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Art: Exhibition aims to erode stigma
Sunday, November 18, 2007
By Gail Philbin. The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- As an artist, Milt Klingensmith faced an unusual challenge while creating works for "Carried Within," an intensely autobiographical exhibit in Fountain Street Church's Keeler Gallery.

In making the 18 pieces in the show based on his struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder, he had to figure out how to depict a sense of all-consuming anxiety. Without being trite or maudlin, he had meaningfully to convey the twin tortures of obsession and compulsion that had shaped his life since he was a teenager.

The 37-year-old intimately knew these emotional states but never had tried to express them in imagery, despite making pictures for a living as a full-time Grand Rapids Press illustrator and working on comics and other art projects in his spare time.

"I had always avoided this theme in my personal work," said Klingensmith, a married father of two who lives in the Greenville area. "But for this show, I decided to try this, using art as therapy. I didn't know how it would work out, but I'm happy with what happened."

"Carried Within" features a series of paintings, black-and-white ink works, mixed-media and prints that represent Klingensmith's maiden visual voyage into the black hole of OCD, which he describes as "always at the surface, like a noise in the head."

Compulsive obsessions are persistent, repetitive thoughts that "create intense doubts about whether harm has happened or will happen to yourself or others," Klingensmith explains in his artist statement for the show. "And so, there is an intense desire to stop or be rid of these thoughts. The desire creates the compulsion to relieve the anxiety caused by constant and torturous doubt."

Numbers figure prominently in many of the pieces in this exhibit, because counting from one to eight is one of the compulsions Klingen- smith developed over the years to deal with the anxiety that came from horrific images and thoughts bombarding his brain.

One particularly poignant piece, titled "Sleep," shows a charcoal-colored head with bright yellow eyes like bull's-eye targets that has a creature-of-the-night feel. Across the forehead runs a jumble of numbers and underneath it is text that includes this sentence: "The last hour of the day was always the worst."

An added layer

Klingensmith approaches the works in "Carried Within" with the same illustrational style he uses for his newspaper designs, but he has added a metaphorical layer in his choice of imagery and color. There are a few portraits in the show, including one of a haunted-looking man, as well as more abstract pieces with recurring images -- numbers, stones and bottles -- that depict compulsions and anxiety.

The OCD theme surfaced in his work after all these years because of a confluence of events, starting with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to Klingensmith. At the time, he had obsessive-compulsive issues that were "manageable," but he was under considerable stress while building his new home, he said.

"And then the terrorist attacks happened, and my world view changed completely after seeing an airplane full of people used as a weapon," Klingensmith said. "My obsession took a turn for the worse, and the subject matter changed."

Klingensmith turned inward and began doing research on the Internet, desperately seeking information and tools to help himself out of his downward spiral. He located a support group at the Anxiety Resource Center in Grand Rapids. About the time he began to emerge from this bad period, the Fountain Street Church art committee asked him to do an exhibit in the Keeler Gallery.

The idea of obsessions and compulsions crept into the work Klingensmith started making for the show, and he decided "to let a few pieces be about that." The theme ended up dominating "Carried Within," and he's glad he let it do so.

"I hope the show helps erode some of that stigma (of OCD), so it's easier for people to tell someone about it and not be afraid that people will look at you differently if you do," he said.

If you go

When: Through Nov. 25
Where: Keeler Gallery, Fountain Street Church, 24 Fountain St. NE
Hours: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. today, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday (closed Thursday, Friday and Saturday for Thanksgiving holiday), 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 25
Admission: Free

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