Laid bare

Paradise art students explore mental health for group exhibition

Lizzy Eakins created several pieces exploring her experiences with anxiety and panic attacks. (Photo by Ashiah Bird)

Lizzy Eakins’ panic attacks come on suddenly, and when they do, it’s hard for her to breathe. Her mind races, overwhelmed with thoughts like: What do I do? Am I OK? Why do I feel like this?

In her art class at Ridgeview High School in Paradise, she has channeled her experiences with anxiety into emotive, tangible creations. One of those is a clay figure with a rope around its neck. It wears a gag that says “Shh” and a t-shirt with the phrase “It’s OK,” with panicked thoughts staked into its head.

Eakins will be showing this piece, along with illustrations and another sculpture, in a one-day exhibit called Stigmatic Spotlights, presented by Ridgeview High School and local artist, arts educator and trauma specialist Jess Mercer, on May 15 at the Museum of Northern California Art (see info at bottom of story).

Ridgeview High School students created two group pieces for the art exhibit, including this pair of lungs made with vaping products. (Photo by Ashiah Bird)

She will be joined by just over a dozen other school mates who’ve picked up paint brushes, pencils and even welding tools to express themselves. While the teens’ artworks and mediums vary, all center on mental health.

Throughout the creative process, the students at Ridgeview, a continuation high school, have received support from their art teacher, Lauri Touchette, and Mercer, who has been providing trauma-informed art therapy to students at campuses across Butte County since January 2019.

Mercer is known for spearheading several initiatives in Paradise geared toward helping the community heal and recover from the 2018 Camp Fire. These include the “Ridge Key Phoenix” sculpture, made with keys donated by fire survivors, a community-created mural on the Skyway Antique Mall honoring those who died in the blaze, and a partnership with the gym Paradise Stronger to establish community gathring space, the Equilibrium Wellness Center.

As the students have prepared for their art show, Mercer has often witnessed them discussing mental health and trauma they’ve experienced. At the same time, they also have expressed a lot of enthusiasm for the opportunity to share their work publicly for the first time.

“The kids are being honest,” she said. “They’re so excited, and it’s the most I’ve seen them smile in a long time.”

Young people don’t always have a safe space to express their thoughts and feelings on topics such as depression, suicide and loneliness, Mercer said. The goal of this show is to make these subjects “not so taboo” and to give the teens a platform in which they have the creative freedom to say what they want to say.

“I have always found importance in safely helping youth translate the residue of trauma into a visible, feeling form,” she said. “I want to keep padding this space for them to be so authentically themselves.”

Senior art student Cameron Bonner focused on death for his pieces. His work “Drained and Damaged” depicts an anatomically correct heart made of plaster, scuffed and rendered bloodless. Bonner also created a small black coffin framed by bones using wood and paint, as well as several other paintings.

Cameron Bonner, a senior artist, ruminated on death and dying for his pieces in Stigmatic Spotlights. (Photo by Ashiah Bird)

“Death comes for everyone and it’s unavoidable,” he said, “and you’ve gotta live for what you like.”

Other students, like Chloe Spainhower, have enjoyed the freedom of creating art without any particular subject in mind. Her pieces feature imagery that she enjoys, including snakes, moths and eyes.

“When I work on art, I’m not in the past or the future,” she said. “It helps me release stuck emotions and relax and focus on the present moment.”

Similarly, her classmate Caden Gleaton worked with electrical spool and water piping to make a rustic table. He’s allowed himself to be “very impulsive” and go with the flow while creating the piece. Even though it turned out differently than he planned, he’s content with the outcome.

The students also collaborated on evocative group pieces. One is a pair of lungs composed of vaping pens and products. Another forms the terms of an IOU in the wake of the Camp Fire, upon which the students painted words and phrases such as “my cats,” “my hometown,” “time, “family,” “The Flumes,” and “peace of mind,” in white, black and blue lettering on a background of fake currency. It is signed “insincerely, PG&E.”

Mercer also will be displaying her drawings and paintings in the show that are centered on her experience living with PTSD and growing up with a sibling with severe mental illness. One of her works depicts a disfigured woman standing next to a straight-faced man, reminiscent of “American Gothic.”

“I just grab a pen and draw when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s just about putting the thoughts on paper,” she said. “I’ve never been this vulnerable in public ever, except for the Phoenix, but even then it was in collaboration with others.”

Ridgeview art teacher Touchette also will participate in the show, and said “it’s the first time in so long I’m just expressing myself.”

In her piece, a tree emerges from the center, one side a dark blue facing a chaotic landscape, the other side a warm brown, representing new life.

“This reminds me of the fire,” she said. “As I was painting it, I was like, ‘Maybe I’m starting to heal from that.’”

Another group piece by Ridgeview High School students, this one an IOU from PG&E in the aftermath of the 2018 Camp Fire. (Photo by Ashiah Bird)

Touchette expressed pride in her students and their dedication to their artwork. She teaches art at Paradise E-Learning Academy, Paradise Junior High and Ridgeview, and said that though her students have high needs due to the traumatic things they have lived through, they have also opened up and formed close bonds with their teachers.

Eakins, in addition to her pieces that explore her relationship with anxiety, will also feature another work in the show that’s particularly meaningful to her—an illustrated portrait of her dog, Lorelia, her ears perked and curious eyes staring at the viewer.

On a recent day in her classroom, Eakins gazed at the piece and smiled warmly. Her mother recently went through a divorce, she explained. Lorelia helped Eakins get through that difficult time.

“She’s such a happy dog,” she said. “Any time you see her you’re smiling and laughing.”

Stigmatic Spotlights, a one-day exhibit presented by Ridgeview High School and Jess Mercer.
May 15, noon-8 p.m. (reception & entertainment 5-8 p.m.)

Student works will be for sale (with all proceeds going directly to them). Patrons can also donate to Jess Mercer’s trauma-informed art programming.

Museum of Northern California Art
900 Esplanade

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