Sunday, March 6, 2016

What's Left - Lives Touched By Suicide

"Strength Through Support" by Jim Zasoski
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Friday evening I attended a multimedia art exhibition titled What's Left - Lives Touched By Suicide. The art will be on display for the duration of the month, but Friday's opening reception was a powerful one evening event that touched all of us.

This travelling exhibition is curated by John Bauer in response to the loss of his teenage daughter to suicide a few years ago. The program began with Bauer talking briefly about some facts about suicide. In America the suicide rate on Native reservations is 3X the national average, and on some reservations it's 10X. These are alarming numbers. Across the country there are more than 41,000 suicides a year and our youth are hit especially hard. It is the second leading cause of death for teens 10-24. The problem is far more pervasive than these these numbers suggest, tragic as they are. For each successful suicide there are 25 attempts. That is a scary number.

(L to R) Jake Vainio, Dr. Arne Vainio and curator John Bauer [Photo: Ivy Vainio]
Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio
Mr. Bauer's plea is that we talk about it. "People don't discuss this. Why are we afraid to do this?" he asked.

Much of it is related to mental illness, another topic we don't know what to do with. "I wanted to use art to give the message. Lectures are OK but art touches people." And this exhibit really touches deep places.

"We talk about sex, drugs and alcohol in our schools. Why not teach about depression, mental illness and depression? We have to talk about this," he said.

After John Bauer spoke Dr. Arne Vainio, a physician to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was introduced. Dr. Vainio began by passing a basket of tobacco around the room and having people take some and hold it during the ritual he was about to perform. Then we would give it back to him and he would burn it, noting that tobacco is a gift of the Creator to use as a sacrament.

He shared a quote from Kurt Vonnegut's line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "Sons of suicides seldom do well." He added, "Non of us are comfortable when talking about suicide."

Dr. Vainio then performed a song in the Ojibwe style called Heartbreak. He then read a list of names of suicides that people in the room had submitted, tapping a drum each time he read a name from the long list while Jake Vainio channeled through a mournful guitar. Dr. Vainio called it a healing drum, and all were touched.

There was a handout with statements by the artists which should be read in conjunction with the show. I've included a few quotes below.

"Two Trails" by Adam Swanson
"The Empty Desk"
"The Empty Desk is intended to commemorate youth who have committed suicide in response to bullying. Definitions of bullying are inscribed in the arm of the desk and viewers are invited to sit in the chair to reflect on the many forms bullying can take. The desk is meant both as a memorial and a call to action; to recognize and interrupt bullying before it ends in tragic consequences."
~Christine Baeumler

I found this juxtaposition especially poignant.
"Strength Through Support" (detail)
"The emotional weight and magnitude of unfortunate life-changing events remain with us in memory throughout our lives." Jim Zasoski wrote about his piece "Strength Through Support."

"The strength to bear the emotional enormity of these remembrances and fid comfort in closure is obtained through the empathy and support of family, friends, community members, and others who may have experienced similar circumstances in their lives," he wrote.

He went on to affirm the importance of promoting conversation amongst community members with regard to this subject. By doing so we can reduce the stigma associated with these difficult events.

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Thank you to Jim Bauer for curating the exhibition, and to all associated with making this a thought provoking event. May it play a useful role in generating discussions that lead to ongoing healing for all of us who lives have been so touched. 

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