New ‘Collateral Damage’ art exhibit shines light on mental health

The exhibition, which features the work of artists who are hoping to destigmatize mental illness, runs through the month of May at the Pyle Center.
Anwar Floyd-Pruitt's painting
Photo courtesy of Patricia Dillon.
Anwar Floyd-Pruitt is one of the artists exhibiting work through "Collateral Damage."

Artist Victoria Charleson is “a stigma warrior.” For as many years as she can recall, she has struggled with co-occurring mental illnesses, searching for tools to mask what she couldn’t escape. Despite living a high-functioning life, Charleson remembers many unanswered cries for help as a child — like starving herself so her family would notice her sick appearance, the precursor to a lifelong eating disorder — forcing her to carve a path to wellness alone.

“I view me, what’s wrong with me, as a medical condition,” says Charleson. “Just like with diabetes, or any illness, I follow a map — I take certain meds, I live a certain type of lifestyle, I get enough sleep, I don’t drink alcohol, I go to therapy, and I do all of the things that are assigned for treatment.”

Along with adopting the necessary lifestyle choices, Charleson has shed her fear of stigma and shame and found healing in expressing herself through art. This May — Mental Health Awareness Month — she has banded together with Arts + Literature Laboratory lead curator Kel Mur and 15 other artists who identify as having mental illnesses to create a new exhibition.

“Collateral Damage,” a term Charleson uses to describe the fallout from living with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, is the title of the installation she has co-curated with Mur. “Collateral Damage” opened May 1 at the Pyle Center and runs throughout the month. On Gallery Night, May 6, there will be an opening reception with a panel discussion at 7:00 p.m.

Charleson, a photographer, provides a window into a world where weight dictates sense of self, and how underlying mental illness drives physical and mental chaos. Her images include a single piece of toast on a plate, a purse full of appetite suppressants, and shots of Charleson appearing paralyzed inside her home. The message Charleson would like others to walk away with is that mental illness should not carry a price tag of shame.

“Most of my work deals with heartbreak and grief, loneliness and suffering,” says Charleson. “It creates a place for the heavy feelings that I carry. So my work is a purge. And while I don’t work for anybody but myself, I often get feedback from people who say they relate to it.”

The exhibition evolved from Charleson’s observation that seemingly mentally “healthy” people were suddenly exhibiting symptoms of poor mental health during the pandemic. This opened doors to discussions about mental health in general, along with its decline during the pandemic. Charleson approached Mur to join her in bringing the conversation to a public platform.

When Mur agreed to co-curate the show, she was thinking like a friend, a curator and an artist. The awareness of her own mental health came later when she was flooded with memories of the time she spent in a mental health facility as a teen while her family structure crumbled. More recently, she curated an exhibition focused on the physical and mental challenges of living with a potentially life-threatening abdominal tumor. Mur says humans with trauma can exist with awareness or with suppression.

“We live in a system that does not recognize or support folks who struggle with mental health issues,” says Mur, whose piece in “Collateral Damage” is a charcoal self-portrait she drew as a relationship unraveled after she discovered her partner was a closeted alcoholic. “Mental illness is often looked at as weakness and not a condition to be treated. Whether you’re diagnosed or not, mental health is simultaneously stigmatized and unsupported. That creates so much collateral damage that people, like me, walk through their lives completely in survival mode.”

Artist Anwar Floyd-Pruitt selected three self-portraits for “Collateral Damage” from a previous exhibition that featured his work called “Usable Scraps.” The title, a double entendre, refers to leftover studio materials used to create his images — and to fights, “or scraps” Floyd-Pruitt, an artist of color, averted when being confronted by violent white individuals in downtown Madison.

“These pieces represent the time between the incident on State Street and my leaving Madison, which was particularly difficult,” says Floyd-Pruitt, referring to an assault he suffered while painting a State Street mural during the George Floyd protests — an incident from which he developed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Floyd-Pruitt describes his paintings as “immediate,” or drawn quickly, and with the intention of targeting three points in that period. “Apex” shows him shuttered during the lowest point in his life; “Mired Winter Yellow” represents him feeling cowardly while stuck with negative emotions. “State Street State of Mind” shows him navigating State Street feeling skeptical and triggered, with “a broad distrust in any white guy” he passed.

“Creating this art has allowed me to think through it all more, talk about it more, which has been helpful,” says Floyd-Pruitt. “But being able to make the art helped me go back to a better place, back home to Milwaukee, to finding community again, out of isolation. I think the work only comes out of being in a healthier space.”

For more on “Collateral Damage” and the exhibiting artists visit collateraldamageproject.com.

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