Watch Out For Inspirational Gallery Owner, Jennifer Pepin

Photo of Isabelle Pitman
8 January 2017

The enchanting J. Pepin Art Gallery in Portland, Oregon offers visitors an intimate encounter with beautiful works by artists who suffer from mental illnesses. Jennifer Pepin collaborates with artists from different mediums to raise awareness and destigmatize mental health conditions. We talk to Jennifer about her own therapeutic experiences of art, how mental illnesses can invigorate our artistic energy, and what can be done to reduce the negative attitudes surrounding mental health.

Jennifer Pepin with Chris Foster’s artwork | Courtesy of J. Pepin Gallery

Could you tell us a little bit about your own experience about the relationship between art and mental health? How does it enrich your creativity?

After receiving a mini art set for my birthday 11 years ago, I began painting with acrylic as a hobby and over the years that blossomed into selling my work. However, it wasn’t until three years ago when I really learned what it meant for me to be bipolar – the symptoms, the mood shifts, and the tools to feel better – that I saw the connection between my mental health and art. What I discovered was that I painted during periods of hypomania. The hypomania gave me the confidence, drive, and energy to paint while at the same time the process of painting helped channel and create a positive focus for my racing thoughts and excessive energy.

There has recently been a rising awareness surrounding ideas of art therapy, with the advent of ‘mindfulness colouring books’ and similar concepts. Do you think this is a positive trend?

I do! Just as people do things to stay physically healthy, it is important to do things to keep us in good mental health. These coloring books are making the use of drawing and meditation more accessible and therefore more people are likely to try it. One of the problems with the stigma of mental illness is it prevents people from seeking help. The coloring books may feel like a safer place to start for someone as they open up about their mental health. They are both providing a helpful tool and adding another way to begin the conversation about mental health.

Do you think the stigma surrounding mental health has decreased since you opened your gallery? Or are there new challenges to be faced?

The conversation around mental health has gotten much stronger and louder over the last two years making destigmatizing more possible. But we have a long way to go. Within my own gallery community I have seen artists have personal breakthroughs in regard to speaking about their own mental illness. I had one artist tell me how she was ashamed to speak about and identify with her mental illness, but participating in the gallery and telling her story changed that and she felt so much happier about herself. Even one person feeling the ability to open up is a step towards destigmatizing mental illness.

There are definitely layers and different challenges to breaking down the stigma. I think talking about it is the first part. Then there’s how we talk about it, both which words are most suitable and then how the media presents it. Then people need to actually get the care they need with better access to doctors and medications.

Artworks by J. Pepin, C. Foster, and A. Petersen | Courtesy of J. Pepin Gallery

A portion of your proceeds go towards mental health organizations and charities, how has your gallery had an impact on these organizations and the wider community?

There is a lot of work being done around mental health, whether providing services or advocating awareness, that people are not aware of. I think the gallery provides an avenue to give additional exposure for a few of these organizations. This helps raise funds for these non-profit organizations and also gives places to turn to for those who may not know where to go.

Famously, there have been many artists who struggled with mental health. Did this inspire you?

When the concept for the gallery came about, it certainly was inspired in part by the idea that, historically, there was all this beauty in the world that is often attributed to mental illness. I wanted a space to accentuate that beauty. I wanted to focus on the positives that can come with mental illness instead of the negative portrayal that keeps coming up. What has been interesting is that although we may attribute the beauty and creativity that came from a deceased artist with their mental illness, it seems with present day artists we expect less from someone with a diagnosis. I have frequently heard ‘But the work is so good?‘ in response to the concept. Why is it that someone is surprised by the quality of an artist living with a mental illness today, yet many artists with mental illness over time show us incredible art?

Tell us a little about your artists and their journeys? How do you decide who to work with?

Each artist has a different journey to tell. I think it is safe to say that we all agree that being creative is therapeutic in nature and is a positive coping tool with our mental illness. A majority of our artists are pursuing art as their primary profession. Most are self-taught, although we also have artists who have Masters in Fine Arts. We feature a wide range of mediums including gouache, acrylic, oil, and encaustic. We have several abstract artists but also people who do more illustrative work.

In order to exhibit with the gallery, we do have an application process. It includes submitting examples of work but also answering the question of, ‘how does having a mental illness play a role in your creativity?’. This is what we use for our artist statements both on the walls of the gallery and for all external marketing. Our approach to ending the stigma is to exhibit high caliber artwork that people appreciate for the artwork itself and not the cause. It puts the person as artist first and then the fact they are diagnosed with a mental illness after. So, when reviewing artists we keep our customer base in mind. We don’t want to be obvious as a gallery for mental illness or attract sales for pity. We want to be a successful for-profit gallery, like any other, regardless of mental health. This is how we are trying to break down the stigma.

Landscapes by Jennifer Pepin | Courtesy of J. Pepin Gallery

What message do you hope your gallery visitors take home?

With the right care, having a mental illness does not have to prevent someone from leading a healthy, productive life. When someone says, ‘But this art is so good?’ in response to discovering the artist has a diagnosis, I hope they ask themselves why it is that they would feel that way… why would they be surprised by its quality? Hopefully then they’ll realize they shouldn’t have pre-judgements based on hearing the words mentally ill. It could be the VP of your company, your wonderful friendly neighbor, your parent, your sibling, your child. You cannot make assumptions about the appearance or life of someone with a mental illness.

What has been your favorite exhibit at your gallery thus far?

That is very difficult to select as there has been incredible art in the gallery over the last couple of years.
If I have to choose though, I would say our first anniversary exhibit in September of 2014. It was such a milestone, not just because any small business surviving their first year is special, but particularly because of the approach of focusing on ending the stigma of mental illness.

What can we expect to see from J. Pepin Art Gallery in future?

We have been asked about expanding our concept but at this time, and in the near future until the stigma dissipates, we will remain focused on mental illness. That being said, expansion will probably come in the form of going beyond Portland, Oregon. This may include incorporating artists from other states. I would also love to collaborate with other galleries across the world to take our exhibit on the road. In addition, the original concept was to incorporate all sorts of arts – music, writing, etc. So, I am also planning on more events at the gallery featuring those.

Is there an emerging Oregon artist who you’d like to share with The Culture Trip?

It has been wonderful to watch all of the artists develop and gain attention over the last couple of years. Most recently, Chris Foster‘s artwork has evolved to new heights and people in the art community have referred to his latest work as a breakthrough for him as an artist. He began painting with oils and then briefly experimented with encaustic before working with acrylic and mixed media for a while. His latest series brought him back to using oil and encaustic but this time he has used all he learned from working with other mediums. The work has great vibrancy, movement, depth, and texture. Our customers have been gravitating towards it and he is beginning to get noticed beyond our doors and state as well.

Outside Shot of Gallery | Courtesy of J. Pepin Gallery

Do you consider a country’s art galleries when you select your travel destinations? If you could take an artistic tour across one country in the world, where would you go?

Prior to opening the gallery, it wasn’t necessarily part of the selection. However, museums have always been incorporated into my travels since being a little child. A couple of years ago I was in Europe and made a stop in Paris especially to see the museums. I want to continue my journey through France some day. However, I have had my thoughts on traveling around Italy as well.

Where would you advise art lovers to go in Portland?

The Pearl District is home to many wonderful galleries and each one has their own personality and style, so you can see a variety of work. They are all within walking distance of each other and the first Thursday of every month, the galleries stay open late and host an art walk which is a lot of fun. The art scene is definitely spreading, and most recently an area named Slabtown is developing an art walk and the East Side of the River is also growing quickly and host a first Friday. And of course, there is also the Portland Art Museum which, in addition to its own wonderful collection, has some amazing exhibits coming through.

The best restaurant in Portland?

There are so many amazing restaurants to choose from and Portland’s culinary industry is growing rapidly so new wonderful places keep opening. I do often frequent Gallo Nero which is a small Italian restaurant next door to the gallery. They have delicious authentic homemade Italian dishes and their walls feature artwork by J. Pepin Art Gallery!
J. Pepin Gallery is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s Oregon Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.

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