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Contemplating loss: Art show seeks to shatter suicide stigma

Lizzy Thurlow looks at a ceramic piece called “Ask ... Tell me” at the “What’s Left - Lives Touched by Suicide” gallery opening Friday at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video1 / 8
"What’s Left" by Mary Rosenberg, acrylic on metal2 / 8
“What’s Left Chest” by Dale Johnson, figured cherry and hard maple3 / 8
People can listen to an audio installation piece at the “What’s Left - Lives Touched by Suicide” exhibit at the Franklin Arts Center. A sign above the phone reads “This piece contains recordings of conversations of suicide survivors and those affected by suicide. The piece is difficult and may be triggering to some. Discretion is advised.” Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video 4 / 8
Maureen Farnsworth listens to an audio installation piece during the gallery opening of the “What’s Left - Lives Touched by Suicide” exhibit at the Franklin Arts Center. A sign above the phone reads “This piece contains recordings of conversations of suicide survivors and those affected by suicide. The piece is difficult and may be triggering to some. Discretion is advised.” Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video5 / 8
Project director John Bauer speaks at the gallery opening of the traveling multimedia exhibit “What’s Left - Lives Touched by Suicide” Friday at the Crossing Arts Gallery in the Franklin Arts Center. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video6 / 8
"The Flower" by Paula Jensen and Grant Goltz, cast resin, copper7 / 8
The traveling art exhibit “What’s Left - Lives Touched by Suicide” is meant to bring about community conversations and reduce the stigma surround mental illness and suicide. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video8 / 8

An empty school desk. A chest filled with mementos left behind. Voices of loss and desperation, repeated through the handset of a rotary phone.

These are a few of the pieces on display in a traveling multimedia art exhibition exploring suicide, a new offering of the Crossing Arts Gallery at Franklin Arts Center. The exhibit—"What's Left: Lives Touched by Suicide"—opened Friday to more than 50 people with a presentation from its project director, John Bauer.

Bauer, who lost his daughter to suicide in 2013, said the project is intended to break through the stigma surrounding mental illness.

"Everyone knows someone with mental health issues or who's died from them," Bauer said. "Why isn't it getting better? It's because there's a huge stigma attached to it. We're getting better at trying to do things to break that stigma. But still, the numbers are staggering. We don't talk about it. It's in whispers. ... If somebody dies by suicide, it eventually gets out, but it's just in the little closed corners."

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If you go

The exhibit, "What's Left: Lives Touched by Suicide," will be open through Feb. 24 at the Crossing Arts Gallery, Franklin Arts Center, 1001 Kingwood St.

Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on the second Saturdays of the month. The exhibit is free.

The project originated with Grand Rapids resident John Bauer, who lost his daughter Megan to suicide in 2013. Bauer's experience in the aftermath of his family's tragedy is what sparked the idea for an art exhibit as a way to encourage community conversation.

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In the same year that Grand Rapids resident Bauer lost his daughter, 41,145 other suicides occurred in the United States—113 per day, 22 of which were among military veterans. For every suicide, there are an estimated 25 attempts. A federal data analysis found the suicide rate in 2014 was the highest recorded in 30 years, rising within every age group except older adults.

Bauer, who works as the development director at community radio station KAXE, began interviewing people affected by suicide—the family members left behind, like him, and those who've struggled with suicidal thoughts themselves. He acquired hundreds of hours of interviews, experiences that encouraged him to do more. Through grants from community foundations and a Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000 in one month, the exhibition showcasing work of nearly 50 Minnesota artists was born.

Each piece—in mediums as diverse as poetry, painting, sculpture, fiber and photography—is accompanied by an artist's story, explaining their own experience with suicide. The rotary phone is one of Bauer's contributions, a distillation of his interviews into five of their most powerful minutes.

Co-sponsors of the event included Essentia Health and the Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness group, who were on hand to provide support and connect people with resources.

Invited to speak during Bauer's presentation was Alissa Haglin of Nisswa, Miss Jr. Teen Brainerd United States, who told the audience her platform is suicide awareness. The 15-year-old said she is working to bring suicide prevention training into the Brainerd School District. Called Question, Persuade and Refer, or QPR, the training is designed to teach people how to recognize warning signs of a suicidal crisis and actions to take in response.

Haglin also pointed to The Hope Squad as a potential resource for the district, which focuses on peer-to-peer suicide prevention.

"It's training a group of students to keep their eyes open and recognize suicide characteristics," Haglin said.

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What's Left - Lives Touched by Suicide - 57 Image Photo Gallery

Gallery opening of the multimedia exhibit "What's Left - Lives Touched by Suicide" at the Crossing Arts Gallery in the Franklin Arts Center.

Klick! here to view

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Lizzy Thurlow, 19, of Nisswa, is one who counts herself among those impacted by suicide. The teen was emotional as she described the feelings conjured by the art exhibit. As reigning Miss Teen Brainerd United States, Thurlow said she came in support of Haglin, but also attended because of her own struggles with mental illness and the struggles of friends.

"Many do not step forward," Thurlow said. "I've lost five friends already to their depression and their anxiety, so it's very heartbreaking."

Thurlow said the loss of her father to a heart attack at a young age was an emotional hurdle, and she went through middle school feeling like she didn't belong.

"You felt like you were a freak," Thurlow said. "For me, I sought out help after I realized I needed it to be who I was and to be comfortable in my own skin."

Thurlow said her experiences have inspired her to pursue a career as a nurse in mental health and to become a co-founder of the Bemidji State University mental health advisory board.

"It shouldn't be shamed," Thurlow said. "It shouldn't be whispered about. It should be talked about. It should be explained. There should be classes. There should be the QPR system. There should be many things implemented, but we are still lacking."

Bauer said incorporating curriculum focused on mental health and suicide prevention into the schools is a critical part of increasing comfort with the subject matter. He was not dissuaded in his pursuit to compile the exhibition, he said, by those who believe it could encourage people to consider suicide, nor does he believe that's the case in discussing it in the schools.

"If you don't draw attention to it, you've still got that stigma," Bauer said. "Nobody's talking about it. There is probably some sort of a risk to it, but as far as I'm concerned, there's a gigantic risk by not doing it."

Lisa Jordan, executive director of the Crossing Arts Alliance, said there was initial hesitation with bringing the show to the organization's Brainerd gallery, but that was quickly outweighed by its potential benefits.

"I was really intrigued, because it has some really notable Minnesota-based artists on one hand. It's a beautiful exhibit," Jordan said. "But on the other hand, it's difficult. It's a challenging show. ... When we said we were going to host it, we started to get so many people coming in and saying, 'I was affected by this.' Hearing the stories from people already in the room tonight, it's everywhere. And it's not going to get better unless we talk about it."

Jordan was happy with the turnout for the opening reception, particularly for a cold Friday night in February.

"Arts in general can be a tough sell in the Brainerd lakes area, because there's a lot of outdoor activities," Jordan said. "Then here's this show, the hardest show we've done in quite some time, and this is the turnout. That's great. I love it."

Crossing Arts Alliance member Sherri DeLaHunt of Nisswa, a retired Brainerd School District teacher, said she emailed Jordan about bringing in Bauer's exhibit after first hearing him speak to a group of women educators in Grand Rapids. The group, Alpha Delta Kappa, donated to Bauer as its altruistic project, DeLaHunt said.

"He told his story about talking to people and interviewing them and (he) thought art was the way to make that connection and make it palatable, but maybe a bit more mainstream and encouraging that perception," DeLaHunt said. "I was so moved by it. ... You're never really sure how it's going to be received with a topic like this, and they've never really done anything like this, to have a partnership, but it turned out so well."

If you go

The exhibit, "What's Left: Lives Touched by Suicide," will be open through Feb. 24 at the Crossing Arts Gallery, Franklin Arts Center, 1001 Kingwood St.

Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on the second Saturdays of the month. The exhibit is free.

The project originated with Grand Rapids resident John Bauer, who lost his daughter Megan to suicide in 2013. Bauer's experience in the aftermath of his family's tragedy is what sparked the idea for an art exhibit as a way to encourage community conversation.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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