Considering mental illness through the eyes of artists
At first glance, J. Pepin Art Gallery (319 NW Ninth Ave, 503-274-9614, jpepinartgallery.com) looks like a fairly typical contemporary Pearl District art gallery, with its high ceilings, clean lines, and unobtrusive indirect lighting. The walls display vibrant acrylic and oil paintings as well as works in encaustic wax and other compelling media. Take a closer look at the artists’ statements, however, and you’ll quickly sense that something different is going on here: in lieu of gallery-standard—and sometimes obscure—art-speak, artists frankly discuss their diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, and the effects these mental conditions have on their lives and their artwork.
The common, if subtle, theme reflects the specific design of gallery owner Jennifer Pepin—who herself is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The gallery exclusively represents artists with mental illnesses, and its explicit mission is to dismantle the social stigma that people with mental illness regularly experience. Still, “this is a traditional for-profit business, and not a charity,” Pepin explains. When someone makes a purchase, she hopes they’re doing so for aesthetic reasons, “and not because they’re thinking, oh, pity the poor mentally ill people—let me buy some of their art,” she says. “This is our approach to ending the stigma.”
Pepin came up with the idea for the gallery three years ago, when she was driving home from a local meeting of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance in Northwest Portland. At the time, she was working in sales and marketing and painting as a hobby on the side. “But I was facing challenges in my career, and my mental health was deteriorating, and I was having one of those drives where you think about what you want to do with the rest of your life.” She considered the overwhelming creativity represented in the support group she’d just left: “There was a pianist, a dancer, a poet, a painter. And I thought, I want to find a way to show the world all the creativity in that room.”
She spoke about her gallery idea at the next support group meeting, which caught the attention of Chris Foster, an artist in the group. Together, Pepin and Foster conducted some informal research by attending a First Thursday gallery walk, which is when Pepin spotted an available gallery space on Ninth Avenue. “I thought for sure that it would be out of my grasp, but I made an appointment and took a look anyway.”
Fewer than three months later, J. Pepin Art Gallery opened its doors, initially displaying works by Pepin and Foster, along with three local artists they found online “by literally Googling the phrase ‘artists with mental illness,’” recalls Pepin with a laugh. Along the way, Foster and Pepin got engaged.
Today, artists across the nation routinely approach Pepin asking for representation in her gallery. She remains mostly focused on local artists but recently made an exception for Bozeman-based painter Calen Pick, who lives with schizoaffective disorder. His mother, Jessie Close, who herself has bipolar disorder, founded the stigma-
fighting organization Bring Change 2 Mind along with her sister, the actress Glenn Close.
Recently, J. Pepin Art Gallery hosted a reception for Pick and Jessie Close, who read from her new memoir, Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness. The event represented a coup for Pepin, who learned about the book after seeing Jessie and Glenn Close on CBS This Morning. She reached out to Close’s organization thinking that she might be reading at Powell’s on a book tour, and offered to host a small reception afterward. “It turned out that Jessie wasn’t doing a book tour, but she was willing to come to Portland and do a reading at my gallery.”
The packed event that evening was both a proud moment for Pepin and a key piece of evidence in the larger point she’s making. “People with mental illness can still be a productive part of society,” she says, “which we’re showing by being competitive in a gallery district like this, among all of the other wonderful galleries.” – Alison Stein
Artwork, clockwise from above: Vale of Abundance by Chris Foster (encaustic and oil on wood, 36″ x 60″); The Ocean Blue by Jennifer Pepin (acrylic on wood, 20″ x 20″); Partly Cloudy with Pigs Flying by Cher Odum (gouache on watercolor paper, 31″ x 23″); Henry Went Fishing by Alexandra Petersen (encaustic over pen-and-ink drawings, 24″ x 24″) – Photos by Amy Ouellette