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Bree Barton: Naming the Unnameable

By encouraging 10 young artists to share their unique mental health journeys through art, Bree Barton (left in photo) is helping the Ithaca community hear the voices of those who often go ignored and feel less alone.

Bree Barton is the author of several young adult novels published in seven countries and four languages. Bree teaches dance and writing and loves connecting with readers of all ages. Zia Erases the World is her middle grade debut.

Barton received our Strategic Opportunity Stipend grant for her project Naming the Unnamable: Youth Stories of Resilience and Survival that was shown in the CAP ArtSpace in January of 2023.

Through an open invitation, she found young artists who have struggled or are currently struggling with homelessness, political migration, violence, racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Using artistic forms from film to writing, these artists created works for the larger exhibit which would focus on the personal fallout of these often too-abstract-to-identify-with themes.

Today, the news makes many feel desensitized to the sorts of stories Naming the Unnamable addresses. When asked how we can overcome this desensitization, Barton said,

“For me, the answer is always about empathy and connection. If I'm at home scrolling through my daily feed of heartbreak, I feel hopeless. But if I'm out in the world connecting with live human beings, hearing their stories in their own voices—told with wisdom and vulnerability and truth—it gives me hope. That's what I felt, working with these ten young artists. Hope. They reminded me that stories have raw power, and the more we can give marginalized youth (and disenfranchised people more generally) space to tell those stories, the more we wake up. Action begins with awareness. Stories are so much more effective than statistics at catalyzing change.” 

Reflecting on the artists she worked with, Bree noted,

“I'd love to be in their lives for a long time—to see them take the world by storm. My priority with this project was to make each participant feel 100 percent safe and supported; I checked in with them often to make sure they felt that way. It's a big ask, to bring in ten artists between the ages of 11 and 23 and say, ‘Hey! Talk about your mental health journeys, your most vulnerable personal stories—and do it in a public forum!’ I felt very protective of them every step of the way. My sense was that the opposite happened: they felt seen and heard. My dream was that it would be a validating, uplifting, hopeful experience—and from what they've shared with me, it seems like it was.”

Art like Barton’s continues to foster these sort of connecting experiences in Ithaca and grows not only awareness for our community’s marginalized, but a hopeful ambition to make systemic changes.  

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