Photographer and artist Jen G. Pywell’s longtime affinity for the visual arts took on new meaning after a difficult summer two years ago. Three months of insomnia, depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation piled up until it kept her up two nights in a row. After her third sleepless night—this one spent obsessively writing lists on post-it notes—she was admitted to Good Samaritan hospital and officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For a few weeks after her manic episode, Jen felt too scatterbrained to make any art. Instead, she focused on sleeping, yoga, group therapy, and spending time with her husband and friends. By winter, Jen was ready to re-engage her artistic side. She took several art classes at Linn-Benton Community College to introduce some structure into her life, work on her skills, and heal.
A large part of her healing process has been regaining confidence in her own knowledge of her mind and body. For years, when she mentioned the possibility of having bipolar disorder to her doctors, they dismissed her.
“That compounded the problem,” she says. “I didn’t feel confident advocating for myself.” She acknowledges that diagnosing mental illness is tricky; professionals usually only see patients at one point in time. However, the continued dismissal made her doubt her experiences.
She credits Ann Magratten’s art classes at LBCC with helping her trust her perceptions again. “She created a really welcoming, nurturing environment where my ideas weren’t wrong,” says Jen. In that supportive space, Jen was able to explore her artistic voice and find ways to connect with others through creative expression.
Her most public example of reaching others through art on the topic of mental health was in “The Bind,” her installation at The Arts Center almost one year after leaving the hospital. In it, she created a tight, circular structure with three sections of repeating images—the sky, the post-its she wrote on her third sleepless night, and a grid of silhouettes—to represent the time before, during and after her manic episode.
“A lot of people came up to me [during the reception] and talked about mental illness,” says Jen. “One woman shared that her daughter was just diagnosed with bipolar, and she said seeing what I went through gave her hope that her daughter would be okay.”
Mental health is a topic Jen regularly returns to in her art-making. She captured her bout with insomnia that summer through “Five Sleepless Nights,” a series of 5×7 oil paintings completed in her painting class at LBCC. She created the Rainbow Hat Project (@rainbow_hat_project on Instagram) to honor the item that made her smile during her deepest depression and to share that sense of joy with others. Last week, she showed three prints of her favorite pieces in the “Art Saves Lives” mental health-themed exhibit at The Arts Center.
Jen hopes that sharing her experiences of bipolar disorder can help de-stigmatize a fraught topic.
“Art is important to me because it’s about communication. It’s a powerful tool to reach other people who went through similar things, [to show] they aren’t alone in what they are going through. In that sense it creates community. Any effort to de-stigmatize mental illness is really important.”
An important aspect of sharing her story is talking about the mental health system. Jen is grateful that her overall experience at Samaritan was excellent. That said, she already had a therapist and psychiatrist when the manic episode occurred. For those not already in the system, getting help can be difficult.
“Some people might wait six months to see a therapist, or they are put on a wait list, or no one is taking new clients,” says Jen. And for those who are homeless, Jen has a strong opinion. “I think health and mental health services for homeless people is despicable here. Through volunteering at the women’s shelter, [I’ve seen] people not getting the care they need.”
For more on Jen G. Pywell’s work, visit www.jengpywell.com or find her on Instagram @jengphoto. She is currently earning her post-baccalaureate in art at OSU.
By Alisha Wang Saville