Jenna Knapp: Founder of The Yellow Wallpaper Project
Today is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month and to close it out I interviewed my friend Jenna Knapp. Jenna was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression a couple of years ago, but she's not letting it hold her back. Jenna is an award winning artist and has multiple ongoing projects inspired by defeating the mental illness stigma, including The Self Care Studio, an Etsy and passion project filled with gear and illustrations promoting self care. Jenna has been open and inspiring to me, and agreed to share her story with Pink Things. We talked about her new venture, The Yellow Wallpaper Project, defying norms in the gallery world, and how she preserves herself through love and care.
Trigger Warning: There is mention of suicide and discussions of mental health.
Sarah Sickles for Pink Things: Tell me about yourself!
Jenna Knapp: Hello! My name is Jenna and I am an artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost two years ago – the same summer that my Aunt Anne committed suicide. Her death sent me into a severe depression that led to my own suicide ideation, which led to a psychiatric hospital, which led to antidepressants and sleeping medication, which led to an onset of mania, which led to my diagnosis.
Pink Things: How did your life change after your diagnosis?
Jenna Knapp: The summer Anne died was terrible – like actually terrible. After falling into my severe depression and spending six weeks in inpatient and partial hospitalization, I returned to my outpatient therapist. During my first appointment she could *see* the warning signs of mania – rapid speech, big plans, little sleep, grandiose thinking, creative buzz, decreased appetite – while I thought that I was getting better.
As I learned more about bipolar disorder, I realized that I actually went through stages of hypomania many times in my life. This included over-committing, over-scheduling, not sleeping, not eating, and a constant stream of racing thoughts. That was my norm for years and I never felt like anything was ‘wrong’. I thrived on sixteen-hour days at the studio and I loved it. Why would I think I was ill?
As my diagnosis continues to sink in and I am finding the right medications for me, I feel like I have a handle on something that has always been there. It has been a big adjustment – compromising the part of myself that makes me who I am – but I am moving slower and sleeping more and eating better and taking care of myself so I don’t burn out like I used to.
Pink Things: So, what is the Yellow Wallpaper Project?
Jenna Knapp: The Yellow Wallpaper Project is a brand new domestic art space in my attic that is going to have monthly programming surrounding topics of women’s mental health.
Pink Things: Why did you start the Yellow Wallpaper Project? What inspired it?
Jenna Knapp: The Yellow Wallpaper Project is inspired by the 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins. One of the important early works of American feminist literature, The Yellow Wallpaper is an unnamed woman’s collection of journal entries after being diagnosed with temporary nervous depression by her husband, a physician. Restricted to an attic space where she is instructed to not overwork, the reader follows her descent into psychosis as a result of under-stimulation. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed with the pattern of the attic’s wallpaper and begins to believe there are women moving underneath its surface.
At the time the short story was written, temporary nervous depression was a common diagnosis for women. Women were sent to asylums as an alternative to divorce in the mid to late 1800’s. If the women were mentally stable upon admission, the depravation and isolation often led to the deterioration of their sanity, reinforcing the male dominant society's beliefs.
The Yellow Wallpaper Project is a domestic art space located in a neighborhood attic that invites women artists to interpret the original text loosely or literally by comparing it to the current intersections between women and mental health in 2017. This project challenges both the stigma against mental health and the norm of white-box galleries showing predominately White men. The Yellow Wallpaper Project encourages the production of personal work and is excited to hold space for conversations surrounding mental health.
Pink Things: I know that this project is very personal for you. You’ve been very open about the struggles you have faced as a woman with depression and bipolar disorder and a family history of mental illness. Can you tell me about how these experiences have influenced the project and your understanding of The Yellow Wallpaper?
Jenna Knapp: I have been researching the ways mental health has been treated over the course of history since my own hospitalization in a psychiatric unit. There are so many stigmas surrounding hospitalization and now I understand why. Media and movies and books have hammered into us that people ‘go mad’ and are ‘crazy’, as if there is no returning once you’ve struggled with mental health. I mean, they used to call psychiatric hospitals ‘lunatic asylums’.
That’s why the original text became important to me again this past year. I want to provide a platform for female artists (because we are in a male dominated art world) to respond to the topic of mental health in an art-space. The goal is to normalize conversation around mental health and create an archive of various ways that can be interpreted, celebrated, and challenged.
Pink Things: You mention online that you’re interested in the push and pull of the private and public. Can you elaborate on this? What about in relation to your personal experiences with mental health and digital and public representation of the self?
Jenna Knapp: Every time I write something about my mental health for social media I debate whether or not to even post it. Sometimes I post it, then delete it, then repost. I get really nervous that I am over-sharing or triggering people who are going through similar things. But I choose to continue sharing because sometimes people ask questions and someone always sends me a message opening up about their own struggles. By no means do I have all the answers, but at least it starts a conversation. Choosing to be public about something so private is my attempt at breaking down the stigma about what makes us different.
Pink Things: Would you consider The Yellow Wallpaper Project to be feminist?
Jenna Knapp: I definitely believe it is a feminist text, one of the first of its kind too. As the narrator (nameless) describes the way she is being confined to the attic by her husband, she illustrates the male-centric thinking of the times.
I think the act of promoting women in a male-dominated art world is a strong action in itself. The platform is there to promote the creation of personal, emotional, thought-provoking work that may not make it into a white-box gallery. I have always wanted to start my own space and I am so excited to create an intimate experience for the viewers and be able to be a host in my own home. I want it to feel the exact opposite of stark white box galleries.
Pink Things: I love the images you have released in relation to The Yellow Wallpaper Project. How did those come to be?
Jenna Knapp: I knew that I wanted to create images that went along with the announcement. I created a staged scene and set the camera up on a timer and spent a day shooting. This series is my own reinterpretation of the original text. I love the imagery that’s created in The Yellow Wallpaper and wanted to invoke the sense of privacy that she keeps over the journal she hides from her husband.
Pink Things: What can we expect from the space? Do you have a line up yet? Who will be featured in your first show?
Jenna Knapp: There will be a soft opening in July to accompany the release of the book I wrote about the past two years (more details coming soon on that!) And then the first exhibition will be in August. After that, the goal is to have monthly programming with opening receptions and viewings by appointment. I also plan to host workshops, talk-backs, screenings, etc., to accompany exhibitions when appropriate.
Pink Things: Something I ask everyone I interview about is how pink relates to his/her/their project. Do you think the color pink, metaphorically or otherwise, manifests itself in The Yellow Wallpaper Project? Do you identify with pink?
Jenna Knapp: I definitely identify with pink. I think The Yellow Wallpaper loosely does too, if you are attaching the color to feminine identity.
Pink Things: What can someone reading this interview do to help with mental illness?
Jenna Knapp: Get offline. Talk to someone in person. Check on your loved ones. Smile at a stranger. You never know what people have going on in their private lives and what they are choosing to hide. Sometimes we do such a good job of putting on this facade for the world that we are fine that we forget to talk about the hard stuff.
I do my best to invest in people who invest in me. You can only give so much of yourself away without being around people that can fill you back up. My support system is everything. Also, find a way to enjoy being with yourself. I love my alone time. I love to put my phone on airplane mode for at least an hour a day and sit with myself and meditate, or go to the lake and stare at the water, or drive with the windows down. As cliché as it may sound, packing your day full of little things you really enjoy matters. You are worth finding your own self-care routine. It’s not selfish. It’s self-preservation.
Pink Things: If you’re comfortable giving advice based on your own experiences, what is some advice you would give to a young person with mental illness?
Jenna Knapp: Don’t give up. Be patient with yourself. It’s so hard in the beginning to figure out what to do to take care of yourself, and sometimes you don't even feel worthy of finding help. But if you need something, you have to ask for it. Mental health appears invisible far too often and even though it would be nice if people could read our minds, they cannot. Find people you trust. Build a healthcare team that can help you choose the therapy and medication that are right for you. If you don’t have health insurance, visit free clinics – they exist. If a medication doesn’t work, know that you can try another. Give medication time to work, don’t start or end them abruptly. Keep a mood chart. Remember to drink a shit-ton of water. Try to eat three meals a day. Try to sleep at least eight hours. Don’t look at your phone before you go to bed or when you wake up (avoid falling into the Facebook phone hole!). Make your bed a technology free zone if you can. Reach out to someone everyday. Leave the house at least once a day. Stand in the sun. Stare at the water. Sit in the shower. Buy flowers for your kitchen table. Start a new hobby. Pet a pet. Celebrate the little things. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Be kind to yourself.
It’s going to get better. It might get worse first, but it will get better.
Jenna is an inspiration to me. As another someone who suffers from mental illness, I respect her so much for publicly sharing this part of herself. It's not easy, but it's a step toward eliminating the stigma around mental illness. She's strong and smart and intensely creative. Support Jenna and her quest by stopping by The Self Care Studio on Etsy and by getting involved with The Yellow Wallpaper Project. You can keep up with Jenna and her projects at the links below.
The Self Care Studio
This interview was conducted via email and has been condensed and edited
Photos courtesy of Jenna Knapp