Beth Wittenberg has battled physical and mental illnesses for many years and learned to live with bipolar disorder.
“It made me an awfully unreliable employee, but it makes me a great artist,” she said.
Wittenberg backs up her boast with a string of recent art successes that have left her feeling triumphant. Through Nov. 30, she is showing hundreds of drawings and other pieces of art created with trashed, consumed and discarded materials in a massive installation at the University of Maine-Farmington Art Gallery. Her exhibition, “Consumed,” gives voice to marginalized people, expressed with street-art urgency by a mentally ill, recovering addict, activist artist.
She had two other exhibitions this fall, self-published a collection of poems and drawings called “Sleep Walking” based on her experience taking outdated sleep medication, and the clothing designer Apathy is using her imagery in a new line.
Arrested last year at her home in Rochester, New Hampshire, for painting a Black Lives Matter mural on a turnpike overpass, Wittenberg is doing exactly what she set out to do with her art when she received her MFA from Maryland Institute of Art in 1998. “I have said many times, ‘I would rather live in a dumpster than not be able to make art.’ Making art is everything for me,” she said. “It’s definitely one of the ways I exorcise my demons. It’s also a way I prefer to communicate. Sometimes words fail me. Images do not fail me.”
Wittenberg’s work at UMF is based on her experience navigating health crises over the past 15 years and fighting for access to health care. She lost her insurance after difficult weight-loss surgery, and without insurance, she could not afford her medicine.
She began collecting discarded materials and created a series of sculptures called “Throwaway People” that advocated for discarded, downtrodden and marginalized people – drug addicts, mothers on welfare, mentally ill people “and people with disabilities, black, brown, red, yellow, LGBTQ folk and the list goes on,” she said. “These are the people who have been thrown away like trash. That’s how the project started.”
In Farmington, she is showing hundreds of small drawings, with images and text, on cardboard boxes and post-consumer packaging materials, as well as larger installations, some of which she made on-site as the show progressed.
Sarah Maline, director of the UMF Art Gallery, is attracted to the urgency and color of Wittenberg’s imagery and the rawness of the text that she uses to express her anger and frustration. It’s part street art and part outsider art with sharp art-brut sensibilities, she said.
Placing Wittenberg’s art within the gallery – it’s spread over two floors – gives it a quieter intensity that helps draw people in to look closely, read the text and consider the message. “It’s art that requires spectators to pause and not just walk by,” Maline said.
Wittenberg’s art connects because it explores themes that are on people’s minds. “Her themes about mental illness and access to health care and the rampant consumer culture are things we are talking about at the university and things we are talking about in our elections,” she said.
Maline heard about Wittenberg through the news and sought her out for Water Bear Confabulum, a street-art event in Farmington. Wittenberg worked with UMF students to make a site-specific installation and talked with them about her life as an artist, including her arrest in New Hampshire.
That project set the stage for “Consumed.”
Wittenberg’s struggle with consumption involves food and food addiction. She’s also consumed with anger by society’s general lack of humanity. Her art expresses her rage. “Much of my artwork is about being an addict, searching for truth, calling out injustices
WHERE: University of Maine-Farmington Art Gallery, 246 Maine St., behind UMF admissions office
WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, through Nov. 30
INFO: artgalleryumf.org, (207) 778-1062