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Artist uses exhibits to bring attention to social causes

By Kineen Dillard

Point Park News Service

Jill Larson used her love of art to teach adults with mental instability how to create wood sculptures and wire work animals. With that experience and more she now addresses the growing bullying epidemic through conscious art pieces in the “Mean Girls” exhibit.

For several years, Larson used her love of art to confront societal stigmas and give voice to the underprivileged and disenfranchised through unique exhibits.

“I always been interested in populations and groups that don’t have as much of an opportunity to have a voice,” Larson said during her interview at the Coffee Tree Roasters.

Originally from Warren, Pa., Larson found her interest in art while she was in middle school. Her love for art grew more once she took a trip to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh at 18 years old. Larson attended Georgia State University and graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts. With a background in photography, Larson started teaching photography and art after high school.  Larson started curating a few events in 1997.

Before her move to Pittsburgh, Larson stayed in Atlanta. She worked in a psychiatric hospital for children for five years. Artist and longtime friend with Larson, Barbara Schreiber, remembers when Larson did a project with those kids that she described as remarkable.

“They couldn’t have their faces revealed to the public so she would do these projects where they essentially do self-portraits without their faces,” Schreiber said in a phone interview. “They would photograph stuff that represented them and she would occasionally do exhibitions of that work.”

Once she made the move to Pittsburgh in 2002, she started curating events on a regular basis. Today, Larson has curated over 60 events such as the show, “Four Years Later,” a show based on four years after September 11, and the show “Extraction” where all the art in the show had removable pieces. She also found a non-profit gallery in Lawrenceville, Fe Gallery in 2003.

Like “Four Years Later” and “Extraction,” “The Sky’s The Limit” was one of the many shows put together at the gallery. The exhibit, partnered with MHMR (Mental Health and Mental Retardation), was put together by mentally challenged adults. Larson had four local artists work with the adults every week to help them create their pieces.

“I have a very soft spot [for] individuals with those kinds of special needs,” Larson said

Larson also put together a show entitled Self-Inflicted, addressing the topic of suicide after an artist, who had an art studio near Larson’s while she lived in Atlanta, committed suicide. A symposium was set up for people to share their personal stories and also raise awareness on how to notice the signs and potentially stop it.

“There were two moms who lost their children and they sat on the panel – to hear these mothers talk about their personal lost was very moving ,and they were very brave,” Larson said.

As hard as a topic like that is to discuss, Larson believes it needs to addressed. She said if there’s more conversation about it, hopefully there will be less of it.

Sometimes Larson gets her inspiration by word of mouth. She recalls a conversation she had with her landlord when he was telling her about a tenant who rented out his space for a year. Larson got the title for her next event “Sight Unseen’ after hearing her landlord say that about the tenant he had not met.

From there, Larson put together a community based exhibit with partnered organizations like The Society for The Visually Impaired. The indentations and all texts on the wall at the show were brailed.

“All the work in the exhibit was made to be touched,” Larson said.

For people who could see, they had the option of being blindfolded so they could experience the exhibit with no sight.

Larson also was inspired from her past show “Boys Will Be Boys” that explored the stereotype of how boys should act the same way. One portrait that Larson mentioned was a photo of a young boy and a man standing side by side crying.

Larson’s two sons always help her find inspiration. While talking about her sons, Larson’s face lights up with joy. She commented on how she lucked out to have such two great kids. She enjoys seeing her youngest son get into art.

“It’s really fun to see him making his drawings and creating art, and the way he sees the world. It’s fun to be with him because he’s so in tuned to the visual world,” she said.

Along with Larson’s personal experience with bullying, she kept the bullying situations her sons encountered to help her create the idea for her latest exhibit, “Mean Girls.” The show also included work from Schreiber. The show shed light on the bully epidemic ranging from paintings, interactive pieces and even statues that allow people to write messages on them.

Courtney Bassett, a viewer at the “Mean Girls” exhibit, was not finished seeing all the work, but already greatly admired the two pieces by New York artist, Traci Molloy. The two composite pieces were of young boys and girls who committed suicide. Bassett wants more exhibits like this.

“This insights dialog between people,” Bassett said.

The exhibit also got her to think about her own experiences with bullying, and before she left, she made sure to leave a message on one of the statues.

“What I like about Jill’s esthetic is that she has these deep beliefs and social commitments. Jill always looks for work that has a message, but it also has a mystery to it, and it’s not preachy,” Schreiber said.

“Mean Girls” is Larson’s favorite project, and right now, she is focusing on making it traveling exhibit.

“Jill is a very hard working curator and just a very hard working individual,” Molloy said in a phone interview.

Molloy also likes how Larson is able to bring a group of artists together that necessarily would not be otherwise because of location.

People can expect to see replicas of the statues in the exhibit with written messages in front of the Art Institute at the end of April. Soon they will be on various college campuses around town, getting a lot more people to share their bullying experiences.

“We’re still working on Point Park,” Larson jokingly said.

Larson also curates the standard art gallery shows, but says the shows such as “Mean Girls” are where her heart is. She enjoys bringing awareness to social causes and situations through art.

“I think it helps to bring a new audience to the art gallery, and it also helps to bring social cause to a larger audience in a more quieter way,” she said.

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