A local artist’s portraits of local people combatting mental illnesses are hanging in City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium for the month.

Self-taught Gloucester artist Amy Kerr knows firsthand the effects and the stigma of depression.

She says her first bout with depression “broke my brain, changed my brain chemistry.”

When Kerr once again found herself in one of those “lightless regions,” she decided to do something about it. That something became “I Am More,” a series of portraits that she describes as her “life rafts.”

It also became the beginning of the end of that depression for Kerr. In the words “I Am More,” she says she found the strength to plant the seeds of her own recovery.

Kerr turned her talents to people like herself, people who were more than their depression.

Once she put the word out that she was looking for collaborators for what she called her “recovery portraits,” she says it was like, “build it and they’ll come.”

In many cases, the people who came were people you might least expect — including Gloucester’s ever-ebullient, ever-smiling mayor, Sefatia Romeo Theken — who, along with 14 others, volunteered to share the dark side of lives that, from the outside, looked trouble-free.

“The ‘I Am More’ exhibit at City Hall originally came out of the portrait collaboration with the mayor,” says Kerr. After going through the drawing and writing process, she approved the idea of displaying the portraits in Kyrouz Auditorium for a month. With the help of Jeanine Harris, the head clerk of Facilities, and the generosity of Jason Grow, who provided his display panels, the exhibit has finally taken shape.”

Each of Kerr’s portraits is accompanied by an essay by the subject.

The mayor candidly identified herself as a wife of a spouse who killed himself and mother of a recovering addict, and confessed that her greatest fear was losing a child or grandchild.

“My dream,” Romeo Theken writes, “is to be able to finally sleep without the worry that I will get a phone call during the night, (telling me) my child is gone.”

Someone who actually did get such a call — director Henry-Cameron Allen, founder of North Shore Folklore Theater — is another of Kerr’s subjects. Allen lost his 11-year-old son, Cameron, to brain cancer. He shares how he has chosen to live without his son by living for his son.

“Everything I do, I do for him,” says Allen, who departed Gloucester for new theatrical pastures in Gloucestershire, England, in June

With funding from an anonymous patron “who believed in what I was doing,” Kerr completed 15 portraits. She no longer cares that she was not inundated by commissions. She says her portraits have created a self-supporting community of kindred spirits here on Cape Ann.

Now Kerr is widening that circle with 20 new portraits, several already completed, starting with “Ryan,” an Iraqi veteran.

She depicts Ryan in his favorite habitat — the woods, where he finds the peace and light that helped heal his post-traumatic stress disorder.

She, meanwhile, continues to find her own healing place with each portrait.

Kerr’s pastel and colored pencil portraits are on display at City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium through Aug. 30 during business hours. More information about Kerr and her work is available at www.amykerrdrawsportraits.wordpress.com.

Joann MacKenzie may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or jomackenzie@gloucestertimes.com.

If you go

What and who: “I Am More,” an exhibition of portraits by Amy Kerr of local people combatting mental illnesses, each accompanied by an essay by the subject.

Where: Kyrouz Auditorium, City Hall, 9 Dale Ave.

When: Thursday through Aug. 30 during business hours.

How much: Free

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