AIR Interview – VersAnnette and Community on a Shelf

VersAnnette Blackman-Bosia is the founder/owner of Soul Revival Healing Arts. As an EveryLibrary 2019 Artist in Residence, her residency will feature a series of large canvasses called “Community on a Shelf” that explore themes of healing and reconciliation for communities and individuals through libraries.

VersAnnette Blackman-Bosia is the founder/owner of Soul Revival Healing Arts. As an EveryLibrary 2019 Artist in Residence, her residency will feature a series of large canvasses called “Community on a Shelf” that explore themes of healing and reconciliation for communities and individuals through libraries. She is an artist, author, advocate & facilitator. Known affectionately as ‘Verse’, her experience is a melting pot of intuitive healing, painting, writing poetry, public speaking, and helping others see creativity as a catalyst for ‘digging in’ to rediscover their own innate gifts. Her work will be on display at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library beginning Saturday, October 19th.

Laura Damon-Moore, one of our 2019 AIR Producers, sat down with Verse for a conversation about what inspired and focused her residency.

Laura – Please introduce yourself, and tell us what kind of creative work you do. 

Verse – I’m an Artist, Facilitator, Author and someone who very much believes in the infinite possibilities’ art has for healing and overall well-being. My creative practice is my spiritual practice. I paint for insight, to de-stress and regain perspective when life gets hard. I do sell my paintings, but also I offer them up as donations to nonprofits who serve those at-risk, and hang work in places where the expectation is a focus on serving the general public, or helping those in need. This includes but isn’t limited to: Domestic Violence shelters, Behavioral Health hospitals and Psychotherapy offices and of course, libraries.

Laura – Tell us about your relationship to libraries, in childhood, in your academic work, and now.

Verse – I’m a huge proponent of the library. Books have always been a part of my existence. At age 8, I read the World Book Encyclopedia and decided then that I would go to the University of Paris to study fashion!! I’m one of those people who can easily spend hours soaking up all that the library has to offer. When I first started my career as an Artist, I spent many hours looking up books to learn more about art history and contemporary technique. I think I’ve always viewed the Library as a place that has answers.

L – Tell us about your current project for your Every Library residency, “Community on a Shelf”.

V – As an artist-in-residence for Every Library, I wanted to investigate the library’s relationship with its patrons, beyond the books. How we serve folks in need says everything about what values drive our community. It’s great that the books are on the shelf, but what about the lives of the people described by the books? How are we listening for them?

For instance, take the DSM-5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. In the United States, the DSM serves as the principal authority for psychiatric diagnoses, various mental disorders, symptoms and treatment recommendations. This is a book that lives on the shelves of most libraries, but I’m not sure that the general public is aware.

As a painter, my job is to simply communicate in an abstract painting using visual language to describe what we might not see in a person diagnosed with mental illness. This project for me, serves as an intimate look into the lives of those living with disorders, and drawing from my own personal experiences.

L – Who makes up the “Community” in this project? And what is the “Shelf”?

The Community in this project are those living with mental illnesses, who may feel as though they have been forgotten, those who may be labeled as “challenged”, or “at-risk”, and especially those suffering from undiagnosed mental illnesses, who might have lost their way. The shelf is the space on the library shelves that house resource or reference books such as the DSM-5, or any book that educates, or de-stigmatizes mental illness.

Most people who have been diagnosed aren’t likely to walk into a library and read a book about it. So having these books on the shelf is half the battle. If we start to view these books as “community”, we are more likely to advocate for the people living with illnesses described in said books. Ultimately, I envision a world where all libraries prioritize this.

 L – Why was it important to you to prioritize a conversation about mental health and mental illness through an artist residency focusing on libraries?

V – I’m an avid reader, so when I was diagnosed as having Schizoaffective disorder I turned to books to learn more about it. Not very much luck, unfortunately. A library to me is one of the safest places you could go to get information on just about anything, but it made me wonder if the library even looks at Mental Health as one of the avenues where communities could really use their help. I also started thinking about the homeless populations, and those who might be incriminated for displaying behavior as “abnormal”. Would a librarian be able to identify someone who is anxious? In need of medication, a psychiatrist or even help finding work? What if the people in need knew they had access to social services like this at their local libraries?

L – As you’ve been working on this project, have you encountered anything that was surprising to you about libraries, and the people that use them or don’t use them?

V – My guiding question while working on this project has been, “what role does the library play in the epidemic of mental illness?” And it seemed to me, at first that the library is available, many people do not turn to the library for resources or safe space. I wondered what it might look like if there were support groups, counseling and/or continued and ongoing learning specifically around the topic. However, Oak Park Public Library gets this right. For three years now, they’ve had a program implemented by the social services team, led by Rob Simmons. What if every single library across the country took this approach?

L – From your perspective, what is something that public libraries can do to support people who have mental illnesses, both in terms of library users, and also in terms of supporting staff and colleagues? 

V – Be aware. Do your homework. Think outside the box. I believe a unique opportunity exists here. What if every library had a social worker or licensed therapist on staff? What if there were weekly meetings for people diagnosed with a Bipolar disorder or Major Depressive Disorder? What would that look like if the library became the mecca of resources, support and referrals? What if there were arts and meditation classes for those who struggle with anxiety?

I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift and prioritizing the needs of the community is a great place to start. This is a conversation I hope will continue over time.

“Community on a Shelf: Exploring the Human Side of Mental Illness” opened on October 19, 2019 and will run through mid-November at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library’s Main Library Lobby Community Engagement Space. Please visit the OPPL Facebook Page for more information.