I got out of my car and walked up to a picnic table on the lawn outside the Above & Beyond Children’s museum. To my left, as I approached, I fell into the shadow of massive, silent creatures against a rosy sunset sky. I found myself immediately feeling a quiet, but powerful sensation of happiness.
“Aesthetic arrest” is a term coined by Joseph Campbell, a professor in literature, mythology, and religion from the early 1900s. It’s defined as a state where we experience profound beauty – or, as local artist Jessica Rassel explains it, “You kind of feel detached from everything else in that moment. Everything else falls away. And, it actually releases chemicals in your brain that help you be happier.”
Jessica, along with Maddie Green, with the partnership of Jackie Erdman and the Above & Beyond Children’s Museum, created an experience of aesthetic arrest through the recent mural on the north wall of its historic building. It’s impossible to miss as you drive or walk south on 8th street – you glance over and find yourself seized by the image of a mother and baby whale diving into an ocean under a vibrant sunset. One can imagine the sailors in the ship protruding from the wall of the museum are left breathless at the sight of such massive tails sinking into the depths below.
“This mural, with all the dreamy colors, gets you lost in it for a second – you stop for a moment and say, ‘Wow.’ When we’re aware of that concept, it helps us to more easily pull out of the dark space we might be in, because we can go to places that make us happy and experience that [aesthetic arrest], wherever that may be in Sheboygan County. You can give yourself relief.”
It’s not hard to think of reasons we might need that relief in this era – we’re in the middle of a pandemic and increasing political unrest – and still, for others, even more is going on in addition to these stressors. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20% of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition, including:
- 11% of youth have a mood disorder
- 10% of youth have a behavior or conduct disorder
- 8% of youth have an anxiety disorder
In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24. In Wisconsin and Sheboygan County, it’s the second leading cause of death. This is what drove Maddie Green and Jessica Rassel into action, using the truth of aesthetic arrest to make Sheboygan County Someplace Better.
Introducing The Happiness Project, an effort to spread places and moments of rich happiness to the public.
And it’s working. “Even as we were painting it, people would just stop and stare,” Jessica recalled, smiling. “It’s really neat to see.”
The city was more than supportive, too. “It was surprisingly simple [to get them on board],” said Jessica. Jackie added, “This city really has a thing for art. They really try to help those that are trying to bring that art to the community in a way that is meaningful.”
When we talk about mental health, it’s easy to talk about the negatives – the things that detract from our mental state being healthy. We talk about depression, bipolar, suicide, anxiety, and more. But have we considered happiness, peace, and contentment as a state of mental health? A hope for The Happiness Project is to open conversation about that positive side – the things that make us happy and nourish our minds – and encourage a perspective of mental health that incorporates it into our everyday.
Maddie put it like this. “We’re trying to take a bit of a twist on looking at mental health not just in that negative light, but in that positive way, and when you look at all those colors, you experience that side of mental health.”
“It’s a different perspective,” Jackie continued. “A better perspective.”
So why the whales? The large, true-to-size mammals encourage you to look beneath the tip of the iceberg – or in this case, the tip of the tails.
“We wanted to have the whales shift you to looking at things in perspective,” Jessica said. “When we’re in dark places, our view is very isolated. So when you look at the whales, you’re forced to see how small you are and how you connect with the world – you’re a piece of it – and there’s so many things going on. It forces you to look at the big picture, which pulls you out of that dark space. It adds color and brightness when you’re in a place where you don’t have it within. You can come out here and take a look if you’re not feeling the greatest, because you don’t need anything but to look at it to experience aesthetic arrest.”
“When it feels impossible, just take a small step by going somewhere that makes you happy.”
Above & Beyond is spreading The Happiness Project into the garden beside the mural. When you pause and walk through, you see interactive exhibits, beautiful flowers, lush greens growing, and more. Wellness Wednesdays quickly found a home there, providing yoga classes, and tai chi. “We’ve been trying to use this space to the best of our ability. We have big plans for this space,” said Jackie.
And the cooler months won’t stop it either – plans are in the works to keep the movement going as winter comes around. The timing couldn’t have been better for the launch of this project. With the winter months comes seasonal depression and more isolation, so this labor of love is going to needed now more than ever.
The hope is to take it beyond the bounds of Above & Beyond and its garden. “The more we can spread this aesthetic arrest through the community, the better,” Jackie said.
“Little bursts of joy as you’re walking about,” Jessica added. “I used to look at the murals in Milwaukee when I was young so it was so cool to do this. Hopefully we can have more murals in Sheboygan – everywhere – even if they’re small – just so it can be peppered throughout the community.”
“We hope that it always acts as a beacon of awareness and understanding of mental health. We hope to continue that in our indoor space and our outdoor space, so that it never stops. We want it to move into other communities,” said Jackie.
And a beacon it will be – it’s incredible to think of generations to come seeing the whales diving on the wall as they grow up in Sheboygan County.
As a child, I always peered up at the chimney sweep on the Henry Jung Shoe Factory Apartments. It was something that I still look at to this day with a sense of childlike wonder. And now, the whales will be that for the children today.
“It gives me chills,” said Maddie with a smile.