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Arts & Life

Colorado Artist Destigmatizes ‘Stain’ Of Mental Illness

For Fort Collins artist Jennifer Ivanovic, the inspiration for her latest work has been a long-time coming.

More than 30 years ago, while Ivanovic was in high school, a friend killed himself by jumping off of a parking garage.

“And of course, being high school, there’s a lot of innuendos and ‘Was he pushed?’ and all this,” she said. “Until his parents actually wanted to put all the rumors to rest and told us all that he had bipolar disorder.”

That experience has stayed with Ivanovic throughout her life. As she graduated from high school, went on to college and started a family, she would think back on her friend and where he would have been if he’d been able to be more open about his struggles.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
'Carrie: Snap Out Of It And Move Forward Is Not A Choice I Have' addresses the stigma that people with depression have control over it.

“I’ve always wondered, you know, ‘Why? Why did that happen?’” she said. “Because this is a deadly disease, and it’s something that we all kind of want to ignore.”

That desire to hide mental illness away and the idea that it is something that stains us gave Ivanovic the idea for her art series “Stigma Stains.”

“To me the metaphor for stigma is a big, blobby stain,” she said. “It’s something that is outside of you, it’s a coating. And the other thing about a stain is that it’s removable.”

Her husband is a psychiatrist and Ivanovic said that proximity made her a sort of “safe haven” for friends to go to when they needed to talk. They were afraid of how they would be judged by others if people knew they were struggling. So Ivanovic decided the only way to take away that fear would be to give people a safe way to share their stories.

“At a certain age, every artist starts realizing that they have a voice,” she said. “I always wondered, ‘What can I say with the newfound voice that I have?’ And I really wanted to talk about mental health and the stigma of mental illness.”

Stigma Stains begin as paint poured directly onto the canvas, allowing the colors to seep over the edges to form thick pools. The center features a real person who has battled with mental illness. The portrait is surrounded by images that reflect their story -- their fight -- along with excerpts from their interview with Ivanovic.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
'James: The Wallpaper of Depression" looks at the stigma that men are supposed to be brave and not show their emotions.

The Stigma Stain, “James: The Wallpaper of Depression,” is the first piece people see when they walk into Ivanovic’s latest exhibition at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center.

James is not his real name. To protect her subjects, Ivanovic changes the names on all of her paintings. It’s important to make them comfortable, she said.

“James” had spent much of his life battling suicidal thoughts. In his interview with Ivanovic, he told her that he had always felt pressure to be a strong, black man and that strong black men did not cry or show weakness.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Detail of 'Kathryn: Judging The Perfection Or The Suicide.'

He told her that he had become so numb that he felt like the wallpaper in his own life -- ever present but not a participant.

Some of the images in Ivanovic’s Stigma Stains are dark and raw, sometimes brutally so.

“I don’t know how else to show mental health but tell the truth,” she said. “That’s why we have a disclaimer at the front.”

The sign reads: “Some artworks in this exhibit contain mature content.”

Most likely, it’s referencing “Kathryn: Judging the Perfection or the Suicide.” The painting depicts a 1950s, June Cleaver-type mom, complete with a double strand of pearls and a wrist that is jaggedly cut open, dripping with blood. The text next to it depicts -- in Kathryn’s words -- the struggle.

“What you really fear most isn’t the suffering inside of you,” it stated. “It’s the stigma. It’s the shame. It’s the embarrassment. We live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way.”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Detail from 'Kathryn: Judging The Perfection Or The Suicide.'

The imagery has been tough for some and Ivanovic has had some galleries back out of shows at the last minute, deciding the work is too graphic and too difficult of a topic for them to address.

But, she said, that attitude is changing.

“We’re in a very unique situation right now, with the political climate and what’s going on with the #MeToo movement,” Ivanovic said. “It seems like what we’re trying to do is remove those Band-Aids. Let’s see where all these sores are. Let’s see what’s really happening. And it’s a perfect opportunity to talk about mental health.”

Jennifer Ivanovic’s exhibition, “Stigma Stains,” will be on display January 12 through February 24 at Fort Collins’ Lincoln Center. She will give an artist talk about her work on February 2.

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