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Grieving father hopes upcoming art exhibit will inspire conversations about mental illness and suicide

John Bauer and his family discussing the loss of his daughter, Megan Bauer-Stejskal.

Two years ago, after John Bauer’s 34-year-old daughter Megan died as a result of suicide, he began to realize that most people treat deaths like hers as a shameful secret.

“Nobody talks about it,” he said. “But after Megan died, I felt like I really wanted to come up with a way to encourage people to start talking.”

The silence and shame around mental illness and suicide extends even to how we talk about our loved ones after their death, Bauer discovered. In the midst of his grief, the lifelong Grand Rapids resident began carefully reading the obituaries in his local paper. 

“Even there, we don’t talk about suicide,” he said. “You see a lot of obituaries that say, ‘Sally died unexpectedly.’ We need to say, ‘Sally died after a long struggle with mental illness.’ If there were less silence and shame about mental illness and suicide, there’d be fewer deaths. I wanted to come up with a way to get people to open up and start talking. This has to happen. Suicide rates are rising. The normal channels don’t seem to be working.”

Bauer, development director and morning show co-host for Northern Community Radio, is a professional photographer and strong supporter of the arts. Since he felt that the normal channels for suicide education weren’t working, he decided to develop What’s Left, a traveling multimedia exhibit where artists have been asked to represent the pain and suffering left behind for survivors of suicide. Artists will also depict hope for survival, and an educational component will encourage key conversations about the topic.

From the beginning, Bauer said, interest in the project was strong.

“After I got the idea for this exhibit, I started talking to artists about using art to solve a community health issue that affects everybody,” he said. “I thought we’d have 20 or so, but it quickly blossomed into more than 40 who want to take part.”

Focus on fundraising

Bauer also brought his passion for this topic to his fundraising efforts. With the help Katie Marshall, executive director of Grand Rapids’ MacRostie Art Center, he began writing grant proposals to help finance the exhibit. He also launched a Kickstarter campaign.

“I think we have been awarded about $36,000 from grants,” Bauer said. “Then the Kickstarter campaign raised over $50,000.”

The Duluth-based Northland Foundation gave What’s Left a $10,000 grant. Erik Torch, director of grantmaking for the foundation, said he was moved by “the weight of John’s personal experience, of having to suffer through his daughter’s depression and suicide. He is really taking his own personal suffering and trying to use that to inspire some greater good. He wants to call attention to the epidemic of suicide.”

Torch was also impressed by Bauer’s ambition to take the exhibit and its educational components around the state. Bauer has said that he will bring What’s Left to any community in Minnesota that requests a showing.

“I think the fact that John wants to take the project on the road was a really compelling piece for us,” Torch said. “It would no doubt be successful if it just happened in Grand Rapids, but the fact that he wanted this to tour the state was even more compelling.”

While touring the state is important, for Bauer, launching What’s Left in northern Minnesota is key. Megan lived and died in this part of the state, and he believes that open conversation about what considers an “epidemic” of suicide in the region is desperately needed.

“I don’t blame him, because nobody talks about it,” Bauer said, “but our local sheriff didn’t even know the statistics before I talked to him about it. In Itasca County, from Oct. 16, 2013, to Oct. 16, 2014, there were 89 attempted suicides and 45 successful suicides. When he heard those numbers, the sheriff was absolutely alarmed. That’s a pretty big number in this little county. If there had been 45 murders in Itasca County, everybody would know about it. But when you have 45 people killing themselves, nobody knows about it.”

Bauer said the sheriff is now “all in” with the project, fully supporting and encouraging community efforts to work on the problem.

Work in process

Right now, many What’s Left exhibitors are still creating their pieces, Bauer said, but by late summer, he will have assembled the exhibit, which will premiere at MacRostie Art Center on Sept. 4.

Michael Tonder, a kiln-fired glass artist from Two Harbors, is contributing an original work for the show. He and his wife, Jody, lost their son Aaron to suicide in 1999. When he learned about Bauer’s project, he called him and offered to contribute. A big fan of Tonder’s work, Bauer was thrilled to add him to the roster of exhibitors.

Tonder hasn’t yet created the piece for Bauer’s exhibit; he’s still thinking about the form it will take.

“After Aaron died, my wife pointed out that for a period of time I was making lots of pieces with holes in them,” he said. “It was almost an unconscious thing, maybe a recognition of something missing. I hadn’t done anything that before.”

Whatever his finished piece looks like, Tonder hopes that it will help spark important conversations about mental illness and suicide. Open communication around this issue is important, he believes. He is hopeful that art can save lives.

“Jody and I have always made a point to talk about Aaron and what happened and not allow it to be ignored,” Tonder said. “I think that there still is that stigma around suicide, but I think it’s slowly changing.” To keep this change happening, Tonder said, “we need to keep talking about it. I’m an artist. The way I communicate with people is through my art. I thought creating something that brought attention to the problem of suicide would be a good way to give back.”

The Kickstarter campaign is closed, but contributions to What’s Left can still be made to: MacRostie Art Center c/o What’s Left, 405 1st Avenue NW, Grand Rapids, MN 55744. 

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