Artist Amy Kerr explores mental health issues through portraits and writing

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Not everyone can come out of the pain of an emotional or physical struggle to create awareness and hope for others who are trying to overcome their own issues. Portrait painter Amy Kerr is a master at this. She didn’t want her own battle with depression to define who she was. From the outside, it’s easy to tell that no one is so one-dimensional, that we are more than our labeled diagnosis. But when you’re the person trapped in your feelings and fears and hyper-focused on your demons, you can feel like you’re paralyzed and nothing beyond your clinical diagnosis exists.

Artist Amy Kerr

Through her personal journey and insight, in January 2017, Amy Kerr gave birth to the idea for her public art and writing project, I am more, a collection of portraits accompanied by essays sharing the very personal stories of 16 people struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, the loss of family members to suicide, and more. the original I am more The exhibit began in June 2018 at her husband Iain’s business, Ocean Alliance, located in Gloucester’s iconic Paint Factory, and has traveled to dozens of locations across the state.

“When this idea came to me, I was not an established artist or writer, Kerr explains. “I didn’t know anything about public art shows, fundraising, writing for mental health. I was not a therapist. I just knew it was something I had to do. So I asked lots of questions, sent flurries of emails, most of which went unanswered, and searched for empty walls wherever I could find them. If a business had an empty wall, I asked if I could hang a portrait with an essay. Only one was fine. Now, I am more tours the largest malls in the state and reaches thousands of people. If you have a vision, you can find a way.

“I had the pleasure of hosting the exhibition in the lobby of the North Shore Music Theater in September and October 2019 for the duration of sunset boulevard. The timing seemed perfect in that September was Suicide Awareness Month and October was Depression Awareness Month. This musical and exhibit seemed like a natural connection to a story of Norma Desmond’s personal battle with mental illness, not to mention the infamous phrase, ‘Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.'”

The artist captures his vulnerable subjects in the most idyllic and peaceful settings. Kerr allows her subjects to choose their background and does not learn the content of their essays until she completes the paintings. She takes her subjects out of their pain for a moment so we can see them as themselves. When you see a finished portrait, you may feel like Kerr created it by saying, “I see you. I understand you. I know you.”

Kerr’s portraits are hauntingly realistic. They’re so detailed they almost vibrate across the paper with tactile energy. Given his level of talent, Kerr’s lack of formal artistic training might surprise you. “I didn’t want to go to art school and end up hating drawing, so I studied writing, thinking it would be more lucrative, a career I ultimately never pursued,” says- she. “My art classes never exceeded the classes I took in middle school and high school in a small town in southern Vermont where I grew up. I have always liked to draw. These art teachers stayed with me to show me how to do portraits. Each portrait takes approximately three weeks to draw using only pastels and colored pencils.

Of researching his subjects, Kerr says, “It all started with people I knew and trusted me. A stranger was not going to board with someone he didn’t know. Some people came to me when I went public with my own depression on my artist blog. I was going to step back from public view a bit and I wanted people to know why. A lot of people were surprised, and a ton of people said, “Yeah, me too. In 2017, when the idea came up to do this exhibition, I went back to these people. It took them a while to get on board. I learned to talk to people and write about their stories. Then I could show other people who were subjects I was interested in what it would look like.

Most of the topics she covers happen organically. “One of the big ones was opioid addiction. The problem is everywhere but definitely a big problem in Gloucester with overdoses. I was ignorant with what it takes to deal with this type of addiction. Some were hot topics like the Tree of Life mass shooting, the synagogue where so many people were killed, I thought it was important to talk to a Holocaust survivor.

Asked about some of the most memorable interviews, Kerr says. “Talking to the family of someone who died by suicide was the most memorable. It was not something I could prepare for and I could never talk to them. Sitting down with a mother who lost her daughter less than a year ago gave her daughter, Arielle, a voice for more than the way she died. I think we talk about suicides as a number, not their history. I want to focus on an individual and remember all of its parts.

“Erin, the last portrait I worked on was the perfect partnership. She was talking about alopecia, something about her appearance, how people perceived her. I was nervous about what it would make her feel. I was thrilled with the portrait, and she was so thrilled to have him there with his beautiful dogs included. It wasn’t a topic on my radar. She saw the exhibit, if asked if it was something she could talk about. I think we both made the most of it.

Amy followed her original exhibition with a new collection of pieces titled I am more: Massachusetts. This latest collection of 20 photorealistic portraits and essays from across the state debuted last summer at a pop-up gallery owned by the City of Worcester and toured the state to multiple locations, including the North Shore Mall. , Salem State University, and the Holyoke Mall in Ingleside. It will continue through multiple locations in Simon Mall, then eventually to the State House. Topics address how we are more than mental illness, addiction and recovery, bullying, disability, poverty, abuse and persecution.

“When I started I am more: Massachusetts with people across the state who didn’t know me, I had to reach out to healthcare workers and therapists and ask if they knew anyone who would feel comfortable telling their story,” explains Kerr. “The therapist contacted his clients, then I had to wait for people to come to me directly. They come when they come.

“Drawing is fun no matter what. My favorite thing is to sit and listen to people share their stories. I feel incredibly lucky to be put in this position. I still pinch myself that they are willing to experience this with me. It’s like the joy I feel working on my bramble-covered half acre and discovering what’s underneath.

Kerr plans to continue her work to capture the human spirit by creating awareness and offering hope and resilience through her portraits and stories of individuals overcoming mental and physical health challenges with new areas of expression, including domestic violence and other topics as they arise.

For more photos and information on I am more and I am more: Massachusettsto visit amykerrdraws.org. I am more is supported by donations. To make a tax-deductible donation, visit the Ocean Alliance website donation page and choose “I am more” from the list of programs.

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