Always invisible, yet always there. “Mental challenges,” as Amy Kerr calls them—grief, depression, eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. Challenges that dominate the lives of sufferers, creating an overwhelming interior narrative about their lives and its meaning.
For Kerr, that narrative is not the whole story. And in her “I Am More” project, sharing those stories becomes a way of broadening the discussion.
In the past two years, Kerr has encouraged a variety of Cape Ann residents to tell their story, and has accompanied their words with her own pastel and colored pencil portraits. She began showing the initial installments of the “I Am More” series last year; selected works from the exhibition are on view now, in the Rockport police station Community Room and at Salem’s Therapy for Intentional Living (TILI), through the end of April.
Kerr has shown the exhibition at various non-traditional locations—like this selection at the police station, or at Action, Inc., the hospital, the Gorton Theatre lobby, and the Open Door Food Pantry. The list of future sites continues to evolve, and an October exhibition at Worcester PopUp will broaden the scope to include residents from other communities, including Lowell, Lawrence, Boston and Amherst.
It’s an ambitious artistic project that has naturally come to involve a number of social service organizations—“a lot of these non-profits that I had no idea even existed,” Kerr says. She has benefited from collaborations with North Shore Parent & Caregiver Group, the NAN Project for youth with suicidal thoughts, PACE medical program for elders, National Alliance of Mental Illness/Cape Ann, and in particular TILI in Salem, which is hosting its second version of the exhibition. The Rockport police station showing came about through the support of Roger Lesch, a retired police officer and longtime advocate for the elderly on Cape Ann.
“I Am More” grew out of Kerr’s own depression, “on a low day, the lowest moment,” she says. “It was January, 2017. I didn’t want to be just a depressed artist. I still have loves and goals. I’m still a mom.
“I wrote about it in my blog, and I was shocked at the response,” she says. “I had kept it private all my adult life. Not even my friends knew. All these people were reaching out to me. Friends. People I didn’t know. So many people who are effected by some mental illness.”
And so “I Am More” took shape. Kerr would encourage her own supporters to write about their experience, and work on an accompanying portrait.
“In one day I had it all mapped out,” she says of “I Am More.” “I went back to those people who had reached out to me.
“I decided that I would work from my own photos, and that I would let the person choose their favorite place, their happiness. Then I asked them to write about it. I finished sixteen portraits that year.”
The stories have some common threads, but these are all individuals. Their words about grief, about illnesses like depression, or multiple other disorders—these stories do not minimize the challenges, but incorporate them into a fuller personal picture. A sense of confidence runs through all the sometimes heartbreaking narratives.
Kerr’s portraits are likewise personal. The medium is always the same, but a spirit of the individual abides in each of the portraits.
It takes courage—and help—to arrive at a place where the conversation about mental challenges can be brought to the public. Visitors as well should be prepared for some self-examination when seeing “I Am More.” The exhibition shows our neighbors and friends, confronting their own life altering challenges, and living with them.
“Seeing this exhibition is not a chatty experience,” Kerr says. “There’s reading involved, and you need time to find your way through. We’re talking about difficult subjects, openly and compassionately.”
Selections from “I Am More” run through April 30 in the Community Room at the Rockport Police Station, and at Therapy for Intentional Living, 11 Vinnin St., Salem. Artist receptions will be held on April 25 at 7:00 p.m. (Rockport) and on April 28 from 11:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. (Salem).
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to firstname.lastname@example.org.