A collaboration between the charitable arm of Burrell Behavioral Health and Springfield photographer Randy Bacon is now on display at a Commercial Street studio.
“The Art of Being Me,” which opened to the public June 4 at Bacon’s studio and gallery at 209 W. Commercial St., was created in partnership with the Burrell Foundation.
The exhibit, which includes portrait photography and videos of 22 individuals, places a spotlight on mental health aimed to spark conversation on the issue, its organizers say.
Burrell Foundation Executive Director Gabrielle Martin said the project was more than a year in planning, as she approached Bacon in March 2021. That same period served as the launch for the 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation, whose mission is to support the advancement of behavioral health and inspire hope in communities through connection, advocacy and philanthropy, according to the Burrell website.
“We knew we wanted to do something that was starting with the storytelling element to get people to start talking,” Martin said of the collaboration with Bacon, who she’s known for years. “In this area, if there’s anybody who’s going to tell a story through the right lens, it’s going to be Randy.”
Bacon said he saw the exhibit as a chance to do something he’s never done before. He wanted all photos to be a tight close-up of the subject’s head and shoulders and for all of them to look directly into the camera.
“Hopefully, when people come in contact with this, they stop and look in that person’s eyes,” Bacon said. “They’re telling a story that in many cases they’ve never told anyone before.”
Aside from photos and accompanying written copy that documents the individual’s stories, the exhibit also features video interviews that run between two and six minutes, Martin said.
“We were really cognizant to have this snapshot of fully diverse individuals,” she said, adding those featured range in age from 9 to mid-70s. “There were plenty we weren’t able to accommodate from that list, but it’s not all Burrell clients or providers.”
Making an impact
Martin said the exhibit had a private unveiling in April and was presented by request in May at the Mental Health Corporation of America conference in Louisville, Kentucky. But the Springfield exhibition, which runs through July 30, is the first time the stories can be seen by the public, she said.
Mandy Vela is one of five Burrell employees who agreed to be featured in the exhibit.
Vela, who dealt with drug abuse, domestic violence and an eating disorder in her past, said she recognized the importance of the project.
“It’s very humbling, and it’s beautiful to provide a safe space for all of these people to feel safe enough to share their stories,” Vela said.
Still, Vela said opening up to share such personal stories wasn’t easy.
“It’s intimidating and it still is a little unnerving,” she said. “I feel like it’s incredibly important that if I have the opportunity to affect or inspire or motivate even one person to see they have the opportunity to change their life – that their life can be different – then that is what it’s about.”
Even though Vela was aware of the photographic and video content Bacon had documented for her portion of the exhibit, she said seeing the finished product was an emotional experience.
“I was at home by myself, thankfully, sat and watched it and bawled a good number of times, trying to get it out of my system,” she said. “I’m going to be seeing this on a regular basis and I don’t want to cry every time.”
Some of the other stories include individuals overcoming struggles dealing with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
“The Art of Being Me” is the latest project involving the 1-year-old Burrell Foundation.
Martin and Associate Director Janelle Reed are its lone staff members, although both work closely with Burrell officials, as well as its clients and providers, to learn of unmet needs that they can share with the community.
“We are a supporting organization for Burrell Behavioral Health and the charitable side of it,” Martin said. “That means to bring our programs and our mission from Burrell to the community, be that mental health awareness in an event form or a fundraising effort, because there are so many programs inside Burrell that have unmet needs.”
The foundation’s first fundraising effort was in conjunction with last year’s Give Ozarks Day, an online fundraiser organized by Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc.
Burrell Foundation’s goal for Give Ozarks Day was to raise money for a residential treatment facility for youth dealing with substance use addiction. Over $12,000 was raised, Martin said, noting the money was used to upgrade outdoor spaces and a shed that holds fitness equipment.
Other foundation fundraisers or campaigns include Burrell Remembers and CoMoGives, which raised over $11,000 for Burrell’s behavioral crisis center. The organization raised roughly $90,000 through monetary and in-kind donations in its first year, according to Burrell officials.
As the foundation becomes more established, Burrell Behavioral Health supports the nonprofit operationally, Martin said.
That allows 100% of donations to be put toward the foundation’s purpose of supporting and increasing awareness of Burrell initiatives and programs.
Martin said the nonprofit community in Springfield has lots of wonderful representatives, but the Burrell Foundation wants to find a space that is generally underserved.
“When you think of mental health and who is there to support mental health in the nonprofit realm, there aren’t many options,” she said.
Reed, who was hired in February, comes to Burrell from Victory Mission and Ministry, where she served as advancement director.
“I’m still able to use my passions with storytelling. And making connections with people in this position has been a blessing for me,” she said.
Martin said the foundation seeks to hire an associate director in Columbia to cover central Missouri more effectively. Eventually, the organization hopes to do more work in the Kansas City area, where Burrell also has a presence.
While the foundation shares a board of directors with Burrell, the nonprofit has established a separate 12-person ambassador board that will focus on its strategic direction and ideation. Martin said its first meeting will likely be in July or August.
The organization also just completed its first budget, which she said will be $500,000 for fiscal 2023.
While the Burrell Foundation is frequently involved in events and initiatives, “The Art of Being Me” isn’t intended as a fundraiser. Admission is free to the exhibit.
“If people would like to give and help propel this forward, absolutely,” Martin said of accepting donations. “But we don’t want to create any barriers with this exhibit.”
After completing its run in Springfield, the exhibit will be on display at Stephens College in Columbia in September, followed by a likely two-month run at University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“The biggest piece is that this is encouraging conversations that aren’t typically comfortable,” Martin said.
“It is widening the lens and removing boundaries.”
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