A collaborative project in which shoreline high school art students tackle the issue of mental health in Connecticut will draw state-wide attention at the Capitol next month.
“Art for Social Change” is a partnership between Madison’s Daniel Hand High School community and Middletown-based Gilead Community Services, which provides services, support and rehabilitation for those faced with psychiatric, emotional or behavioral challenges.
The project, which primarily involved 11th-graders who created portraits of Gilead clients and sometimes themselves, will be on display in the Legislative Office Building March 2 to 15.
Many of the subjects are captured with lively, sunny faces, others stare straight into the camera. Several of these individuals’ eyes are downcast, others wide open.
All tell a story. Altogether, these 12-by-16-inch charcoals create a mosaic of human expression.
The project, spearheaded by Hand art teacher Suzanne Gaskell, is inspired by the work of Abby Carter, whose drawings of St. Vincent de Paul Middletown soup kitchen patrons reveal the struggles of the poor and homeless.
Gaskell and her colleague Robert del Russo, who teaches an Advanced Placement painting class, committed to the drawing project based on client selfies in hopes of raising awareness and advocating legislative action for quality mental health care, she said.
“She is the powerhouse engine behind this. I’m grateful she gave students an opportunity to use art in this way,” del Russo said.
“The minute they knew they had an opportunity to use their skills and their talent in a larger context, that seemed to be very enticing and exciting to them. They took the ball and ran with it,” del Russo explained.
Gaskell, who sits on the Gilead Board of Directors, has a son with a chronic mental illness, so the topic is a very personal one. “We’re very fortunate he fell under Gilead’s care several years ago,” she said. “Gilead has been a lifesaver for me, as a mom who has struggled with a son who has suffered from a mental illness for a number of years.”
Gaskell said she especially enjoys art projects with a social advocacy component. She said she thought it would be a great way to teach these students to draw upon their talents to shed light on the topic.
Recently, the National Education Association released “seriously alarming” statistics, Gaskell said. In 2017, one in six high school students admitted they had thought about committing suicide. That includes one in four girls, and nearly half of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students.
“The suicide rate is up exponentially. It has almost doubled since 2008. Anxiety and depression among students — which has always been high — is at record levels,” she said.
The students completed the drawing portion of the project, mostly done in their free time, Friday. “They had a blast with it,” del Russo said.
All students will write a statement of social advocacy or social cause issues personal to them beyond the mental illness component, the prospect of which excited them, he said.
These topics could touch upon global warming, gay rights, bullying, climate change, or any number of other possibilities: “whatever they wanted to do to get that topic in front of legislators in the hopes of using art as part of public advocacy,” del Russo said.
“These are the upper-trained kids. They’re approaching it with extraordinary expertise. They were so excited to use a talent they have to do a drawing of themselves and affix their image to something that concerns them,” del Russo said.
“Those kids are very sensitive. They have incredible observational skills. That’s what art is about: observing the world that lives around you,” he added.
Patricia Burke, director of Gilead’s Social Rehabilitation Center, thought it would be great for individuals served by the agency to take pictures of themselves for students to base their creations on.
Every year, between 50 and 60 clients and staff have a week’s vacation at Camp Harkness in Waterford.
“People are really happy to have a vacation out in the woods, in a cabin, swimming, sunning, making tie-dye T-shirts. They’re just really happy and that’s their vacation,” Burke said.
The joy, and sometimes even silliness, in their expressions was a direct result of the camp experience. “They were relaxed and having a good time without the pressures of all the other stuff they have to deal with,” she added.
Many take the responsibility of fighting for their own needs and that of others very seriously. “Advocacy work is really in-your-face: ‘This is me, I dare you to tell me to go away.’ They learned the best advocate for their own treatment is themselves,” Burke said of clients.
She gives them a lot of credit for being courageous: “willing to go to the [Legislative Office Building] and testify. It’s very scary for anybody in front of the news media, legislators, a room full of 120 people,” said Burke, who is constantly reminding clients the importance of having their voices heard.
She also counsels them on effective ways to achieve that mission, including “dive bombing” lawmakers when they come out of the restroom.
All involved with the project realize the profundity of the situation, del Russo said.
“Drawings are a more intimate and honest experience. For kids, they’re helping spread the word that folks with mental illness are people just like you and me,” Gaskell said.
“We realize no one is immune from having either a loved one, a family member or friend who is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse or both,” Burke said.
“Students are paying attention. Their conversations about social issues and the passion with which the students have engaged in this art project has reaffirmed my optimism about the future,” Gaskell said.
“They are paying attention much more than we give them credit for. They have a lot of opinions on things they’d like to change in the world,” del Russo added.
The opening reception is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 4 at 300 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Students will join Gilead staff and clients, as well as state legislators for the unveiling and reception. Work will be on view through March 15.