Two years ago, the realization that she was more than her depression inspired Gloucester artist and writer Amy Kerr to draw a series of pastel portraits and pair them with stories about overcoming life's challenges.

The initial series of 16 portraits from around Cape Ann was the progenitor for a new exhibition called "I Am More: Massachusetts," which is now on display at the Northshore Mall in Peabody.

Each of the new 20 photo-realistic portraits comes with a story of a Massachusetts resident in their own or their family's words about their struggles with mental illness, disease or other situations that overshadow their life.

There are deeply personal stories of struggles with brain cancer, poverty, suicide, anxiety, depression, bullying, drug addiction and recovery, post-traumatic stress disorder, surviving the Holocaust, and postpartum depression, among others.

"I want to remind people that we are all more than whatever we are dealing with," said the 48-year-old Kerr. 

The portraits' subjects hail from all over Massachusetts, including Gloucester, Wenham, Peabody, Lawrence and Newburyport.

On Monday morning, Kerr, a native of the southern Vermont town of Bennington, her husband, Iain, their 19-year-old daughter, Dylan, and Chris Sadkowski of Beverly, were busy setting up the exhibit inside the mall in the space adjacent to Macy's.

This exhibit is the third of five regional exhibits across Massachusetts, after it was unveiled at the Worcester PopUp creative event space in October.

"It started out with me dealing with my own depression," Kerr said. "And, the phrase in a really low moment, 'I am more than this,' just came to me. And within that day, I had this exhibit planned. It just all kind of fell into place."

In January 2017, Kerr started asking friends if they would pose and share their stories.

This grew into the 16 original portraits of the Cape Ann series, which opened in June 2018. The exhibit proved to be helpful to others, so Kerr decided to extend it to the rest of the state. But, it also meant she had to find strangers who might be willing to open up to her and have their faces be displayed in a public art exhibition.

"Working with friends was one thing, but trying to convince people who don't know me to do this and to trust me was a process," said Kerr, who worked with therapists and nonprofits to help her find subjects. 

The subjects selected the setting for their portraits, so Kerr never knew where she would end up. She would not know the content of the essays until she finished with the paintings. 

The subject matter grew to topics such as cancer recovery, opioid addiction and postpartum depression. 

Jessica and Mila

One of the portraits featured in the exhibit is called "Jessica and Mila" from 2018.

Jessica Pavao, 35, is a 2003 graduate of Peabody High who now lives in North Reading with her husband, Michael, and their baby daughter, Mila, now 2. 

Her portrait shows a smiling Pavao with her cherubic baby in what appears to be an idyllic snapshot of motherhood. The portrait belies Pavao's struggle with postpartum depression shortly after her daughter was born.

Pavao was excited to be a mother with her then fiance, and they both wanted to start a family right away.

However, when Mila was born, she was "a little stunned," and was taken to a special care unit shortly after, and mother and daughter wound up separated in the hospital.

A week after coming home to Mike's parent's two-family home in Somerville, Pavao began to feel somewhat disconnected from her daughter, an indication to her something was wrong. The feeling became "progressively worse."

"I was holding her and she just didn't feel like mine," Pavao said. She was overcome with feelings of inadequacy.

"She was so innocent — why did she have the unfortunateness of ending up with me as a mother," Pavao recalled. As someone who works in consulting, she relied on her skills in scheduling to make sure Mila was being fed and was taking naps on time.

Mila's pediatrician saw the signs and set up Pavao with an in-house therapist, then Pavao turned to her midwife, Mary Collari, who works at North Shore Physicians Group, for counseling and a start on medication. In a few weeks, things got better. The mother and baby daughter have long since bonded.

Through a connection via Salem Hospital to Pavao's mother, Pavao was connected with Kerr, who was looking for someone who had dealt with postpartum depression. Pavao has, since the exhibition was first shown, heard from other women, including her mother, who went through something called "baby blues" over three decades ago.

"You are not alone," Pavao said, "so many women before you, so many women after you." She advised new moms who may be feeling like she did to seek help for a condition that is treatable. Pavao is now pregnant with the couple's second child.

Gallery show at the mall

Kerr received help in getting the exhibit displayed at the mall from Salem Congressman Seth Moulton's office and promotional efforts from Sadkowski, who is on the board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater North Shore.

Sadkowski said his group is promoting Kerr's exhibit, and has helped find venues for it such as at the Danvers Art Association last February.

"It shows people in recovery," Sadkowski said. "It shows resilience. It shows ... how there is hope ... it's really success stories and that's so helpful."

Lauren Dalis, the area director of marketing for the Northshore Mall, said the mall has had a few pieces of art over the years, but through its connection with Creative Collective of Salem, it has had more opportunities for local artists to display their work at the mall, including a custom mural by Rockport artists Rusty and Ingrid Kinnunen of Rusty + Ingrid Creative Company, who have shops in Rockport and Salem.

Kerr's exhibit is a first for the mall in that it is gallery style and open for public view, Dalis said.

How did the exhibit come to the mall? Dalis said that at the same time Kerr reached out to her, Moulton's office reached out to the mall manager, Mark Whiting, about hosting the exhibit at the mall. Creative Collective also mentioned it that same week.

"The subject matter is important, and it might not otherwise reach many of the individuals who will come in contact with it here at Northshore Mall. Amy's striking portraits and the accompanying essays of the subjects provide a strong message to guests," Dalis said.

The exhibit includes a list and pamphlets from different local mental health resources and crisis hotlines.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

If you go

What: "I Am More: Massachusetts," a public art and writing project focused on Bay State residents overcoming challenges.

Artist: Amy Kerr of Gloucester

Opening Reception: Friday, Jan. 3, 7 to 9 p.m.; Exhibit runs from Dec. 31, 2019, through Jan. 30, 2020.

Where: The Northshore Mall, 210 Andover St,, Peabody, in front of Macy’s, Upper Level

For those seeking mental health support: NAMI Family & Friends and Peer Support groups are held on the last Wednesday of the month, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Salem Hospital, 81 Highland Ave., Salem (in Davenport Room 102A and 101). Visit www.namigreaternorthshore.org for more information.

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