in-hospital stays on and off. But one thing that she mentioned to me that she would do is she was able to connect with people who needed a ride to their appointments, their their mental health appointments, and she would shuttle people to and from these appointments and I just think having a ride with her would certainly probably be a little wild because she was a character, and she would probably pull up in her Impala with all the windows down and probably a couple of large dogs in the car with her. She was very funny and very energetic, and I just like to see that scene of her helping others in that way. You know, I really wish she were here to see her writings on the wall and her photograph. She'd be very proud and, and she'd probably even tried to travel up here in the dead of winter to come and see the show. I wish that could happen. Join Jessica for an artist ZOOM talk on February 19th, and visit the show through March 5th at the Roxbury Art Center. COVID protocols are in place, including proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Masks are required. Please visit roxburyartsgroup.org for more information. Roxbury Arts Group is a member of the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. You can be too. The Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce provides services to businesses, community organizations, and local governments in the Central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org. Thanks also to Jessica Farrell, Samantha Nick, and the Mountain Eagle. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. And if you'd like to contribute, just click Support at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Berry. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you again in two weeks. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL