March 3, 2017

Elms art exhibit puts focus on relationship between mental illness and creativity

By Julie Beaulieu

Julie-Geneive's self portrait

“Self Portrait” by Genevieve Mae Burnett (IObserve photo/Julie Beaulieu)

CHICOPEE – “Genevieve Mae Burnett: A Retrospective,” opened for a month-long exhibition in the Borgia Gallery at the Our Lady of the Elms College in Chicopee on March 2. Featuring paintings by an artist who struggled with life-long schizophrenia, the exhibit is being presented in collaboration with the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton.

“I knew that I wanted to show Genevieve’s work before I even started working here at Elms College,” said Cecily Hughes, Borgia Gallery curator.

“I saw her obituary actually in the (Daily)Hampshire Gazette in 2015, and saw images of her work and thought that she was so talented and a really fabulous artist,” said Hughes. “And, then, I learned that she suffered from mental illness, so this became another driving factor for why I felt it was important to have a retrospective for Genevieve to bring awareness about people who suffer from mental illness.

Julie-Mike the Cat

A visitor to the Borgia Gallery at Elms College looks at Genevieve Mae Burnett’s paintings of “Mike the Cat” (IObserve photo/Julie Beaulieu)

“I’m hoping that people who come and see the exhibition will get a different viewpoint, perhaps, into the life of someone with mental illness, and maybe examine their own ideas about it,” she said.

Michael Tillyer, founding director of Anchor House of Artists, who decided to open the doors to his own art studio 20 years ago to local artists struggling with mental illness, knew and worked with Burnett.

“I first met Genevieve when I was working in the field of mental health,” said Tillyer. “I got to know her better and better and I got to know of her as an artist. Somehow, we developed a really close relationship over the years.

“I would show her work and she would make her work at the Anchor House. She wrote in her journal every day of her life. We have journals from 1966 all the way up to 2015 when she passed away,” said Tillyer.

“She was a very incredible artist and she had very brilliant things to say. I would ask her for comments on my own paintings and she would always have right, spot-on advice,” he said.

Silvana Tellerico, a junior majoring in communication sciences and disorders at Elms, attended the exhibit as part of her psychology class.

“I really enjoyed the exhibit,” said Tellerico. “There were two paintings in particular. There was one of a regular hospital bed and then, like a schizophrenic bed. It’s almost as if she was trying to paint how she felt. That was one piece that really stuck out to me. I feel like her paintings were her way of coping with her mental illness.”

However, viewers of the exhibit noted that not all paintings were sad or distorted. Some of friends, and of her favorite pet, Mike the cat, were full of life and happiness.

photo of Genevieve-Tillyer

Genevieve Mae Burnett works on a painting at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. (IObserve photo/courtesy of Michael Tillyer)

Janet Lucier, assistant clinical professor of nursing at Elms, has organized a March 23 colloquium on art and mental health.

“Michael (Tillyer) and I will each be speaking a bit about our different connections to mental health and artistry and creativity,” said Lucier. “I’m very involved in mental health and I teach mental health here at the Elms. I’m going to be having my students from community health class come here so that they can have an experience to see the art, appreciate the art, and to bring up some questions. There are many questions that have to do with mental health and creativity.”

The colloquium, which is free and open to the public, will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23 in the Borgia Gallery.

“Genevieve Mae Burnett: A Retrospective” will be on display in the gallery from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily March 2-24, except college holidays, beginning the week of March 6. The gallery is located on the second floor of the Dooley College Center on the Elms campus at 291 Springfield St.