By CRISTINA JANNEY
Jared Jennings transforms found objects into art that shares stories not only about his own struggle with mental illness, but also the struggle of others.
Jenning’s master’s of fine arts thesis exhibit, “Alternation,” is on display now through May 14 at the Moss-Thorns Gallery of Art on the Fort Hays State University campus.
“The main subject is mental illness and how individuals deal with that on a daily basis and just how they struggle with it and how they go through life with it,” he said.
“It is also about nature versus nurture in the long run, and lastly it is about the individuals themselves. I don’t like to define someone by something like that. I don’t think it is fair to define someone just by mental illness. It is just another portion of who they are and what they struggle with every day.”
Jennings, 29, of Neosho, Mo., suffers from schizophrenia and has also struggled with depression and anxiety. One of every five Americans struggles with a mental illness.
“It is fairly commonplace, but we don’t have that conversation,” he said.
Two pieces in the exhibit are autobiographical. “I Will Not Grow Only to Be Cut Down” is an image of the reclaimed wood of a small child with branches and leaves sprouting out of his head.
Schizophrenia is genetic. You are born with the illness, although most people don’t develop symptoms until at least their late teens or early 20s. Jennings was fairly young when he started hallucinating, which is uncommon.
He said the artwork is symbolic of that genetic component to his illness. The toddler in the painting is also symbolic of the time he knew his great-grandfather, which was the only person in his family who he knew personally who also shared his diagnosis.
He said he chooses to work with found objects, like reclaimed wood, a broken bench or an old piece of a door, because they are things people have left behind.
He said he feels people with mental illness are also left behind.
“They feel discarded,” he said. “They feel degraded, decaying.”
“Unsung Psalm” is a mixed media piece that looks a lot like an old farmhouse cellar door. Jennings has created a self-portrait on the reclaimed wood.
“This is just about opening up about what’s going on in my life with my mental illness and actually talking about it,” he said. “This is just dealing with my every day and being open to it.”
When he was younger, Jennings said he didn’t talk about his hallucinations. He hid his mental illness.
He said his artwork has allowed him to open up and talk about his mental illness, and this has helped him deal with it.
He said he would be happy to have a personal conversation with anyone who would like to talk about mental illness or his artwork.
“That is a huge hope of mine to fight back stigma,” he said. “The more information that’s out there, the more people can see and understand that anyone struggling with mental illness is just another person, it’s going to help in the long run. It’s going to help people get help faster.”
A central piece in the exhibit is a full-scale wooden walking bridge. The project was a collaboration with High Plains Independence. The consumer-run organization offers peer support for adults with mental health issues.
Members of the group made smaller pieces of art that described the worst of their mental illness and how they dealt with it. One person painted a lawnmower on his piece of the bridge.
“He loves to mow the grass. He loves the smell of it,” Jennings said. “It is just one of the things that help him. It gives him purpose. It gives him something to do every day.”
Jennings has one more summer class to complete his degree. After graduation, he hopes to teach college or continue to work with other people who have a mental illness.