Artists Carrie Breschi and Maureen Joyce want to know how you are — how you really are.
Over the last six months, the two Pennsylvania artists have led more than 70 sculpting workshops around the state asking participants to create a mask out of clay that represents how they “portray, overcome, hide or minimize their mental health struggles.”
Now the masks made by more than 1,500 participants as part of the “I’m fine” project are on view in the Pittsburgh area.
Masks created by Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt students are now on display at the two universities through May 5 and July 22, respectively. All of the art created statewide will be presented at Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media at 1047 Shady Ave. from May 19 through July 22. The exhibit will also visit Standard Ceramic Supply in Carnegie from July 10-29.
The idea to talk about mental health through art came to Joyce after losing her son Patrick to suicide in 2018 after he dealt with mental illness for years.
“About a year later, I finally was able to go out and start pounding the clay,” says Joyce. “The reason we do the workshops is because of the therapeutic benefits of working with clay.”
After receiving a Creative Catalyst Grant from Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2021, Joyce and Breschi led workshops for Pennsylvanians of all ages, from high school students to cardiac nurses to cancer survivors in Johnstown. The theme? “Mental health or illness doesn’t discriminate,” says Breschi.
“Just to be able to talk openly about mental health, especially after the pandemic, it has been very meaningful in starting these conversations,” says Breschi. “It was the community talking to us.”
One Pittsburgh participant was an Iranian woman who wears a religious head covering. She wrote “I’m you,” on her clay mask.
“She talked a lot of the struggles that she’s had with trying to have people identify her as being the same as everyone else,” says Breschi.
Another mask artist shared her struggle with the loss of her son to a drug overdose 30 years ago.
“She cried in the workshop and said it was the first time she had cried,” says Breschi.
Erik Schuckers, program manager at Pitt’s Center for Creativity, participated in the workshops held for Pitt students, faculty and staff in January and February. He was impressed by the group’s willingness to work on something so personal and meaningful to them in a community space.
“The process of doing it made me really think about my own experiences and things that I’ve gone through,” Schuckers says. “We’re thinking about and talking about things that are kind of heavy. But making something from it in a community, it made it feel more bearable.”
Nina Unitas, senior program officer for arts education with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, participated in a workshop in the fall.
“Creating a mask just took a lot of looking in the mirror kind of work,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised with my experience. I’m not always willing to be vulnerable.”
Unitas, who says she is a firm believer that the arts are central to humanity, was happy to see a workshop like this presented to students at Brashear High School and University Prep Milliones. Studies show that mental health outcomes and well-being improve after an arts experience, says Unitas.
“That’s what this has the power to do,” she says. “It speaks so much to how we can better care for the kids and adults in our society.”
The “I’m fine” exhibition opening reception at Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media takes place on Friday, May 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. Learn more about the workshops, masks and exhibitions at imfineproject.com.