'Finding the light within': Mural Arts paints about suicide

Quakertown students (above) help paint the mural, based on work by artist James Burns, last week at the Mural Arts studio.
Quakertown students (above) help paint the mural, based on work by artist James Burns, last week at the Mural Arts studio. (Photos: DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: November 25, 2011

WHEN ARTIST James Burns asked people who'd contemplated suicide to describe their lowest point, the image of being at sea and alone came up over and over again.

When he asked survivors of suicide - the families and friends of those who had taken their own lives - the same question, the answer was the same.

So when Burns was designing his mural dedicated to shining light on the pain of suicide, he knew what his central image would be: A faceless man stands in a boat rocked by turbulent waters. There, in the air coming toward him, is a life ring. All he has to do is grab it. The question is: Will he?

"There's something taboo, even when you say the word 'suicide,' " said Burns, who lost his grandfather to suicide. "I hope at the very least this generates a dialogue and brings a light to a lot of things that aren't in the public conversation."

Burns' project, called "Finding the Light Within," is a collaboration among Mural Arts, the city's Department of Behavioral Health and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. When complete, the mural will be 4,800 square feet. It will be displayed on Horizon House, 120 S. 30th St., in West Philadelphia.

Besides the boat at sea, the entire piece is enveloped in a quilt similar to the type survivors contribute to in remembrance of those they've lost.

"We hope to provide solace and give expression to the sadness, the void, the concerns and the aspirations of people who have been traumatized, silenced and stigmatized," Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden said. "We know that using art can stimulate creativity, participation, connection, equity and, most importantly, healing."

More than 36,000 Americans took their own lives in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's an increase from 2007, and the rise places suicide in the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. for the first time since 1998. The rate of suicide has been increasing since 2000.

Last Saturday, to mark International Survivors of Suicide Day, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a conference on such loss. Speakers included grief experts and those mourning people who have chosen suicide.

Catherine Siciliano, whose son Anthony, 26, took his own life in November 2008, said that, for her, the life ring is made up of "family, friends and faith."

"There's so much emotion in that mural," said Siciliano, of Huntingdon Valley. "It's a real message to survivors that we have the strong support of each other."

Siciliano, a teacher at Quakertown's Richard E. Strayer Middle School, brought more then 20 seventh- and eighth-graders from the school to Philadelphia to help paint the mural.

"You never know who you're walking along with in life that's been affected by the tragedy of suicide," she said.

Siciliano shares her personal story, in part to take away some of the stigma associated with suicide. After Siciliano's son took his own life, people wondered if she wanted to be truthful about his death. She said there was never a question.

"I always felt if people could see the pain in my eyes and the pain in my face" they'd think twice before doing something drastic, she said.

Siciliano's story moved and inspired students like Emily Fox, 13.

"I realized it could happen to anyone and we need to fix it," the eighth-grader said. This mural, she said, "will show people there's a different way to handle depression."

Said Siciliano: "Kids are so compassionate. They are here because they really think they can make a difference."

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