By Ryah Cooley
When she was 14, that's when things started to get bad.
That was the year Alexandra Kelso's dad died. It wasn't until two years later, when she and her family moved from Fresno to San Luis Obispo that Kelso realized both of her parents had been covering up their struggles with substance abuse and mental illness.
"I just kind of denied that it was there," Kelso said.
Once Kelso was a student at Cuesta College she began to grapple with feelings of anxiety and depression herself.
"I noticed that I would get really worked up with small things," Kelso said, recalling how she would scream and throw things when frustrated.
Luckily Kelso's mother, who had been down a similar path, stepped in and went with her daughter to see a doctor. After that, things started to get better.
"I noticed an improvement once it was talked about and acknowledged," Kelso said.
Today, she works as an assistant center supervisor at Transitions Mental Health Association's Hope House in San Luis Obispo. Since 1995, Transitions has put on the Opening Minds art show to display the works of those impacted by mental illness in order to give a voice to the entire mental health community, including those in recovery, their family and friends, service providers, and more.
This year's exhibit is currently on display at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles and incudes pieces by Kelso and more than 30 other artists.
"It's a good way to express emotions," said Kelso, who has drawn and doodled since she was a child. "Putting it on paper is a good way to see how I was feeling that day."
Kelso's charcoal drawing piece, Masks, shows a distraught woman holding a mask that looks just like her but with an unflinching, eerie smile.
"Mental illness, negative feelings, shouldn't be covered up by a mask," Kelso said. "People should feel that they can talk about it and not hide."
Artist Jessica Coates, who works as a job coach for Transitions, has been on and off anti-depressants since she was 12 after dealing with a lot of trauma in her childhood.
"It depends on the day or what's going on," Coates said. "Right now, I'm doing good, but sometimes I'm not."
On the days when things aren't going well, Coates sometimes can cry for hours, without really knowing why.
"It could be general things or for no reason at all," Coates said. "Art in general has been a really good thing for me in order to relax and be in the moment."
In Coates' acrylic abstract painting, Soaking In My Swamp of Sadness, the artist reckons with her own struggles of coping with a mental illness and learning to just be.
"The piece shows when I have to sit in that and that's OK. I have to soak in my sadness," Coates said.
Both Coates and Kelso hope that Opening Minds can help others to look at mental illness and those who struggle with it in a different light. If this shift in perspective can happen, maybe the feeling of shame surrounding mental health can be lifted, Kelso said.
"It happens to everybody," Kelso said. "It happens to people you love and care about. You may not know it, but it's all around."
Arts Editor Ryah Cooley's self-care includes yoga and lots of puppy cuddles. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In your head
The Opening Minds art show will be on display in the Atrium Gallery at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles through May 27. An opening reception will also be held May 5 from 6 to 9 p.m. during Art After Dark, and the studio will screen the documentary CRAZYWISE on May 17 (time to be determined). Visit studiosonthepark.org for more information.