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Spotlight: Inspiring client story

Dec 16, 2022

Dave was living in Duluth when his unaddressed mental illness turned into a crisis. Dave was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 16 years old after a car accident caused a brain injury, and he has experienced bouts of anxiety and depression ever since. But when he became suicidal, he ended up in a hospital, which then transferred him to Huss Center, one of People Incorporated’s Intensive Residential Treatment Services facilities.

“One of my Huss Center counselors and I had a lot of conversations about mindfulness and thinking about life as a spectrum. If you’re only thinking in black and white, or positive and negative, you miss everything in between,” said Dave. “Another counselor sat us down for a group activity where we watched a movie about Banksy. Those two things, in particular, slowly started a spark. I thought, maybe I can think about making art for fun.” 

Though Dave studied visual arts and fine arts in college, he had given up on the idea of becoming an artist due to burnout from his graphic design and marketing career paired with increasingly severe epileptic seizures. Even after he left Huss Center, he continued to experience mental health crises, leading him to spend time in both Diane Ahrens Residence, one of our Residential Crisis Stabilization facilities, and then Northside Residence, one of our longer-term treatment centers. He continued talking with counselors at these facilities about his growing interest in making art for himself, and they encouraged him to try it.

“In really dark winter times, I’d sit making art and wondering, what do I do? Then I’d think about my Huss Center counselor, pause, breathe, and remember what he said about mindfulness,” said Dave. “That even though this is where I’m at now, I won’t always be here. There are a lot of other places mentally that I will be. I still talk to my current therapist about mindfulness every day.” 

Today, Dave can confidently call himself an artist. A few of his paintings were featured in this year’s Artability Art Show & Sale. Apart from his artistry and working at the Walker Art Center, he is also the founder and director of The Open Doors Project, an organization dedicated to equal access to the arts for people with disabilities. Through this project, he organizes field trips for artists to gather and create art together in a supportive community. He expanded his gifts to the larger community by getting involved with the MN Access Alliance (MNAA) and joining its Board of Directors. Then, in 2021, he was awarded a McKnight Foundation/Metropolitan Regional Arts Council grant to expand arts accessibility through his organization. 

The advice and encouragement he received in People Incorporated’s facilities completely changed the course of his professional life and his dedication to art as a vocation – most importantly, it gave him the tools he needed to maintain and regulate his mental health. 

“When I’m holding a brush and making a stroke, I can’t do it when I’m nervous or anxious,” said Dave. “It helps me focus on breathing at the most basic level. And that’s something I learned from Huss Center. Focus on the inhale and the exhale. It helps slow my brush down. The art and the breathing come together.” 

He is already extending the support he received to those involved in his art. As a Black artist living with a disability, not only is accessibility important to Dave, but representation is, too. Since many of his paintings feature models, he intentionally seeks out underrepresented body types to work with – individuals of all shapes, sizes, abilities, genders, and racial identities. The next model he’s working with, he said, is a burlesque model in a wheelchair who has cancer and is, therefore, bald. 

“I follow up with the models afterward to see how they felt,” said Dave. “One said, ‘I felt like a celebrity.’ That’s been very rewarding, and it helps me because it changes from making art for myself to doing it in a way that helps other people. My goal is to challenge people’s narrative of bodies.” 

Dave is just one example of how People Incorporated addresses the whole complex personhood of each client. Our 20 programs span numerous facets of human need, and our breadth allows us the unique ability to make cross-organization referrals and direct an individual to exactly the right care needed. Just as Dave’s life was touched by Huss Center, Diane Ahrens Residence, Northside Residence, and now Artability, so many of our clients attribute multiple of our programs to their healing journey. 

“When the carpet came flying out from underneath me, People Incorporated saved me,” Dave said. 

The mission of People Incorporated is in the name. We ensure that individuals find the resources they need to maintain their mental health so that they can incorporate themselves back into the community. Dave’s talents are so needed and valued in the Twin Cities’ local arts community today. The work done here at People Incorporated continually creates even more stories like his.