PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – In early 2017, artist Amy Stacey Curtis returned to her studio in rural Maine after completing an epic, 18-year project. As she started to strategize about the future, her brain suddenly betrayed her.
“My brain kept showing me graphic pictures of me ending my life,” Curtis said. “I didn’t understand it. I knew something was wrong. It literally clicked on like a switch.”
If it hadn’t been so terrifying, the chaos that followed might have been ironic. In her participatory installations, Curtis sets the stage for viewers to pit order against chaos. She painstakingly plans the experience, but the work isn’t complete until visitors have their way with it.
Curtis has two exhibitions now in New Hampshire, “Transfer” at the University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art and “Mirror IV” at 3S Artspace. In the latter, she invites participants to move 1,296 colored cubes to create symmetry. “Mirror III,” at UNH, has a similar premise, with an installation of white posts of different heights.
“The Type A people like me will try to do what I’m asking,” Curtis said, sitting on a sofa at 3S Artspace last week. “Others are more rebellious.”
Her work maintains the tension between the two. And her brain has had to hold that tension since it went offline.
When the visions started, she went straight to her doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants. The pictures of suicide did not relent.
“My brain had taken over,” said Curtis, who is 49. “I thought I might hurt myself. I was admitted into a psych ward.”
Over the next 15 months, the artist had two stays in psych wards. She saw several psychiatrists and neurologists. Some suggested a diagnosis of late onset schizophrenia.
She held fast to what order she could. “It wasn’t part of the plan,” she said of her health crisis. “So I made a plan not to have a plan.”
In April 2017, she wrote in her artist’s blog, “This was a palpable ‘other’ in my brain, the impostor, and it held only this one goal — to end me. The smaller part of my mind, the me, became determined to save my life.”
Curtis was prescribed eight different anti-psychotic drugs. Nothing helped. She soldiered on with the support of her husband, Bill. Former high school sweethearts, the two have been together for 30 years.
In the midst of coping with the mental compulsions, Curtis developed physical symptoms. Her speech slurred. Her fingers curled. Her head wagged side to side. She needed a wheelchair.
“No one knew what was wrong,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
A naturopath suggested untreated Lyme disease had attacked her brain. Curtis and her husband latched onto the idea; it was the only suggestion of a cause for her symptoms. Neurologists diagnosed her with functional neurological disorder, which describes a malfunctioning brain that appears to be normal.
Despite being hammered by mental and physical challenges, the artist kept working. Andrew Witkin, her dealer at Boston’s Krakow Witkin Gallery, signed her up for the gallery’s regular installation series.
“In the midst of the worst of it,” Witkin remembered, “she said, ‘Andrew, I’d like to propose a ‘One Wall, One Work.’ It was unbelievable, someone in that condition.”
Work had always driven Curtis. From 1998 to 2016, she staged nine solo biennials, each time taking over a different empty Maine mill building, cleaning it by hand (with the help of volunteers), and installing nine interactive artworks. The first one was attended mostly by friends and family, but Curtis drummed up interest and built community with every speaking engagement she could nab. She sold drawings and garnered in-kind donations. Over time, she connected with curators, dealers, and museum directors. Across 18 years, she said he raised $150,000 and worked with 1,000 volunteers.
“The whole thing became this creative project,” Witkin said. “Everything from renovating a mill building to raising funds for materials to handing the building back. So much of what she does is about human collective spirit and generosity.”
When she got sick, the art community rallied, offering opportunities to show and sell her work. She planned and delegated. “I’m grateful my brain still worked enough, I could do that much,” she said.
Still, the visions of taking her own life battered her.
“Twenty months in, I said to my psychiatrist, we have to do something, I’m starting to lose will,” Curtis said.
Starting in late 2018, 16 electroconvulsive treatments provided the first glimpse of relief. The pictures went from nonstop to 100 times a day.
In the midst of ECT treatment, Curtis found another approach, a mix of artistic shrewdness, shamanism, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
“I woke up with a different picture in my head,” Curtis said. “A picture of my face with color radiating off it. My brain was giving me another picture to pull me back.”
She drew that picture of her face on a 50-inch-square sheet. Whenever the suicidal images switched on, she discovered the self-portrait would short-circuit them. It was like weaning herself off a bad drug. By May 2019, she had suicidal visions 50 times a day. Today, that number is down to 10.
“It’s hard to explain how it felt to have my head back,” Curtis said. “I just wept.”
Physical and occupational therapy are helping her regain her strength. She sleeps 14 to 15 hours a day, but she’s still a workhorse, planning a book about the biennials and a memoir. Filmmaker Emily Bernhard, based in Portland, Maine, has been working on a documentary about Curtis since before the solo biennials wrapped up.
Curtis has another vision. “I have a very long imaginary cape,” she said. “It’s violet, red, and gold, and bedazzled with a butterfly. It grew longer because of all the support I received. We’re going to make the cape physical. We’ll have it in a mill, and we’ll photograph it.”
Hearing of this vision, doctors were leery. “Some of my psychiatrists asked, ‘Do you think you’re a superhero?’ ” Curtis said.
No. She’s just an artist.
If you need help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
AMY STACEY CURTIS: TRANSFER
At Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire, 30 Academic Way, Durham, N.H., through April 4. 603-862-3712 cola.unh.edu/museum-art
At 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth, N.H., through March 29. 603-766-3330, www.3sarts.org/gallery