For the first part of her life, Gail Harbeck felt weighed down by depression and PTSD. Then, she discovered a transformative love of art, and her outlook began to shift.
“I did not make the decision to become an artist until I was 40,” Harbeck said. “Until I started painting, I never realized or believed I had options in life, that I could make a choice to become anything at all. I didn’t think I had any kind of future.”
But then Harbeck began participating in painting workshops offered by People Incorporated, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides community-focused support services for people living with mental illness. Painting, Harbeck discovered, was a way to free herself from the pain of depression and explain her unique reality to others.
“Doing the art — boy, wow: the confidence I’ve gained, the focus, the outlet for expressing my emotions,” Harbeck said. “It gives me something to hang on to and a connection to the world that I typically don’t have. And I love the feeling that I get when someone purchases one of my paintings. My art leaves me and goes to another place.”
This year, Harbeck’s whimsically abstract painting “Walking the Dog” was selected as the poster image for People Incorporated’s 20th-anniversary Artability show, an annual exhibition of original artwork created by people living with mental illness. Like Harbeck, many of the show’s participants have taken part in art workshops sponsored by the nonprofit; others come to the exhibit through word of mouth.
Harbeck was among some 100 artists who exhibited their works on Oct. 24-25 at this year’s show in the Great Hall at 180 East 5th Street in St. Paul. It was the largest number of participants in the event’s history, said Jill Wiedmann-West, People Incorporated CEO.
Two decades ago, Artablity had humble beginnings, with a just few pieces hung in a church basement for viewing by instructors, family and friends. Wiedmann-West said that in recent years organizers have been working steadily to boost participation; this year’s landmark anniversary was an impetus to recruit more artists than ever.
“We wanted to build the show to the next level,” she said. “This is an incredibly important program for our clients and the community. I want to see where we can take it. I want it to grow in terms of scope, size, number of artists — and impact.”
The power of art
The Great Hall is a large space, but last weekend it was filled nearly to bursting with an impressive amount of artwork. Visitors milled around, viewing paintings, sculptures, mixed-media creations and fiber works. Like the human experience of mental illness, the art on display portrayed a variety of perspectives and experiences, from light and almost playful pieces like Harbeck’s to more somber works, heavy with social commentary.
As it is every year, the majority of the art on display was for sale. Before the show’s opening night, artists consulted with organizers to set their prices, and after the show, proceeds are split 80-20 between the artists and the nonprofit. Most art in the show is modestly priced, from $25 to $250. People Incorporated’s percentage of the take — this year’s show earned over $9,000 — goes back to the Artability program, to fund workshops and supplies. After the show is closed, artists are cut a check for their percentage.
Wiedmann-West believes that the experience of displaying original works of art and putting them up for sale can be therapeutic for participants.
“For anyone who is struggling on a day-to-day basis, living with any kind of pain or illness that makes them feel different than others, art is a great equalizer,” Wiedmann-West said. “You see these people at the show who have had a life of struggles, then you see stickers on their art that says it has been purchased. The enthusiasm in the room is just so wonderful.”
Harbeck has been participating in Artability shows for 11 years. Not every piece she’s put in the show over the years has sold, she said. At the beginning this was a tough reality to face, but these days she realizes that while selling a work is an amazing feeling — a bonus of sorts — simply exhibiting her creations alongside the work of others with mental illness carries a special strength of its own.
“Being in this show makes me feel proud,” Harbeck said. “When I was younger I went through a period where I was ashamed of myself, ashamed of having a mental illness. Now, to take part in this show, to see my peers saying, ‘This is us this is what we do and this is who we are. We deserve dignity and good attention,’ was a wonderful feeling. We’re standing proud as we display our art.”
In memory of Alex
Alex Galle had the soul of an artist, and when he died in 2002 at the age of 20, his grieving parents wanted to make sure that his love of art lived on.
“Alex was our youngest son,” said his father, Bart Galle. “He suffered from mental illness and drug abuse. He was quite an artist. We want people to remember that part about him.”
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Not long after Alex’s death, a friend told Bart and his wife, Lynn, about People Incorporated and the Artability program. When they learned more about the program and the services it provides for people with mental illness, the couple decided to create a modest endowment to fund an annual award for one of the participating artists. The award, which comes with a $250 cash prize, is called the Alex Galle Artability Award.
“We try to choose an artist we think Alex would’ve admired,” Bart explained. The 2014 winner of the Alex Galle Artablity Award is painter Michael Conroy.
After Alex’s death, the Galle family discovered many of his paintings. Much of the work appeared to be their son’s attempt at processing his state of mind. “Alex’s art was tremendously diverse,” Bart Galle said. “He did watercolor and pencil drawing. He had watercolors that looked like standard watercolors, and he also had other very dark pieces that were representative of his feelings about mental illness.” Many of the artists whose work is on display at Artability exhibits appear to be working through similar emotions, Bart said: “It’s the same kind of diversity that was in Alex’s art. I like to think the work brings these artists a sense of peace in their lives.”
Harbeck said that art does bring her peace, and it is also the fuel that keeps her running through tough swings of depressions and recoveries that she calls “slingshots.” The $250 prize that came with the poster award helps fund her part-time career as an artist, a happy reality that the pre-art Harbeck never would have thought possible.
“As I work on a painting, everything else falls away,” she said. “It’s just me and my creation. I forget about my angst and my fear for a while. I can transport myself to wherever I want to be. My mental illness has afforded me the opportunity to live the life of an artist. I’m a lucky gal.”