In the center of the Art for Life exhibit at The Baltimore County Arts Guild in Arbutus is what looks like a crowded coffee table. The cube, aptly titled “The Coaster Project,” sits about knee-high off the floor and is covered in roughly 40 coasters and 20 drinking glasses.
In each glass is a portrait of somebody who died by suicide.
They are comments said to people after talking about a loved one who died by suicide or after their own suicide attempt, said Julia Andersen, a Catonsville art therapist who curates the exhibit and facilitates a support group focused on suicide and suicide attempts.
Andersen said the project, created for the first time in 2015, started as a casual conversation among clients about things people had said — in some cases, trying to be helpful — to those who had survived a suicide attempt or who had lost someone to suicide.
“So I said, ‘Make some art about it,’” Andersen said. “In [group] conversations, people will still say, ‘That would make a great coaster.’”
The coaster project, like others on display in the Art for Life exhibit, seeks a greater understanding of suicide and suicide loss, Andersen said. Each piece of art on display was created by someone who lost a loved one to suicide or by someone who attempted suicide. The artists come from around the region, not exclusively Baltimore County.
Andersen got her start with the group through a different organization, called The Rita Project. The Rita Project was a suicide support group that started in New York City before branching out to Baltimore and Los Angeles.
The Rita Project closed in 2014, but members of the group Andersen was working with wanted to continue meeting to create art in a therapeutic environment, giving birth to Art for Life.
Andersen continues to lead art therapy sessions twice a month at the Baltimore County Arts Guild. She also teaches at two area universities and works as a supervisor for the Sheppard Pratt Health System.
Painting, making collages or working on other projects serves at least a dual purpose, Andersen said. For one, it gives those who are grieving something to focus on and can act as a distraction or coping mechanism from “repeated thoughts that are always flooding their minds.”
It also works as a way for people to express their feelings or thoughts that can’t be articulated with words.
“If they want to say something, they can,” Andersen said. “You can’t always put words to, ‘It’s been two years since I lost my son to suicide.’”
She said it’s the stories of the survivors and the family members that keep her motivated to maintain her art therapy work.
“When you’re in the hospital, you see the aftereffects of someone’s [suicide] attempt; you want to prevent people ending up in the hospital,” Andersen said. “This group has prevented people ending up in the hospital.”
Sara Tagget, one of the participants in the Art for Life exhibit, has been practicing art therapy for about eight years.
About 30 pieces are on display in the gallery, including collages, paintings and altered books — a project where the artist marks up, draws on and otherwise manipulates a published book to create new meaning.
There’s also a framed portrait of an artist’s mother, who died by suicide. The frame is decorated with fragments of Ukrainian eggs that the artist and her mother created together.
Tagget lost her 21-year-old daughter, Katrina “Kara” Tagget, to suicide 10 years ago on Sept. 20.
Since then, Sara Tagget, her husband David Tagget and their son, Blake, founded the Katrina Tagget Memorial Foundation and helped start the Maryland Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Sara Tagget said she and her husband have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that have gone toward suicide prevention and crisis intervention centers.
In this year’s Art for Life exhibit, Sara Tagget arranged 31 handmade postcards in the shape of a heart. Each has a message. She titled the piece, “What I wish I had said to her before she died.”
This is the second year the Art for Life exhibit is being hosted at the arts guild. There is no formal agreement to keep the program returning, Andersen said, but the guild has been supportive and she hopes to continue it. Last year, the show was up for only a week, compared with most of the month this year.
Tagget said she continues to go to the art therapy sessions because they allow her to interpret her feelings, and then express them visually.
“Maybe I have an idea for a collage,” Sara Tagget said. “But before you know it, your brain, your heart takes a turn. Stuff comes out that you don’t even realize is deep in your soul.”
She also goes to connect with others. Some of the suicide attempt survivors in the group are around the age her daughter was or would be today, Tagget said.
“I have really learned about my daughter’s mental health struggles through them,” she said. “I view these young women as I would a daughter.”
Trisha Chanson, executive director of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, estimated the organization has about 170 members. The guild puts on shows that last anywhere from a few weeks to two-and-a-half months throughout the year.
In addition to hosting shows at its gallery, some members of the guild participate in an Art on Tour program in which artists display exhibits around the county, including at the Arbutus Public Library and Bread and Circuses restaurant in Towson.
The Art for Life exhibit is on display until Sept. 29. The Baltimore County Arts Guild gallery, located at 1101 Maiden Choice Lane, is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m., and Saturdays by appointment.