Norwich alumna Jennifer Bryan ’05 explores states of mind in Sullivan Museum and History Center’s new exhibit

Jennifer Bryan began painting in 2018 as therapy — her marriage was ending, she was on her own again, and she found putting figures on paper calming and cathartic. She started drawing, sometimes making single-line drawings, then advanced to fingerpaints and eventually, acrylic paints. Canvas replaced paper; paintbrushes replaced fingers.

She painted vigorously and often, nearly every day, spanning the color palette to create images rich in blues, blacks, reds, greens and golds. A stream-of-consciousness vibe courses through her paintings; she said her work is meant to evoke states of mind — manic depression’s ebbs and flows or moments dulled by short-term memory loss.

More than a dozen of Bryan’s paintings form “Liquid Mind,” the Sullivan Museum and History Center’s new exhibit, which opened June 4 with an outdoor reception. The show was the second Sullivan Museum exhibit echoing the pandemic and led by a woman.

“(Painting) just drew on the importance of (having) an outside outlet, especially when you’re stuck inside with COVID. Kids suffered, adults suffered, everybody suffered because … you need human interaction and when you’re not getting it, it’s easy to go a little crazy.” ‘Liquid Mind’ creator Jennifer Bryan ’05

In February, Uniform Store seamstress and a School of Architecture+Art adjunct professor Samantha R. Talbot-Kelly presented “Pandemia’s Black Feather,” an installation featuring a figure covered in COVID-19-appropriate face masks in a variety of fabrics, materials and colors (including many blacks and silvers), interspersed with feathers.

For now, “Liquid Mind” will become part of the Sullivan Museum’s virtual tour, although Exhibitions and Collections Curator Katherine Taylor-McBroom said she hopes in-person visits will be allowed soon.

liquid mind 1 min
2005 Norwich University graduate Jennifer Bryan said painting gave her an important creative outlet to pursue when the coronavirus pandemic shut her, and many other people, inside. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Bryan, 36, was born in Berlin, Vermont, and graduated from Norwich in 2005. She has deep ties to the university; six relatives graduated from the school, including a grandfather, Pop Bryan, who was a geology professor; and a grandmother, Vivian Bryan, a longtime librarian.

Art making was new for Bryan, who’d studied English at Norwich as a civilian student and has worked as a scholastic behavior interventionist and teacher; she now teaches English and language arts at Moretown, Vermont’s Stone Path Academy. She said painting helped focus her mind as hiking does, and spared the pain of miles-long trudges. She said she learned as she created, discovering how colors combined and contrasted.

Bryan said painting gave her an important creative outlet to pursue when the coronavirus pandemic shut her, and many other people, inside.

“It just drew on the importance of (having) an outside outlet, especially when you’re stuck inside with COVID,” Bryan said. “Kids suffered, adults suffered, everybody suffered because … you need human interaction and when you’re not getting it, it’s easy to go a little crazy.”

Bryan said as painting helped her forget, or ease, painful moments, it let her capture joyful ones. For example, she painted “Servant of Servants” after a weekend at Lake Willoughby, hoping to capture the feeling of being in the water and marveling at the starry sky overhead.

Sign of life

“Liquid Mind” enabled a COVID-19-is-easing coming-out party for the Sullivan Museum, which was holding its first-ever outdoor reception. Taylor-McBroom said 60 people were on the reception RSVP list and 45 came, more than had attended past openings prepandemic.

Taylor-McBroom said she met Bryan during 2020’s campuswide coronavirus shutdown at a virtual Norwich happy hour online. Bryan came at User Support Services Director Rob Berkey and Staff Photographer Mark Collier’s invitation.

liquid mind 3 min
Jennifer Bryan ’05 looks over the canvases for “Liquid Mind,” the Sullivan Museum and History Center’s second consecutive exhibit examining personal health and the coronavirus pandemic’s echoes.

Taylor-McBroom said she liked the art Bryan flashed on-screen during the meetings, found more examples on Facebook and liked the idea of exhibiting the color-drenched collection as a spirit lifter.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these are really amazing.’ There were so many pieces that I loved,” Taylor-McBroom said, adding that the Sullivan Museum bought four of Bryan’s paintings to add to its permanent collection. “That she was using art to work through mental health issues was just a perfect thing for right now because so many people are dealing with mental health issues.”

Bryan said she hopes her show sends a message of hope — it’s OK to own your struggle and seek solace in other people.

“Nobody is going to shame somebody for finding a way to help their brain,” she said. “Anybody who has something negative to say about people that are trying to take care of their mental health is not somebody you need to be around or listen to.”


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