An immersive art gallery centered around mental health opened at Herald Square Plaza over the weekend, marking Mental Health Awareness Month and nonprofit Fountain House’s 75th anniversary.
The exhibition, called YELL!, was set up by Fountain House — a national mental health nonprofit fighting for the rights of those impacted by mental illness — between 34th and 35th streets in Midtown.
To spread awareness about the realities of the city’s mental health system, Fountain House and its artists, who are members of the nonprofit, believed they had to think big.
“We wanted to take up space and get lots of attention,” said Rachel Weisman, Fountain House’s gallery director. “There are tons of tourists here and it’s a really big public place. That will allow many to hear from the people it affects so they can empathize and create understanding.”
The installation consisted of five “houses” placed in an almost maze fashion to represent mental illness and navigating the treatment systems is not linear. Each house represented a theme of mental illness or recovery, including PTSD, self-harm, psychosis, medication, and systemic institutionalization. On the outside of each house, painted white, were stock photos of families having fun and being loving towards each other. But once a visitor went into each house’s entrance, the artwork was different.
The walls inside were painted black, with paintings, drawings, and poetry covering the walls, expressing the artists’ feelings on the house’s theme. One house, about psychosis, showed a film regarding the issue. At specific times during the weekend, members of Fountain House publicly read their poetry or plays.
“The subject manners are heavy,” said Weisman, “but we also wanted to show that recovery is possible.”
Calling the art immersion gallery YELL! also captured the goal Fountain House’s artists wanted to reach in bringing attention to the needs of the mentally ill.
“Stigma is a terrible thing,” said Karen Gormandy, Fountain House’s studio director. “People need to have a voice and people are being punished for an illness they didn’t bring on themselves.”
Rich Courage, a 20-year member of Fountain House who read his play at the gallery, has another way of seeing what YELL! means.
“When someone is yelling in public, they could just be upset or angry.” he said. “Do you incarcerate them? No.”
Fountain House members and staff said they wanted visitors who viewed the exhibition to realize that getting help for the mentally ill is not always easy, particularly for the homeless.
“People are not getting the help they need,” said Arturo Sitjar, who helped put up the installation. “The homeless, they definitely don’t get the help they need. YELL! could even mean someone needs help or they’re asking for help.”
The members of Fountain House praised the organization for helping them recover from their mental illness struggles and create a better life for themselves. Courage says he is the happiest he’s been in all his 63 years.
“They lift you up and inspire you to help yourself,” he told amNewYork Metro. “Community is at the heart of Fountain House and gives a feeling of belonging. [It] has taught me to show gratitude. I have friends, a purpose.”
Recent member Nicholas Parhan said Fountain House helped him with a trauma he went through a couple of years ago. He stressed the importance of taking care of one’s mental health, even in a place like New York.
“New York City is a big city,” he says. “One of the biggest in the world, and we’ve got mental health problems. Everyone needs to take mental health awareness very seriously.”
New York has many people living with mental illness, including 17% of the homeless who have severe mental illness, according to community-based organization BronxWorks. Among them was Jordan Neely, a homeless street artist who suffered from a long bout of mental illness before succumbing to a fatal chokehold on a subway train earlier this month.
With the tragedy still fresh on people’s minds, the members of Fountain House were aware that some visitors to their gallery would think of Neely and how his death has drawn attention to the limited mental health resources for many, including the homeless.
“It’s tragic but true,” Courage said. “Tragic in a way to get attention. I hope it propels the state to put some money into resources.”
Others talked about how Mayor Eric Adams has been making mental health a priority, though he stirred up controversy late last year with a plan to involuntary hospitalize mentally ill homeless people. While some Fountain House members say they opposed the idea, others, like Sitjar, said they appreciate the work the Adams administration has done to help New York’s mentally ill.
YELL! opened to the public Friday and closed Monday. It was funded by a grant from the Sozosei Foundation, which seeks to decriminalize mental illness. The gallery’s next stop will be on Governor’s Island sometime this summer, where Fountain House will also be having a six-month residency, ending later in the fall.
Until then, Fountain House’s gallery continues to work on spreading the word about the importance of mental health, and showing how people with mental illnesses have struggled but also have overcome adversity.
“This is a celebration of people overcoming their adversity,” Courage said. “The same as anyone else. This gets rid of labels. Everybody has their worth, everybody has something wonderful. We’re all very much the same. This is a celebration of life.”