Not everyone can step out of the pain of an emotional or physical struggle to create awareness and hope for others trying to overcome their own problems. Portrait artist Amy Kerr is a master in this arena. She didn’t want her own battle with depression to define who she was. On the outside looking in, it’s easy to say no one is that one-dimensional, that we are more than our labeled diagnosis. But when you are the person trapped in your feelings and fears and hyperfocused on your demons, you may feel you are paralyzed and that nothing beyond your clinical diagnosis exists.
Through her own personal journey and insight, in January 2017, Amy Kerr birthed the idea of her public art and writing project, I Am More, a collection of portraits accompanied by essays sharing the very personal stories of 16 individuals battling anxiety, depression, eating disorders, loss of family members to suicide, and more. The original I Am More exhibit debuted in June 2018 at her husband Iain’s business, Ocean Alliance, located at the iconic Paint Factory in Gloucester, and has traveled to dozens of locations across the state.
“When this idea came to me, I was not an established artist or writer,” says Kerr. “I didn’t know anything about public art exhibits, fundraising, writing for mental health. I wasn’t a therapist. I just knew it was something I needed to do. So, I asked a lot of questions, sent out flurries of emails, most of which went unanswered, and looked for empty walls anywhere I could find them. If a business had an empty wall, I asked if I could hang a portrait with an essay. Just one was fine. Now, I Am More is touring the largest malls in the state and reaching thousands of people. If you have a vision, you can find a way.
“I had the pleasure of hosting the exhibit in the lobby of North Shore Music Theatre in September and October of 2019 during the run of Sunset Boulevard. The timing seemed perfect in that September was suicide awareness month and October was depression awareness month. This musical and exhibit seemed like a natural tie-in with a story line of Norma Desmond’s own personal battle with mental illness, not to mention the infamous line, ‘Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.’”
The artist captures her vulnerable subjects in the most idyllic, peaceful settings. Kerr allows her subjects to choose their background and does not learn the content of their essays until she finishes the paintings. She takes her subjects out of their pain for a moment so we can see them as their authentic selves. When you see a finished portrait, you may feel that Kerr created it while saying, “I see you. I feel you. I know you.”
Kerr’s portraits are hauntingly lifelike. They are so detailed that they almost vibrate off the paper with a tactile energy. Given her level of talent, Kerr’s lack of formal art training might surprise you. “I didn’t want to go to art school and end up hating drawing, so I studied writing, thinking it would be more lucrative, a career I never ultimately pursued,” she says. “My art lessons never went beyond classes I took in junior high and high school in a small town in southern Vermont where I grew up. I always enjoyed drawing. Those art teachers stuck with me in showing me how to do portraits. Each portrait takes about three weeks to draw using only pastels and colored pencils.”
About finding her subjects, Kerr says, “It started out with people I knew who trusted me. A stranger wasn’t going to jump on board with someone they didn’t know. Some people came to me when I came public with my own depression on my artist blog. I was going to be taking myself out of public view for a bit and wanted people to know why. A lot of people were surprised, and a ton of people said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ In 2017, when the idea came to do this exhibit, I went back to those people. It took them some time to come on board. I learned how to talk to people and how to write about their stories. Then I could show other people who were subjects I was interested in what it would look like.”
Most of the topics she covers occur organically. “One of the most important was opioid addiction. The problem is everywhere but certainly a big issue in Gloucester with overdoses. I was ignorant with what it takes to deal with that type of addiction. Some were topics that were timely like the Tree of Life mass shooting, the synagogue where so many people were killed. I thought it was important to talk to a holocaust survivor.”
Asked about some of the more memorable interviews, Kerr says. “Talking to the family of someone who had died by suicide was the most memorable. It wasn’t something I could prepare myself for and I’ll never get to talk to them. Sitting with a mom who lost her daughter under a year ago gave her daughter, Arielle, a voice for more than how she died. I think we talk about suicides as a number, not what their story was. I want to focus on an individual and remember all the parts of them.
“Erin, the last portrait I worked on was the perfect partnership. She was talking about alopecia, something dealing with her appearance, how people perceive her. I was nervous about how it would make her feel. I was thrilled with the portrait, and she was so thrilled to have it out there with her beautiful dogs included. It wasn’t a topic on my radar. She saw the exhibit, wondered if it was something she could talk about. I think we both got the best out of it.”
Amy has followed up her original exhibit with a new collection of pieces called I Am More: Massachusetts. This latest collection of 20 photo-realistic portraits and essays from around the state debuted last summer at a city-owned pop-up gallery in Worcester and has made its way around the state to several locations including the North Shore Mall, Salem State University, and the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside. It will go on to several Simon Mall locations, then ultimately to the State House. The subjects address how we are more than mental illness, addiction and recovery, bullying, disability, poverty, abuse, and persecution.
“When I started I Am More: Massachusetts with people across the state who didn’t know me, I had to reach out to healthcare workers and therapists and ask if they knew anyone who would feel comfortable telling their story,” Kerr says. “The therapist would reach out to their clients and then I would have to wait for the individuals to come to me directly. They come when they come.
“Drawing is fun no matter what it is. My favorite part of it is sitting down and listening to people share their stories. I feel incredibly lucky to be put in that position. I always pinch myself that they are willing to go through this with me. It’s like the joy I feel working on my half-acre covered in brambles and finding out what’s underneath.”
Kerr plans to continue her work in capturing the human spirit in creating awareness and offering hope and resiliency through her portraits and stories of individuals overcoming mental health and physical challenges with new areas of expression including domestic violence and other subjects as they present themselves.
For more photos and information on I Am More and I Am More: Massachusetts, visit amykerrdraws.org. I Am More is supported by donations. To make a tax-deductible donation visit Ocean Alliance’s donation page and choose “I Am More” from the list of programs.