Tell Me More: Accepting Mental Illness
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Artist Lynda Cutrell wants to change how people look at mental illness. In an exhibit on display at Tufts, she uses photography, painting, sculpture and video to challenge what we think we know about people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder while highlighting what scientists have actually discovered about these illnesses. It’s a subject close to her heart.
In this episode of Tell Me More, Cutrell, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, talks about how her own family’s struggles with mental illness pushed her to make art that was not just beautiful, but meaningful.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
Artist Lynda Cutrell wants to change how people look at mental illness. In an exhibit now on display at Tufts, she uses photography, painting, sculpture, and video to challenge what we think we know about people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, while highlighting what scientists have discovered about these illnesses.
It’s a subject close to her heart. In this episode, Cutrell, a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, talks with Julie Flaherty about how her own family’s struggles with mental illness pushed her to make art that was not just beautiful, but meaningful. Let’s listen in.
JULIE FLAHERTY: Visual artist Lynda Cutrell, thank you for bringing your exhibit to Tufts, and thank you for speaking with us today.
LYNDA CUTRELL: My pleasure. Thanks for asking.
FLAHERTY: The centerpiece of the exhibit is a collection of ninety-nine large photographs: beautiful portraits of people of all different ages, races, backgrounds, ethnicities. A third of them have bipolar disorder, a third of them have schizophrenia, and a third are family and friends of people with mental illness—but none of the portraits have labels on them. Why did you choose to display them that way?
CUTRELL: I think because it’s kind of intriguing to know that you’re about to see thirty-three people with schizophrenia, thirty-three people with bipolar illness—and a little bit of a challenge to the viewer: “Oh, I can identify them.” No, you can’t, and it’s thirty-three people who actually love them, so it’s their primary person in their life has been photographed. And I chose to do it because people shouldn’t be labeled.
It’s an extension of sort of a political theory of not othering people. It’s one last group to be identified to not be othered. We other on race, we other on gender, we other on many different things, but there’s not much of a discussion about not othering people who happen to suffer with symptoms of a mental health condition.
What I chose to do is display the people. You just sort of know the background of the photography, that a lot of people here have these conditions, and then you’re surprised that you can’t identify between the different symptoms, I guess. There’s a lot of metaphor in not labeling. There’s no labeling. And then I read many studies on how we break down stigma, and the way you break down stigma on a particular issue—which makes you other people—is you meet someone, and you like them, and that changes your opinion, so all these photographs were done to be as lifelike as possible.
There is a diversity in there. In fact, I took the 2010 census data, and I populated these portraits using that so that everyone walking into this exhibit will see someone that they can feel like has been their friend or is in their family. There’s an age range of two-and-a-half to ninety-five. There’s twenty-two vets in there. There’s a billionaire. There’s homeless people. There are doctors and lawyers, and the surprising thing is that some of the doctors and lawyers have those symptoms.
It’s sort of to make a question to the viewer of what their perceived thoughts are about what a person with mental illness looks like, because the only thing that informs us right now is the media. There are definitely 100 terrible scenarios in a year where someone with one of those conditions does something really bad. There’s also three million other people with schizophrenia and nine million other people with bipolar illness that don’t do that, and this is what they look like.
FLAHERTY: One of the things that struck me right away is that the people in the portraits are smiling. They’re, for the most part, happy, which is not necessarily what you think of when you think of people with any kind of an illness, so it sort of gives this sense of hope. Are there any particular examples from the portraits that you want to share their stories and why they’re happy, hopeful stories?
CUTRELL: Sure. I actually know every single person in the exhibit—have spent time with them—and everyone has an incredible story.
One of my favorite portraits is the twins. It’s a pair of identical twins, which means they share the same DNA. They share the same mother. They share the same food. They went to the same schools, sometimes wore the same clothes. One developed schizophrenia; the other didn’t. In a video, they discuss what it was like when one had the onset of her symptoms, and the other didn’t, and it’s quite a beautiful story. There is a decade of incredible pain, and they describe that. That video is running on the fourth floor, but they’re loving, compassionate sisters that adore each other.
Glenn Close is in it with her sister Jessie, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and it was Glenn who actually helped her to get treatment and have a wonderful life, and she’s a writer now. She’s published some books.
One of my favorite stories is—many listeners may have read some of the Kurt Vonnegut stories, you know, Slaughterhouse-Five. His son Mark Vonnegut is in the exhibit, and Mark had his onset of schizophrenia when he was in his twenties, and he wrote the book, Eden Express, which was really helpful to me to read, because I had a family member also have onset at that time, but it didn’t stop him from going to medical school and becoming a doctor, and he still describes that he has symptoms on an ongoing basis. But he’s a well-known, well-loved pediatrician with the quirkiest sense of humor you’ve ever seen.
There’s lots of stories of success and love. The point of the exhibit is if someone you love has gotten this diagnosis, you need to know that people—there are champions that have regained the track of their lives. It doesn’t have to be colored by what you see in the newspaper, which is really tough. People need a lot of support. But, in all of these stories, what I learned—because I wanted to know what caused a person to have a good recovery—in all of these stories, people have someone in their lives that stood by them no matter what happened, and then there was a nice level of recovery, but isn’t that true with any illness?
My goal was to be able to just push the perspective on these illnesses, and to have it in colleges is really important to me, because the age of onset is actually the college age. If we change any opinions or we give somebody some hope, because one in twenty-five is going to get sick at that age—so one in 100 will have onset of schizophrenia, which was a statistic I didn’t know. Three in 100 will have onset of bipolar illness. Then, there’s all the different derivatives, like depression, anxiety, and so forth. But if people realize that these are just normal human conditions, and you can feel better with treatment, there’ll be less fear about that, because the biggest obstacle to treatment is the embarrassment factor, the stigma.
FLAHERTY: In addition to the photos, several of your paintings are also in the exhibit. There’s a triptych of paintings that depicts magnified skin cells from three people—again, one who has bipolar disorder, one who has schizophrenia, and one with neither. And there’s some surprising science behind those paintings. Could you explain?
CUTRELL: Pretty much the entire exhibit has a research basis in science. The “ninety-nine faces” part had census data and understanding of what changes minds. Cellular energy is the one of the latest research projects that’s going on in a research lab by my mentor, Dr. Bruce Cohen over at McLean Hospital. As you might know, McLean Hospital in Belmont is one of the leading psychiatric hospitals in the world, and they do research and treatment.
All the treatments we have right now are focused on the brain and brain activity, and [Cohen] was like, “Well, what if it’s a systemic illness?” and that’s what he did find. They took skin samples from hundreds of patients, actually, and they grew the cells in the lab and looked at the mitochondria, the behavior of the mitochondria, and what they found was—so that’s the energy system in our bodies is the mitochondria, energy system in the cell, and it behaves differently. In someone who is not experiencing these symptoms, the mitochondria is just flowing from cell to cell, so the energy just moves. With someone living with symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia, the mitochondria seem to be clumped on one side of the cell, and with bipolar, it’s tightly clumped, surrounding the nucleus in this almost tension. That tells us it’s systemic.
What’s really interesting about that is that if you had an inkling that it was behavioral, like you were trained to be like this, how would it possibly affect every skin cell in your body? That’s almost like a relief to a parent or a family or even the individual, that it’s not something that they caused by bad behavior. How can you cause your skin cells to behave differently?
The thing is, at this point in time, we don’t have a single medication that treats a systemic illness. We only have something that impacts the dopamine receptors or serotonin levels, things like that. That really does say a lot about the potential for easing the suffering of so many individuals. Emotionally, I think it breaks down a barrier of, like, “I caused this because I’m defective.” It’s not. It’s a physical condition.
FLAHERTY: These paintings, which are quite striking, you can pick up that message right away just by looking at them, and it’s really a visualization of a research paper. And you mentioned that science flows throughout this exhibit. Did that come naturally to you, to combine the science and the art together?
CUTRELL: Art can convey the message of a twenty-seven-page research paper in just a moment to a broader audience, and I thought that that was really hopeful. A woman that I know, that came to see the work, who suffers from bipolar illness, said it changed her opinion on taking her medication because she really—there wasn’t anything except for what people were telling her, but when she saw it, she was like, it let down some barriers of resistance for her.
FLAHERTY: One of your sculptures is very striking. It’s right there in the building when you walk in the door, and it has these thin tiers of clear resin. They look almost like floating pools with colors swirling through them, and depending on how you look at it, sometimes the colors overlap, sometimes they don’t. What is that supposed to represent?
CUTRELL: It’s called The Spectrum: We’re All On It Somewhere, and the base of it is the ancient way that alienists used to try to interpret what was going on in someone’s temperament. The four temperaments—that goes all the way back to 700 B.C., so this is not a new science.
On top of that base—that gray, square, geometric shape base—is my interpretation of what we know now. Nothing has edges. It’s all organically shaped, clear plexiglass with fluid colors that are moving, with moments of clarity, and I used the National Institute of Mental Health’s percentage of the population that experiences those symptoms. That’s the volume of color. Red is mania. Blue is depression. Those were easy. Green is psychosis. Yellow is anxiety. They flow—just like a person who has the diagnosis, they have moments of clarity. They don’t have their illness every moment of the day in the same way. They may go years without anything. It’s all organically shaped, as this is an organic-symptom illness diagnosis, and sometimes symptoms overlap.
Right now, we only have the ability to give a person a diagnosis based on observation and interview, which is really hard because depending on where people are in their experience of their symptoms, they may be experiencing one symptom, and then another time more full-blown or less. And yet the diagnosis might be a label that they have to wear for a really long time.
What I’m trying to express in that long-winded description is that things are fluid, and it’s not just the way it is at that moment for the rest of the person’s life. It’s ever-changing, and there’s no one on the planet that doesn’t experience something. We all experience depression. We all experience anxiety. Why would we other people who just have that more often or more chronically?
FLAHERTY: In the collection of photographs, you are also in there because you also have had loved ones with mental illnesses. It’s actually touched your family in many ways. Do you want to talk about that and how that led you to this exhibit?
CUTRELL: Yeah, it’s one of those situations where you have an experience and you’re like, “What do I do with this?” I was actually at school, at the School of Museum of Fine Arts, when onset occurred within my family, and it was devastating. I was just painting these arbitrary things, and then the depth of the pain that occurred. It was like I had to do something with it, and I was painting sort of realistically, which is totally not the thing that goes on at the School of Museum of Fine Arts.
I started to, I guess, meditate on what was happening, and I started throwing solvents at my canvas, and I would take this really well-painted, realistic—I don’t know, piece of work that I was doing, and it was just cutting through it and the paint was just dripping off the canvas in explosions of chemistry, and that was exactly how I felt. So it brought me to this emotional reaction to what I was doing.
I was trying to paint beautiful, decorative things, which just didn’t have enough content, but the teaching at the school is more about expression of real things, and this was a pretty—this was probably the most devastation I’ve ever felt in my life, and I was throwing solvent around the room. I couldn’t take it, and it changed what I was doing.
Now, I do a lot of solvent drips. It took me a while to come around; it’s been many years. It did start early. I lost my dad when I was ten to his bipolar illness by his own hand, and then I recently lost my brother—same illness—by his own hand, in the same way, and I don’t know, it’s kind of a mix. There’s grief, but yet there’s such appreciation for having loved somebody that deeply that you feel that grief. And so I wanted to make art about those kinds of things that people experience. It’s part of being human, and how do you experience it and how do you understand it?
If there’s any way that suffering can be diminished by acceptance, that was what my goal of the exhibit was about, to show that it was common, that it happens naturally. You’re not defective. Treatment is available, all of those things.
FLAHERTY: Well, it definitely affected me, and I’m sure anyone who sees it or who has seen it at the Museum of Science or here at Tufts will also come away thinking a little bit differently. You mentioned that this is a second career for you, after twenty-five years in the financial industry, and I’m curious how one goes from that to being a successful artist.
CUTRELL: I don’t know. As a kid, I was always drawn to math and science and art, and then I quickly decided I needed to make some money first, so I pushed the finance and business side, but I always had this hunger and desire to go back to art. So, at fifty, I quit my job and went back to art school and found myself a fifty-year-old sitting in a classroom with all these great twenty-year-old artists that knew so much more than me. There was definitely a real adjustment period for at least a year, but it was very interesting to find this acceptance in the art community for each other and this help. It was just a very, very different experience.
I had always wanted to go into art, but I waited a while. I actually feel like I followed my son into art. I chose business because I was really a mother, but my son went to art school before I did, and he’s a tattoo artist up in Gloucester. He has his own place, and he was just making this beautiful art, and I was like, “Okay, I gotta follow him,” so I went back to art school. He went to art school twenty years before me. I would say three weeks into doing that, I was like, “Oh, my God, what did I do?”—because I was at the peak of my career in finance, which it was a big deal, and then I was following my heart, and it was like, “Okay, that is such a whim. What am I doing?”
FLAHERTY: But you’re glad you did, though, right?
CUTRELL: I am, yeah. I’m enjoying it.
FLAHERTY: Lynda Cutrell, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
CUTRELL: My pleasure. Thanks.
HOST: Lynda Cutrell’s installation, The Many Faces of Our Mental Health, is on view until March 25, 2019, at the Collaborative Learning & Innovation Complex in Medford. It has been part of Stigma Unstuck: A Mental Health Arts Series at Tufts, aimed at bringing greater awareness and understanding to mental health issues to facilitate shifts in attitudes that perpetuate stigma and discrimination. The series runs through the 2019 academic year.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller. The introduction was written by Julie Flaherty. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media.
Special thanks to Amanda Rowley, Jennifer Allen, and the Department of Community Health. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.