We Rise Is a Gorgeous Art Event About Connection and Finally Talking About Mental Health
Art has power. It can provoke or inspire, and be the center of debates and exchanges that bring people together and allow them to communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings.
The creators of the We Rise gallery in Los Angeles are harnessing that potential to start an important conversation about mental well-being. The free, 10-day pop-up experience runs May 18 to May 27 and uses art and other amazing programming to help people connect and to understand the issues they and their neighbors face daily.
I was invited to preview the We Rise gallery before all of the incredible art made its way onto the walls and chat with We Rise's executive producer Yosi Sergant and programming and education director Anna Bulbrook to explore the space and find out what makes We Rise one of the coolest art events in L.A.
My tour began with a conversation with Yosi Sergant, the gallery's executive producer, who's probably best known for commissioning President Barack Obama's iconic "Hope" poster. He knows better than most people how the power of pop culture can affect real change.
"So often, when people engage pop culture, they don't engage it in a way where they trust that young people want to talk about deep situations that are affecting and shaping their lives," Yosi explained. "We think you can both engage with culture—and counterculture, and pop culture—and at the same time explore the things that determine how we live and who we are."
Art seemed like the perfect medium to communicate some of those big ideas, but he explained that setting up a gallery like We Rise required a deep understanding and trust.
"You have to trust that young people have big opinions and a capacity to understand and to shape how their communities live," he said. "We Rise leans into that. While being a big pop culture event, it's also designed to explore tough and serious subject matter that pop culture tends to avoid."
There are more than a hundred pieces of art, and more than a hundred artists represented, in the We Rise gallery. The artists include many young people and people affected by mental illness, and much of it from Los Angeles. Every piece pertains to the factors that can determine the outcome of someone's life, positive or negative.
"That includes everything from systemic factors, like racism, patriarchy, economic violence and climate justice, all the way to how that stuff manifests in our mental health and shapes our personal well-being," Yosi said. "When we come in contact with this stuff, how do we respond? On one side, there's depression and anxiety. On the other, there's healthier coping. What does building supportive and emotionally caring relationships look like? How do those help us thrive in the world? All that's here on the walls."
Yosi distilled the idea of the gallery down to being about connections and disconnections, and the discussion around what draws people together and what drives us all apart. The show begins with the systemic failures that disconnect us before moving into the ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences.
"These are the traumas that happen to us when we're young," he said. "They're the things we need to address because, if we don't, we don't heal. Next is the section on maladaptive behavior. Those are the things that we do in response to trauma that hurt us even further, and that hurt the ones around us."
After that, the gallery shifts to discuss the topic of serious mental illness, which many people deal with on top of the issues that can result from disconnection.
"Each and every one of us deals with life every day," Yosi explained. "We each have emotional responses to different pressures. Some of us, on top of dealing with all that, come into contact with mental illness, whether we experience it ourselves or around us. The concept that only people with mental illness have to deal with mental health is fake. It's false. The idea that everyone's going to be happy all the time is also fake and false. The sooner we can have these conversations openly and honestly, the better prepared we'll each individually be to handle our own life experiences. We as a collective, as a community, will actually thrive more."
(via We Rise/Saber)
Though the art itself may represent struggle, these pieces can enable a discussion that leads to healing. From there, the art takes a more positive turn and begins to emphasize the incredible power of becoming more connected and engaged.
"Family, friends, community, exercise, the earth, and connection to history, culture, services and care—these are the things that make us healthier and more vibrant," Yosi said. "What does it look like when we dig into our connectivity, and actually see each other for who we are? What if we stopped the judgment? It's about body positivity and gender fluidity and the diversity of the individuals of the community we live in, and how that can be reflected back to us in a beautiful and meaningful way."
And last, but most importantly of all, the gallery looks to the future.
"The artists have done an incredible job of conveying these simple but meaningful messages," Yosi said. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like, you deserve to take up space. You are valid just as you are. And that can be a huge shift for a lot of people who don't feel seen or heard, and feel isolated and alone. These artists are reflecting back projections of the community that's coming here in a big and beautiful way."
(via We Rise/Chelsea Wong)
Regardless of the piece you're looking at, the overall goal is to get the viewer thinking about their own obstacles and how they can get through them in a healthy way.
"It's designed to be a space for people to think and to grow a little together because that's what art does," Yosi explained. "Art is layered and complex, and it takes us a moment to process. It helps us dream a little bigger and see past where we currently are."
But the gallery isn't the only space for expression and conversation at We Rise. Every day of We Rise also features empowering events formatted to further the dialogue and facilitate heavy but meaningful discussion. Not only does it get people thinking about mental health and mental illness, but it also teaches people how to access care. Anna Bulbrook, We Rise programming and education director and Girlschool founder, filled me in.
"The way We Rise uses artists and community leaders and cool kids and thinkers and creative people to drive conversation about mental health, and to help bring these conversations into everyday dialogue, is so fun and so important," she said.
(via We Rise/Paul Rusconi)
"The Teen Town Hall is a chance for teens to get together and talk about the stuff that's really important and happening today, without adults meddling," Anna explained. "It's the discussions that adults might find difficult, but young people find absolutely critical to have."
Some of the top issues will include social media addiction, bullying and cyberbullying, body image and body positivity, and climate justice as it relates to mental health. A number of organizations will help to facilitate those conversations with the help of teen peer leaders, and the evening will be emceed by poets Hanna Harris and Marcus James from Get Lit.
"It's a chance to hang out and talk about important stuff and learn a little bit more about issues that this generation is going to be dealing with the rest of our lives," Anna said. "These issues can be life and death for some teenagers, and they know it because they're experiencing it. It's our job to listen and to try to help create a space for people to connect to the resources that might be helpful in those moments—to make it okay to talk about stuff while creating a space for IRL connection."
It helps that they'll also be serving pizza. Following the Teen Town Hall will be Creativity as the Way Through, featuring songwriters including Kelis, Angel Haze and Sevyn Streeter.
"Come for pizza and to talk deeply about stuff that's important to you, and then stay for a really interesting conversation about songwriting," Anna said. "It's an awesome opportunity to listen to legends talk about how songwriting has saved them and the therapeutic value that you get from creativity."
Plus, the event's inclusion of on-site therapists means that help is only a few steps away.
"At any time, if anybody needs access to services, or resources, or needs to talk to a therapist, we have all of that on site at all times," Anna said. "If you need immediate care or the gallery makes you realize that you haven't been dealing with something, you can go walk across the hallway and talk to somebody and figure out how you're going to keep going by seeking care or some other kind of support. That is available here in the most beautiful space that therapy has ever happened in."
For more on We Rise, and to check out the full list of 2019's We Rise gallery artists—and a sampling of their incredible pieces—click HERE.
If you love the idea behind We Rise, click HERE for Sophie Turner's most impactful quotes about mental health.