When someone dies from suicide, people often don’t know what to say to the survivors. The silence and discomfort can isolate those who have been left behind, at a time when they most need connection.
When John Bauer’s daughter took her own life in 2013 at the age of 33, he and his family experienced that isolation. That led the Grand Rapids resident to develop the fine arts exhibit “What’s Left: Lives Touched by Suicide,” expressions of 40 Minnesota artists of the grief and suffering of people affected by suicide.
It’s with the aim of drawing people into conversation that Community Grounds coffeeshop will bring the exhibit to Columbia Heights the entire month of July. Programs will be held the evenings of July 6 and July 20, and information about mental health resources will be available throughout the exhibit.
The collection of artwork that will be on display includes sculpture, painting, photography, poetry, and other mediums. Some of the pieces are somber, some vibrant, some abstract, some more concretely representational, all created by artists skilled at their craft. There’s a sculpture of a broken circle. A painting of an empty chair. An empty wooden chest. One interactive piece is a phone booth where you can listen to the words of people who have attempted suicide and those whose lives have been touched by the act.
The exhibit opened at MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids in September 2015, and since has been shown in communities around the state. Community Grounds board member and psychotherapist Nick Zeimet saw it at a church in Plymouth this spring. He thought it would be a good fit for the coffee shop’s mission of community engagement.
“I loved the idea of having a way to try to engage a wide range of people to begin talking about something that a lot of people walk around with, kind of in secret, or private,” Zeimet said. He sees the coffee shop as a “natural and neutral place” for such conversations and the artwork as a perfect facilitator.
“Having the painting, the sculpture, the work of art, gives us something to talk about and relate to, a non-threatening invite to talk about our own experiences,” he said.
Kelsey Johansen, manager of Community Grounds, sees the exhibit not only as a way of drawing more people to the shop, but as a chance of being able to reach the diverse people in the community who walk through their doors. She and Zeimet told of an “early win” at the coffee shop, not long after it opened, when Johansen noticed a woman who walked in one Saturday with a suitcase, and after a conversation, was able to connect her with domestic abuse resources.
Johansen said that when Zeimet first proposed the exhibit she was concerned about whether the artwork throughout the multi-room, multi-purpose space would be appropriate for the many young children and the kids attending after school programs. She was relieved to see that the art is not graphic or disturbing.
Johansen also sees the exhibit as timely. She works with the youth group of the church that holds services at Community Grounds on Sundays, and many of the middle school girls have been talking about the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which is about a teen girl’s suicide. The show has been criticized for its premise that the girl’s death is something that was caused by other people’s actions, and for its graphic depiction of the suicide act.
The July 6 reception will feature John Bauer and staff members of the Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health and Well-Being, which provides affordable mental health services to Anoka county residents and contracted services for the Columbia Heights Schools. On July 20 someone from the Carlson Center will present a program about how to talk about and recognize the signs of suicide.
The exhibit will be on display July 1-31, at Community Grounds, 560 40th Ave NE, Columbia Heights. More information about the exhibit can be found at whatsleftmn.com.
Below: “Talk” includes taped interviews that project director John Bauer had with survivors left behind by suicide and people who attempted to take their own lives. (Photo provided by the exhibit curators)