Woman Uses Sister’s Art To Break Stigma Of Mental Illness

By Andrea K. McDaniels
The Baltimore Sun.

BALTIMORE

The paintings lay everywhere.

Stacked in neat, methodical piles, they filled every room in the tiny apartment. The dining room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, all full of artwork.

Cheryl Maxwell stood near the doorway staring at it all in awe before becoming so overwhelmed with emotion she had to sit down.

“Surreal,” she thought.

The paintings were the work of her younger sister, Carolyn Anne Watts, who committed suicide at the age of 56. The family didn’t know of the secret art until after her death in 2010.

Watts had suffered from depression her whole life, but her sister hadn’t realized how it had consumed her. She saw all the emotions, and the ups and downs her sister suffered, painted on the canvases. Guilt and sadness filled Maxwell’s heart. Maybe, she thought, she could have done more.

While it was too late for her sister, it wasn’t for others. Maxwell soon saw how she could open up a dialogue about mental illness through the paintings that had stopped her in her tracks, and maybe save other lives. There were nearly 170 pieces of artwork, she later counted. Enough to fill a small art gallery.

Now, many of those acrylic works get displayed throughout the state of Maryland as part of a traveling art exhibit Maxwell created in her sister’s name. At each stop, there are discussions about mental health, particularly in the African-American community.

The works were first displayed at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Md., during a conference focused on strengthening the black family. The paintings traveled to Coppin State University during a daylong seminar with the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation Inc. And now the exhibit hangs in community rooms at Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore in conjunction with discussions about recognizing mental health problems, increasing access to services and erasing the stigma attached to such disorders.

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