Percolator’s ‘We Can’ show celebrates artists living with mental illness

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence artist Sean Sullivan is pictured with some of his paintings featured as part of the We

Sean Sullivan sees things differently — literally.

The Lawrence artist was born without a corpus callosum, the band of white matter that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

That means Sullivan has trouble processing information at times and reading social cues. It also means that the part of his brain responsible for visual recall and construction is unusually active, allowing him to remember tiny details — the number of holes in a stranger’s shoe, for instance — years after the fact.

Sullivan has his struggles, he admits, but he also has “a gift” in his condition.

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence artist Sean Sullivan is pictured with some of his paintings featured as part of the We

“My art is how I see the world. It’s how my brain processes the world around me,” says Sullivan, whose colorful, surreal paintings — they’re mostly images conjured from his imagination — are currently on display at the Lawrence Percolator’s “We Can” exhibit. “It feels so cool to be able to share that with the world, that perspective that’s unique.”

Sullivan is one of six artists, each of whom live with chronic mental illness, featured in the show, which he curated himself over a year of visiting local facilities and building relationships with prospective artists. For many of the painters, photographers and sculptors involved, “We Can” marks their first gallery show.

“We Can” is set to end its one-month (that month also being Mental Health Month) run at the Percolator, 913 Rhode Island St., by Sunday. And Sullivan –who also lives with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, as well as landing on the autism spectrum — couldn’t be prouder.

“I’ve had many, many diagnoses, and through all of that, I’ve learned to feel ashamed of who I am,” says Sullivan, who traces the exhibit’s origins back to his first hospitalization in 2011, when a fellow patient suggested the idea. “Feel less than, feel inadequate. But the goal of the show was to show that we’re not less than. We’re just as capable as anyone else at achieving something meaningful.”

Art allows Linda Clark to “get into the flow” and out of unhealthy fixations on piles of clothes rotting away in the landfill or runaway diapers floating around in public pools, for instance. A longtime member of Lawrence’s downtown street-musician circuit (she earns cash singing and playing guitar along Massachusetts Street), Clark also has bipolar disorder and “a thing for fabric.”

Her hammock — which she crafted out of a painter’s dropcloth, bits of clothing and a climbing rope, among other items — is a “sacred space” hanging in the middle of the Percolator. In addition to textiles, Clark enjoys painting, and her creations often contain images of mermaids, the Virgen de Guadalupe and Lady Liberty.

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence artist Linda Clark is pictured in a hammock she created as part of the We

One, she points out, hangs next to a plaque labeled “$5 million.” It’s more of a statement than anything else.

“That’s the amount on a check I need to build a psych wing on Lawrence Memorial Hospital,” Clark says, adding: “At Bert Nash, they’re overworked and underpaid and short-staffed. It’s too much.”

The Percolator’s art show is “kind of a cry for help” in that way, she says. In Kansas, community-based mental health treatment facilities have seen their state funding for treatment of the uninsured cut in half since 2007, according to a 2015 report from the Adult Continuum of Care Committee. Larger facilities like the state psychiatric hospitals in Larned and Osawatomie have been over-stuffed as of late, with the latter being cut off from federal Medicare funding last December.

Another primary force behind “We Can” is the “huge problem” of mental illness in Lawrence and Douglas County, where “there seems to be a revolving door between the jail, the homeless shelter and the street” with no real solution in sight, Sullivan says.

Still, since the exhibit’s debut during April’s Final Friday, the Percolator has hosted an art-education class from Washburn University and a public discussion on the roadblocks to accessing mental health services in Lawrence and Kansas as a whole, moderated by Recovery and Hope Network director Mary Lisa Pike.

That, coupled with the many personal anecdotes he’s collected from patrons — many shared stories of family members attempting or committing suicide due to struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, he says — leave Sullivan hopeful.

He’d like to make “We Can” an annual event at the Percolator. He knows the mental-health community in Lawrence has plenty more to create — “just the fact that we pulled it off is a huge boost to everyone’s self-confidence and self-esteem,” Sullivan says.

“All the artists here never thought they would be in an art show. They didn’t think their stuff was good enough,” he says. “I mean, just look at it. It’s amazing.”

Update: An earlier version of this story inadvertently misquoted Linda Clark. Clark said that Bert Nash staff is “overworked and underpaid,” not “underworked and overpaid,” as the story originally noted.*