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Public art exhibit 'I Am More' depicts how people are more than their challenges

Outside of Macy's department store on the lower level of the mall in Holyoke, Massachusetts, several temporary walls are set up to display portraits of people of different ages.

The exhibit is called "I Am More." Over the next few months, it will travel around the state. It's not going to galleries or museums, but to malls — prime locations with regular foot traffic. The exhibit will be in Holyoke until March 12.

The idea came about in early 2017, when artist Amy Kerr was depressed and at one of the lowest points in her life.

"I still deal with depression. I have for many years," Kerr said.

Kerr, who lives in Gloucester, had just publicly written about her depression for the first time, on her blog.

Almost as an afterthought, Kerr knew she wanted her followers, friends and family to know her chronic depression is just a small part of who she is. She's also an artist. A mother. A wife.

“So the thought 'I am more than this' popped into my head," Kerr said. "I started thinking about other people and I wondered if other people dealing with mental illness or other challenges also feel the same way.”

An ongoing project

Kerr started finding people to draw, first in Gloucester, one drawing at a time. Now it's an ongoing series, with more than 20 portraits of people from around the state.

Kerr draws from photos of her subjects that she takes at the location of their choice. She asks her subjects to write about who who they are — beyond a diagnosis or a situation.

Their words, hung next to their portraits, touch upon the many tough challenges people may face in life, such as spinal cord injuries, brain cancer and suicide.

"Some really difficult topics that we don't often talk about in spaces like this," she said.

Ryan Longtin of Agawam, Massachusetts, is a combat veteran with PTSD, depression and alcoholism. He is one of more than 20 subjects featured in "I Am More."
Amy Kerr
Ryan Longtin of Agawam, Massachusetts, is a combat veteran with PTSD, depression and alcoholism. He is one of more than 20 subjects featured in "I Am More."

Several of Kerr's portrait subjects are from western Massachusetts. Ryan Longtin of Agawam was drawn outside, surrounded by trees, looking off in the distance. There's snow on the ground. He's in a T-shirt and his tattoos are visible.

In his essay, Longtin wrote, "I knew at a young age I wanted to be a hero like my uncle Donald, the city firefighter. After high school graduation in 1999 I was off to San Antonio, Texas, for boot camp. Next came an 18-week firefighter academy and I was living my dream."

Then 9/11 happened. Longtin went off to Iraq. He writes in his essay that he is more than a U.S. combat veteran with PTSD and depression who suffers from alcoholism. He’s a father. His little girl has his sense of humor.

Finding subjects, asking everyone

It was a pharmacist at the Veterans Administration who connected Kerr to Longtin. Kerr calls around to hospitals and treatment centers to find people willing to tell their story. She also asks people she knows and Kerr said the people she draws have other suggestions.

"One of the subjects suggested the topic of disability, because I hadn't covered it before," Kerr said.

That's how Kerr came to meet Joe Tringali of Amherst. His portrait has a plush, dark background. He is sitting in his motorized wheelchair.

When Tringali was a teenager, he suffered a spinal cord injury. Now he works at an organization that connects people with disabilities to jobs, housing and assistance.

Joe Tringali of Amherst, Massachusetts, who has been in a wheelchair since he was a teenager, is one of more than 20 subjects featured in "I Am More."
Amy Kerr
Joe Tringali of Amherst, Massachusetts, who has been in a wheelchair since he was a teenager, is one of more than 20 subjects featured in "I Am More."

In an interview, Tringali said he doesn't think he'll be able to get to the mall to see the full show, but he did see his own portrait.

"It makes me look like a hitman," Tringali joked, and said that could be good or bad, depending who's looking.

He's not as much interested in the portrait as in getting out the message that people who use wheelchairs are more than their disabilities.

"We're a population that is invisible," he said. "When I go out to eat with a friend it's not unusual for the waitress to ask the person I'm with, 'What does he want to eat?'"

Tringali's essay begins, "I am the son of an immigrant fisherman. I am a dad, a brother and fortunate enough to be loved by others."

He also writes that he is the kid who "dove into a swimming pool and never walked away. I was drafted into a disability rights fight I did not start, but I'm compelled to join."

Kerr also has a self-portrait in the show. In it, she’s sitting on the floor between two pieces of her own art.

Why in a mall?

On this day, Valentine's Day, the traffic going in and out of Macy's was steady. The exhibit was within sight of the perfume counters, crowded by customers.

A woman walking by shouted that one of the portraits "looks like Martha Stewart."

She came closer and said the portrait also looks like someone she knows named Sandy, who works in the lingerie department at Macy's.

"The blonde — she's got hair just like that," the woman said.

The woman in the portrait is named Donna. She lives in Leverett and writes about surviving incest. She has a blond bob and brilliant blue eyes.

Kerr suggested the Sandy from Macy's should come see the exhibit, but she doesn’t make a hard sell and the woman left without looking around.

"She'll probably be back," Kerr said. "I think [the images] hit them when they're ready."

The idea of setting up "I Am More" outside a store is that people walking by might be drawn into the exhibit by the many faces they see.

Though Kerr said she really doesn't like being in the public eye, she said she has a responsibility to make sure these images and essays get noticed.

"So I have to get way out of my comfort zone to make that happen for them," Kerr said.

People ask Kerr if working on the exhibit brings her down. It never does, she said. And when she is struggling with her depression, she opens up a photo album and looks at all the portraits and thinks, “We are more.”

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."