Youth Stories of Resilience and Survival

A dynamic new installation at the Community Arts Partnership’s ArtSpace in January features the mental health stories of ten local youth.

Samir, by Rayan

“Naming the Unnamable,” curated by local author Bree Barton, will explore the personal journeys of ten young local artists through short film, audio recordings, written text, and visual art. The exhibit opens at the CAP ArtSpace on Gallery Night Friday January 6, where the artists will be present to talk about their work from 5 p.m to 8 p.m. The installation will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday throughout January.

Barton conceived the project after touring the country with her most recent book, Zia Erases the World, a middle grade novel inspired by her childhood depression. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, she met myriad students who talked openly about how they’d struggled—and how they’d survived. Barton envisioned creating a space where young artists could shape their own narratives through different mediums.

“I’ve always been interested in storytelling as a path to healing,” said Barton. “For me, that meant writing. For others, it might be drawing or filmmaking or collage. I gave these young artists a simple prompt: if you could tell us the story of your mental health journey over the last few years, what would you create?”

The result is an unflinching body of work from a diverse group of youth. Folx who self-identify as queer, BIPOC, and neurodiverse take center stage, as well as those with experience of homelessness. Several of the participating artists are members of the Youth Action Board (YAB), a group of youth with experience of homelessness in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

BERETTA., a member of YAB, makes art to capture “moments in life that often go overlooked, unseen, and under-represented due to the stigmatizing nature of themes such as trauma, substance dependency, mental illness, homelessness, and poverty.” The exhibit will showcase her digital collages and the eulogy she wrote for her best friend, a project she dedicates to his memory “and all the other folks we’ve lost in the street community before they could find comfort and home and peace.”

Downward Spiral, by BERETTA.

Hannah, a junior at Ithaca College, will share “an exploration of the psychological impacts of trauma through sound.” Hannah’s sound art heavily reflects their personal traumas, as well as that of their peers. Their goal is to “create a self-reflexive environment where the listener can learn from others’ traumas and sit in the uncomfortable. It’s about keeping an open mind to what others may be going through.”

At Gallery Night on January 6, Rayan will premiere her short film, Samir, the Somali word for “patience.” In Samir, Rayan recreates her experiences living in the Awbare refugee camp in Ethiopia for almost seven years. “This is a really personal project to me,” she said. “It has a lot of memory and meaning behind it.” In the film, which will play on loop in the gallery during open hours, Rayan reads from one of her “most precious journals” to capture the loneliness and isolation of that difficult time.

For high school sophomore Elise, this project has been a “rollercoaster of emotions.” The exhibit will feature her self-portrait and other art pieces, as well as an essay she wrote after losing her dad to suicide. “Although it’s very difficult to talk about my story and my dad,” Elise said, “I find it very refreshing to express my own feelings through art and writing. I hope my work can inspire someone to do the same.”

Untitled, by Elise

“This exhibit will offer no shortage of inspiration,” Barton said. “The art these youth have created is powerful, personal, and profound. I encourage people to move through the installation at their own pace, with an open heart and mind, and full permission to step away as needed.”

Barton hopes the artists’ willingness to engage with difficult themes will catalyze important conversations around mental health. Her goal is for more people, of all ages, to find healthy ways to share whatever it is they’re going through—and to ask for resources and support.

“It’s all about naming the unnamable,” said Barton. “Whether you do it through words or other forms of self expression. These young folx are wildly creative and courageous, and I cannot wait to share their work with the community. They are shining a light in a dark room. In the face of unimaginable loss and trauma, they show us that we, too, can survive.”

This project is made possible, in full, with funding from the SOS grant and Creative Recovery Fund from the Community Arts Partnership and the Community Foundation of Tompkins County.

Community Arts Partnership ArtSpace, 110 N. Tioga Street, Ithaca, NY 14850