20 personal stories about mental health, 1 pop-up poster show

Pull out the earbuds and start talking. This subway art show wants to end the stigma around mental illness.

Pull out the earbuds and start talking. This subway art show wants to end the stigma around mental illness

Detail of "Self-conscious" by JinKe Wang, one of the posters featured in Life on the Line. (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

If you take the subway, you learn to ignore everything, from mystery smells to the occasional pigeon — but an art project launching on the TTC next week wants to grab the attention of commuters like it's a raccoon riding a station escalator.

Starting November 19, watch the ad spaces on Toronto subway cars. From then to January 6, a pop-up poster show called Life on the Line will be featuring work by 20 local artists, with each design responding to the same personal prompt: what's your experience with mental health?

(L) "Duality" by Chris Perez. (R) "Heavy" by Victoria Day. (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

"It's an issue that I think everyone deals with in one way or another," says Megan Kee, who's the executive director of Twentytwenty Arts, a local not-for-profit that organized the exhibition. (They partner with charities and then produce art projects that promote the cause; the Canadian Mental Health Association's Holiday Gift Program is their partner for Life on the Line.)

The exhibition is, on one level, an awareness campaign. The objective: get people talking about mental health — and every poster provides further info, including resources for those who need immediate assistance.

But it's also a fundraising campaign, and the TTC Shop will be selling prints for $28, with originals also for sale at an exhibition launch party, Thursday, Nov. 15 at NO Foundation. In all cases, 80 per cent of proceeds benefit CMHA Toronto's Holiday Gift Program. (Since 1953, that particular initiative has delivered care packages to at-risk individuals and families served by CMHA programs in the city.)

(L) "Growing" by Jenn Kitagawa. (R) "Winter Gray" by Ilya Viryachev. (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

According to Kee, some 350 artists applied to be part of the project. "We received sculpture, photography, digital illustration, poetry — basically anything that you can think of," she says. The final 20 were selected by her and key stakeholders, including a rep from CMHA "to ensure there was no triggering material." The collection is a mix of pre-existing works and designs created especially for the project.

"The story we're hoping to tell is that everybody deals with mental health either personally or through their loved ones in one way or another," says Kee. "It's not something that's specific to any one person — everyone experiences it."

Here, a few Life on the Line artists share the stories behind their posters.

Alex Garant. Midnight. (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Alex Garant - "I created this painting as part of a series entitled 'Voyage of the Insomniac' that travelled to Los Angeles a couple of months ago. This collection was a visual statement on my experience with insomnia, sleeplessness, anxiety and the agony of sleep-deprived days. When the Life on the Line project came to life, I thought this was a perfect piece that truly expressed some of the challenges I experienced in the past few years."

"I feel like there are still a lot of taboos about mental health: the fear to appear weak, or the fear to be shamed. This is why it is important to open the conversation, make ourselves available to listen and take a step forward by sharing our own experiences in order to de-stigmatize behavioural health challenges. In 2012, I suffered from a heart attack. This trauma affected me physically, but also psychologically. I suffered from PTSD."

"Although PTSD is usually associated with extreme trauma such as war or a natural disaster, heart attack survivors often experience the same key symptoms: flashbacks that occur as nightmares or intrusive thoughts. As a result, the survivor actively tries to avoid being reminded of the event and becomes hyper-vigilant worrying that it will happen again. I spent over a year waking up in the middle of the night to check my pulse, thinking my heart wasn't beating. This took a toll on my mental health and I did not talk about it for a long long time." 

"These days I feel a lot better about my life and my life decisions. I embrace the sense of urgency pushing me to commit passionately to what I love. I use my anxiety as a trigger to make things happen for myself. I try to take a step back and gain perspective and stay analytical while finding ways to move forward."

"Everybody has a story. Everybody has a loved one going through a crisis. You are not alone. Ask for help when needed, and offer your help when possible."

Felicity Tse. "Facade." (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Felicity Tse - "I thought it was important to illustrate a feeling/situation that was universally understood. Whether you struggle with mental health issues or not, the majority of — if not all — people nowadays only want to put the best image of themselves out there and hide their insecurities, fears and doubts."

"While we're starting to tear down the wall of stigma around mental health, it's important to keep the conversation going and to reinforce the idea that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It's important to be more aware of the people around you (and yourself) and to practice more compassion and gratitude. [...] Projects like Life on the Line bring communities and people closer together, and help us realize that we're all little pieces in the collective of humankind."

Graham Robinson. "The Weight (Sisyphus is Happy)." (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Graham Robinson - "My painting was inspired by Albert Camus's writings on the myth of Sisyphus as well as my own journey through depression and alcohol abuse and subsequent sobriety. That entire body of work, and specifically this painting, is very important for me in working through my own mental health and addiction issues through my passion for creating artwork. It is not specifically about me, but it was my way of looking back on my path out of addiction and into my new sober, healthier life."

Jessica Fortner. "Mind's Eye." (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Jessica Fortner - "I created this poster specifically for the Life on the Line campaign. The telling of art history has done a lot to mythologize mental illness. Van Gogh's ear, and many other stories of the artists that inspire us, present mental illness as anything but what it is: a fundamental issue of health and an illness deserving of the same empathy and attention that we give to purely bodily afflictions. If art is able to change perceptions — express what can't otherwise be expressed, and create understanding through shared experience — then its relationship to stories of mental illness can also change, and hopefully do some good where it is needed most."

Steve Rose. "Untitled." (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Steve Rose - "Mental health touches and impacts everyone in all communities and every strata of society in one capacity or another. It has always been astonishing to me that as with annual physical and dental check-ups, that there is not routine psychological inquiry or talk therapy. A large part of the motivation within my art practice comes from my fascination with the human condition and its delicate, complex layers. Everyone struggles; everyone suffers."

Nicole Moss. "The Conversation." (Courtesy of Twentytwenty Arts)

Nicole Moss - "I have always been fascinated by the mind, dreams and the relationships we build with one another. 'The Conversation' explores how the troubled mind of one can be completely changed by the most minuscule actions of another. One phone call with the simplest of words can bring ease to the mind." 

"Mental health has not only affected me, but many people around me. It is scary to see how it can take someone over [...] but I believe we can help our minds through the environment we choose to put ourselves in and by the everyday choices we make."

Life on the Line.  Featuring Alex Garant, Slyssa Solitario, Angela Kim, Chris Perez, Danielle Cole, Felicity Tse, Graham Robinson, Huan Tran, Ilya Viryachev, Jenn Kitagawa, Jessica Fortner, Jessica Okonski, Jin Ke Wang, Kayla Free, Natalie Plociennik and Shiyu Zhang, Natalie Very B, Nicole Chioconi, Nicole Moss, Steve Rose, Victoria Day. Nov. 19 to Jan. 6. All TTC subway lines.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.