“Mood Ring” Brings Up All the Feelings

Brittany Natale’s disrupting the “I’m Fine” culture with an art series that focuses on mental illness.

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Work by photographer Bianca Valle

Societal norms teach us from a young age to value physical health over mental health, to bottle up our pain because it’s not pretty. New York-based artist Brittany Natale hopes to change all that by shedding the taboo around mental illness through honest and impactful art programming. She kicked off her new art exhibition series last Friday at Wayfarers in Brooklyn, showcasing work from different artists who touch on the many layers and manifestations of mental health—a kind of catharsis that seems more crucial than ever right now. We caught up with Brittany to find out what inspires her, how she responds to the stigma of mental illness, and why creating a space for empowerment is SO important.

Tell me about Mood Ring! How did the idea for it come about?
Ever since the age of 15, and probably even before then, I’ve lived with anxiety. It wasn’t until junior year of high school that I began to talk openly about it, and that’s when I realized that other people had similar experiences with mental illness and mental health. It was during that moment of connection that I felt some of the pressures of being “100%, 100% of the time” were lifted. From then on, I had this constant thought of how wonderful it would be to have a creative space where people could come, connect, and share their experiences with mental illness; a place where you didn’t have to hide any of your experiences with it. When I was diagnosed with PTSD last April, I started taking concrete steps toward make this a reality.

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Work by artist Grace Miceli

With eight different artists showing their work, including yourself, and seven more shows in the works, you must be curating like crazy. How do you find all of your artists?
I’m always on the lookout for new artists that I may not be familiar with, and always keep my eyes and ears open. For instance, I came across Bianca Valle through her work with Refinery 29, Cali Sales from her illustrations for The Deep End Club, and Rosaline Shahnavaz via a mutual friend.

You put on another amazing female-oriented exhibition earlier this year called Teen Dream. What makes Mood Ring distinct?
Yes! Teen Dream is a series of arts programming whose purpose is to open up the dialogue on many issues female-identifying individuals ages 13-22 may face–anything from the gender wage gap, to the stigmatization of the period, to rape culture, and beyond. Mood Ring is another issue-focused art series that explores mental health and mental illness through artists’ and artists’ subjects’ personal stories, but it’s a bit different in that it is slated to include young creatives of all ages, and not just those who are female-identifying. As someone who experiences mental illness first-hand, I understand how nuanced mental illness and mental health is, and I want to make sure I am able to include as many people’s stories and experiences as I can.

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Bottom: work by Brittany Natale

What are the biggest stigmas surrounding mental illness in your opinion?
Some people may think that because you sometimes feel more, you live less. So many times throughout my life, people have asked me if I would be able to do something based on the preconceived notion that because I get anxious sometimes, I would not be able to get anything done at all. I always respond with, “I’m going to try and do it, just with a bit more feeling.” I feel like there’s also a stigma that people living with mental illness are unifaceted; that the illness completely, wholly makes up their whole being, which I don’t think is true. So many people with mental illness create beautiful things, travel, have fulfilling interpersonal relationships, have the ability to inspire, and so much more. I think a lot of people forget that many of their favorite creatives have first-hand experiences with mental illness.

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Artist Cali Sales

You grew up surrounded by artists and entrenched in creative culture. How did this compel you to become an artist and curator with a focus on empowerment?
At a very young age I became acutely aware of the adversities and trials that many people face in their life–whether they were happening to me directly, or to those closest to me. Art, in all forms, has always been a way for me to express myself and to address issues that may be difficult to open up about. I still use that as a foundation for the shows I put together, as well as in my everyday life. I try to transmute these painful experiences into artful activism and awareness.

You’ve said that we live in an “I’m fine” culture, where people are often afraid to share their pain with others. How does Mood Ring act as an antidote to this problem?
Mood Ring is like an onion, with so many layers and purposes. I hope it opens up a dialogue on mental illness, educates those who may not be too familiar with mental illness, and explains to others how many impactful, inspirational creatives also have experiences with mental illness, all while offering a space for all to come connect, support, and understand each other a bit more.

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Work by photographer Bianca Valle

What can people who may not be able to directly relate to these issues do to promote a more open and supportive culture?
Listen and educate themselves, because it’s through listening, educating, and understanding that supportive, compassionate environments can be developed and nurtured, and the universe knows we need that right now.

How do you respond to negativity or insensitivity toward mental illness?
By educating those who may not fully understand the scope of mental illness, and by also creating and cultivating compassionate support systems. I know one of the common responses from people who may not have mental illness to those who do is, “Just calm down, just stop doing that to yourself.” I think it’s important for these people to be reminded that it isn’t that simple.

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Work by artist Kitty Nalgas

Besides the artists you work with, where do you turn for inspiration, education, motivation?
I’m a native New Yorker and still live in the city. One of my favorite things to do is explore the city by foot. You come across so many inspiring, amazing people and places. Walking along Madison Avenue by Central Park, spending time in the Bowery, reading Rilke or Salinger by the East River, visiting Mott Street in Chinatown, seeing the construction workers, the parents bringing their children to school, the business people commuting—it all keeps me inspired. For motivation, I also try to mentally revisit my childhood as much as I can. I am a child of divorce, the daughter of an artist and a drug addict, a girl who was cared for by her grandmother and aunt. I had a very unconventional upbringing and was ultimately raised by the city. I try to draw from these experiences as much as I can to remind myself of where I came from, and where I am looking to go.

What are your hopes for the future of Mood Ring?
To keep developing more programming, to bring it to spaces all over, and to keep reaching more people.

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Artist and curator Brittany Natale

Artists featured: Bianca ValleGrace Miceli, Kitty Nalgas, Samera Paz, Cali Sales, Rosaline Shahnavaz, Brittany Natale

Photos by Allison Putnam