A young girl, crouched down and curled in a fetal position, is a figure that appears in several creations by Allison Poster.
The image clad in black and white is a raw representation that personifies a traumatic period in the life of the Dubuque artist.
One piece shows her locked in a cage, immersed in puzzle pieces, but discretely holding a key and surrounded by birds and butterflies honoring transformation.
Others depict her struggle between descending further into darkness or turning toward the light, caught between two stairwells adorned with timepieces and shrouded by trees in a forest with the words, “Fear,” “Sadness” and “Lost” scrolled upon them.
Well-known quotations accompany many of the pieces.
Additional works make use of trees that represent grounding, along with jewelry and silvery shards of glass symbolizing brokenness juxtaposed with beauty, as well as creating a challenging artistic medium in which Poster has discovered she thrives.
“She is very much who I was and what I was feeling as a teenager,” Poster said, now 45 and peering at the image on one hand as if she is a stranger to herself, but on the other, as if she’s almost too close to the subject matter for comfort.
However, Poster’s optimism shines through, just as it does in her artwork.
“You see? She is always facing toward the light,” she said.
Poster was just 13 when she had her first panic attack. She didn’t know then what it was. But therapy in her mid-30s would reveal that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression stemming from a series of events that began taking place as early as 3 years old.
As Poster matured, the only way she often could release the turmoil she was experiencing within was through her art. It became her gateway, her voice and ultimately her healing.
“Art has always been something I have loved and been passionate about pursuing,” she said. “But in helping me to heal and work past my trauma, it also allowed me to verbalize. Through art, I was able to express what I wasn’t able to through words. It became a different form of therapy for me.”
Poster is putting her passion to good use at the helm of curating “Exposing the Chaos With-In,” an art exhibition that aims to build awareness surrounding the stigma surrounding mental health.
Simultaneously, it also will unveil the debut of Gallery A, a new artistic space with an eye toward promoting creations by local artists, offering workshops and continuing to breath renewed life in Dubuque’s Central Avenue Corridor.
“We have all the right people at the table,” said Kristina Wilcox-Beytien, owner and founder of Upcycle Dubuque, which will house Gallery A. “We’re making some noise down here.”
Wilcox-Beytien and Poster connected through a shared enthusiasm for upcycling and local art, with Poster introducing several of her pieces in the Central Avenue shop.
“It’s a great fit,” Wilcox-Beytien said. “(Poster) had been wanting to have a gallery space but just wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on it. This gives her the space and the outlet, and it takes what we’ve been doing at Upcycle Dubuque to the next level.”
The exhibition will mark the second of such efforts by Poster. She previously organized a show with a focus on raising awareness about mental illness in 2017 for Gallery C in Dubuque’s Historic Millwork District, where she also maintained creative space from Studio Works.
For Poster, it remains a cause close to home not only in her personal life but also in her professional life. A nurse for nearly 25 years, she has experienced firsthand the stigma surrounding mental health, both from a patient’s perspective and from a provider’s.
“Before I got to where I am today with (UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital), there were occasionally providers who would say certain things that fed into that stigma,” she said. “I found it very upsetting.”
Through her work in health care, Poster responded by offering art classes for those struggling with mental illness. She found yet another calling.
“So much of what I hear from people is that they’re not creative,” Poster said. “But cooking is creative. So is baking, music, theater, photography, sewing. It’s so exciting to see someone start to work through their challenges through art.”
In addition to raising awareness, “Exposing the Chaos With-In” also will benefit the Dubuque chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness and will promote the work of three local artists: Poster, Christopher Billmyer and Elizabeth Heisler. Local singer and songwriter Melanie Devaney also will perform.
NAMI Dubuque is sponsoring the event and will have a resource table available.
“Art is beautiful,” said Britni Farber, president of NAMI Dubuque. “Being creative is a form of communication, and there are many studies that advocate for the use of art therapy as a means to strengthen someone’s executive functioning. Art allows the freedom to share thoughts and feelings when words are not adequate. At times our internal dialogue can be so strong, we need additional outlets to help us cope.”
In the past, Poster also has facilitated creative recovery workshops for NAMI Dubuque.
“Her previous art shows have always been informative and an excellent representation of a personal journey and since many of our NAMI programs focus on education, support and recovery,” Farber said. “We believe Allison speaks to the benefits of hard work and recovery through her artwork by means of helping others cope with mental health experiences. We are always supportive of partnerships that allow those we serve an outlet for expression and support outside of the traditional therapeutic practice. Our art events are well attended, and we find these opportunities reach more and more individuals, which ultimately is our goal.”
Nine additional local artists will have their work displayed as part of the opening of Gallery A. Both coincide with the monthly First Fridays art walk, set for 5-8 p.m. Jan. 3.
“Exposing the Chaos With-In” will run for one month. Poster’s biggest hope is that during that time, the exhibition will promote healing and encourage positive discussion about mental illness, as well as connection among artists.
“I’m all about making connections with others,” she said. “This opportunity is really amazing, and I adore the opportunity to be able to bring local artists together to raise awareness.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.