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New art exhibit aims to start conversation about mental illness, suicide

Artist Michael Tonder of Two Harbors works on cutting a glass sculpture in his workshop last month. (Adelle Whitefoot / Lake County News-Chronicle)1 / 3
Michael Tonder’s piece “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” will be included in the “What’s Left: Lives Touched by Suicide” art exhibit this month at MacRostie Art Center. An opening reception will be held Friday. (Photo courtesy of Michael Tonder)2 / 3
Aaron Freij Tonder, Michael Tonder’s son, took his own life in 1999, and Michael now honors his memory in his art. (Photo courtesy of Michael Tonder)3 / 3

When Two Harbors artist Michael Tonder heard that John Bauer's daughter Megan took her own life in 2013, he sent him a short email with condolences. Bauer and Tonder had mutual friends and now a new connection: Tonder's son Aaron died by suicide in 1999, and Tonder wanted to let Bauer know he wasn't alone.

Two years later, Bauer is launching the "What's Left: Lives Touched by Suicide" art exhibit with a reception from 4-8 p.m. Friday in the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids. People with mental illness, and friends and family members left behind after a loved one takes their own life, can feel stigmatized and unable to talk openly about their experiences or grief. Bauer said he hopes that the show provides a space for artists and the broader community to reflect on the effects of suicide and mental illness, and start a conversation.

The piece Tonder created for the show not only represents his son's battle with mental illness and his death, but also his son's life and, in some ways, his own grieving process. The 15-inch-wide, 2½-inch-thick, kiln-fired glass piece is an incomplete circle with a haunting greenish-white color.

"I gave it a lot of thought trying to figure out what I would do that would have some impact, that would have some meaning, that would show what I do with my work," Tonder said.

The idea of the circle appealed to Tonder on many levels. When Aaron was young, music was ever-present at the Tonder home. Tonder and his wife Jody would host musicians traveling through the area at their home, and people would gather for impromptu concerts. As he contemplated a piece for the new exhibit, Tonder began to think of the old folk standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Tonder said life is circular and he liked the idea of suicide being a break in that circle.

The glass Tonder used also appealed to him as a connection to his son. The glass was reclaimed from the cabin the Tonders lived in while Tonder worked at George H. Crosby Manitou State Park near Finland. The glass was from a window that Tonder, his wife and Aaron would look through as a young family.

Tonder said the glass was "a piece of our history."

When the cabin was torn down, Tonder was given the glass from the cabin and used some of it for a sculpture on display at Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay, but he saved the rest for something special.

"I've done variations of the piece, not quite like this, so it isn't a totally unique concept," Tonder said. "I drew on some other pieces that I made in the past, but it was different in the way the pieces were separated with the gap breaking the circle."

Tonder said that after his son's death, his art was helpful in that it was a full-time job for him, so he didn't have to go back to a typical office immediately. Tonder said he retreated from his work for a time, while his wife, an artist making jewelry from kiln-fired glass, immersed herself in her work.

As he did return to creating his art, Tonder realized something changed.

"When I started making the bigger pieces I realized that I had started putting holes in the bigger pieces, like a hole had been cut out of your life," he said. "I do think that was somewhat of a response to the loss."

Tonder said that as time went by, he realized his son's death wasn't something he could move past; it was a part of him and he needed to establish a "new normal" for his life.

But Tonder is quick to point out that the "What's Left" exhibit is not just about suicide; it's also about mental illness. He said Aaron never was diagnosed with a specific mental illness, but he believes his son suffered from some type of bipolar disorder. The Tonders struggled for most of the last three years of Aaron's life trying to get him the help he needed. Insurance wouldn't cover mental health treatments for Aaron, Tonder said, so the family spent thousands of dollars on treatment. He said the appointments — a half-hour every two weeks — just weren't enough.

Tonder said today he wants to shine a brighter light on mental illness and bring it out into the open, even though it is difficult for many people to talk about. He said he believes a more open and honest discussion of mental illness is the best way to prevent suicide.

"It's hard to find the right words where you don't feel like you are dismissing it," Tonder said. "It's almost like you have to create this language around it that will articulate it appropriately."

Duluth's Amberwing — Center for Youth and Family Well-Being, opened by the Miller-Dwan Foundation in 2012, provides mental health and substance abuse services for kids and young adults. The Tonders donated several pieces for an auction to help establish the center.

"If we had had something like AmberWing in 1998-99, Aaron might have gotten through it," Tonder said.

Through it all, the Tonders have tried to talk openly about their experience. Michael Tonder said they realize it can be difficult to verbalize, but also want friends and family to feel free to share fun memories of Aaron and their experiences with him. They also encourage everyone to have a more open discussion of mental illness and suicide.

"That's the big thing — it's worse if you totally isolate and don't get it out of your head," Tonder said. "You've got to get out there and talk to other people and find out that you aren't alone in this kind of a struggle."

If you go

"What's Left: Lives Touched by Suicide" is described by organizers as "a multimedia exhibit to create a proactive community dialogue about suicide and mental illness with a goal of reducing the stigma surrounding them." Admission is free. After its debut in Grand Rapids, the exhibit will be available to travel to community centers, art galleries, schools and libraries across Minnesota.

When: Opening reception 4-8 p.m. Friday; exhibit runs through Sept. 26

Where: MacRostie Art Center, 4-5 NW First Avenue, Grand Rapids

More details: macrostieartcenter.org

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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