Vincent Van Gogh is regarded as a tortured genius whose bout of madness resulted in a severed ear. How does that narrative compare to the way we view artists living with mental illness today? It’s a question on the mind of Jennifer Pepin, owner of J. Pepin Art Gallery in Northwest Portland’s Pearl District. Since 2013, the gallery has exhibited the works of local artists living with mental illness, and Pepin still works hard every day to break down stigmas and double standards.
About J. Pepin Gallery
Located in the heart of Portland’s artistic Pearl District, J. Pepin stands out among the many galleries because of its unique mission. But it hasn’t always been easy to gain visibility.
“It was challenging, at first, to be accepted in the art community, and for people to understand our approach,” says Pepin. “For some reason, a lot of people thought there wasn’t going be a certain caliber of work, which makes very little sense to me. … I literally had people expecting something like macaroni art.” Instead, outstanding works from a variety of mediums fill the luminous space.
On one visit, the complexly layered abstract art by Chris Foster and depth-defying encaustic works by Alexandra Peterson were displayed. Alongside them were a smattering of Rose City street scenes, gem-colored blown glass and angular portraits of women. Next to each of these pieces, lengthier-than-usual artist statements provided a deeper look into the creatives behind the art.
“We ask artists to submit a statement about living with their mental health condition and their creativity, and how they’re intertwined,” says Pepin. “Some artists reference their mental health in their statement. Some just talk more about how art is therapy and helps them maintain consistent mental health. We leave that up to the artists.”
Intention is a key component of J. Pepin Art Gallery. And because Pepin herself lives with mental illness, the approach feels authentic rather than forced. “When I moved to Portland from San Francisco 10 years ago, I actually was pursuing a career in [sales and marketing],” Pepin says. “I came out about living with bipolar disorder and was confronted with prejudice.”
When working in the corporate world began negatively impacting her mental health, Pepin knew it was time for a change. Shortly after leaving her job, she shared the concept for her dream gallery in a support group. Fellow member Foster gave her the push she needed to dive in. In the years since it opened, J. Pepin Art Gallery has received numerous awards for its work. To Pepin’s knowledge, it is the only for-profit gallery in the country that exclusively focuses on curating shows featuring artists with mental illness.
Destigmatizing Mental Illness
While the gallery’s accolades demonstrate the impact of the space’s collaborative works, Pepin attests to what she describes as a chain reaction of reflection. “I had one artist tell me she didn’t realize how much stigma she had about her own mental health until she came in, applied and wrote her own statement about living with mental illness,” says Pepin.
Beyond the artists, constructive conversations regularly occur with gallery visitors. When confronted with unknowingly problematic statements, Pepin uses the opportunity to provide gentle education and often uses her own story to humanize the condition.
“I explain that the services that are offered aren’t great, [and that] there are a lot of people who are homeless who just can’t afford the right medication,” she says. “I live with bipolar disorder, and I’m really fortunate because I do have a support system and the financial ability to get treatment.”
Visiting J. Pepin Gallery
Pepin encourages visitors of all backgrounds to stop by, whether they’re in search of a new piece for their home or are simply curious. Travelers benefit from a range of sizes and price points, plus the ability to ship art home, but Pepin stresses that there’s no pressure to buy, and no art expertise required. “We love for people to just come in and check it out,” she says. “Maybe you’ll discover something you’ll [buy] one day. But I think it’s really important to be exposed to the artwork as well as the stories around mental health.”
The Future of J. Pepin Gallery
As the gallery continues to settle into the community, Pepin hopes to expand beyond visual exhibits to incorporate more performance art, poetry readings and recitals. She also would like to see other similar galleries around the country. Although operating her own gallery has been challenging and isn’t “all roses,” Pepin’s deep commitment to its mission motivates her.
“We’re never going to be cured,” Pepin reflects. “We’re always going to be faced with challenges — mental illness or not. There’s no end-all-be-all cure for it, but I realize that I can still bring hope by pushing through those dark times.”
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