From Despair — Motivating Love and Joyous Art

From Despair — Motivating Love and Joyous Art

Posted: August 1, 2010
From Despair — Motivating Love and Joyous Art

Annick Hollister makes art as bright and sunny as the skies above her California home. She depicts the beauty of nature with tender, sure-handed simplicity. Her lively figure paintings are slyly witty comments on human nature.

Essentially self-taught, she has worked in oils, watercolors and acrylics, and creates uniquely imaginative objects in ceramics and basketry. An ambitious project in progress is a large wall-hanging of Noah’s ark, the animals ingeniously woven of raffia and pine needles.

Annick has been making artworks since she was three years old, although at times art had to compete with ballet, track and her election to high school student government. Then, at the age of 15, after what first seemed an exaggerated teenage rebellion, a violent psychotic break led to her being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The old saying that it is “better to light a candle than curse the dark” could be the mantra of the Hollister family — parents Patsy and Hal, Annick’s sister Meggin and brother John are all “doers” and are committed to the mental health cause. Their actions demonstrate that misfortune can become a very productive channel of energy to make a real impact in the world.  

At the time of Annick’s diagnosis in 1977, the tools available for treating schizophrenia were of little or no avail for many patients, including Annick. The family struggled through tumultuous, often terrifying years of Annick’s hospitalizations, frequent disappearances and social and physical deterioration. But the entire family only became more committed to looking for answers and finding a solution.

And part of Annick’s courageous journey was continuing to make art — joyous art. In the midst of despair, she says, it was her bulwark against desperation. In one of a series of watercolors, later reproduced on the cover of Schizophrenia Bulletin, sailboats float on scallop-shaped waves under a big yellow ball of sun. She painted it during a time when she was confined in an acute-care ward. Through the worst phases of her illness, she says, “art kept me going.”

Help came finally in 1989 when Annick was given clozapine, an antipsychotic drug then being tested in clinical trials. For many of the 30 percent of schizophrenia patients like Annick for whom nothing else worked, clozapine ushered in a new generation of drugs that wrought essentially a treatment miracle. This “second generation” antipsychotic drug almost completely quelled the delusions and hallucinations, the voices and evil visions that torment and confound patients like Annick, often to the point of suicide. After more than a decade of such living hell, Annick was able to again live a productive life.

The development of clozapine as a treatment for schizophrenia resulted primarily from research conducted by BBRF Scientific Council Member Dr. Herbert Meltzer of Vanderbilt University, also a Foundation Distinguished Investigator, who demonstrated how the drug works in the brain. Marketed since 1989 under the trade name Clozaril, it led to development of other such drugs, including Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Geodon and Abilify, now used to treat tens of millions of people worldwide.

But even before that lifesaving breakthrough, her parents, Hal and Patsy, were determined to do whatever they could to help their daughter and others like her. They discovered BBRF (then, NARSAD) in 1987, joined its Board of Directors just as its mission was being developed and have since played an instrumental role in the development of the organization. Inspired by Annick’s artwork, they also established ‘NARSAD Artworks’ to showcase and sell the work of talented artists with mental illness. “The sale of their art gives these artists a sense of identity and purpose,” says Patsy. “Often, it’s the first time they’ve ever made any money.” The funds raised by the sales go directly to BBRF-sponsored research.

Annick’s story highlights how mental illness is truly a family affair. Her illness has had a profound influence on her parents’ life choices as well as the lives and career choices of the younger Hollisters. Brother John became an executive in the pharmaceutical industry with a special interest in drugs for treating mental illnesses. He is a current and active member on the BBRF Board of Directors and helps build the constituent base in the Western United States.

Meggin, only 12 years old when her adored older sister became ill, was determined to understand why, and to dedicate herself to helping. She became a clinical psychologist, and in 1996 published the results of research in which she showed that incompatibilities between genes of mother and fetus could be a risk factor for schizophrenia. Hailed as “a landmark study,” Meggin’s paper helped earn her a BBRF Young Investigator grant in 1996 and has stimulated considerable sub-sequent research to aid in the understanding of the genesis of schizophrenia.

Today, Annick remains stabilized on clozapine. Her life is an example of the transformative change that proper medication and treatment can make in the lives of those with schizophrenia. Relieved of what she calls her “bad thoughts,” Annick is able to live a largely independent life in her own apartment. She has friends, a boyfriend, and recently began teaching arts and crafts at Verdugo Mental Health Center, part of the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health. She works as part of ‘Project Return’, a client-run program dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with mental illness.

For a parent, nothing matters more than their children’s happiness. “Annick is very happy,” says Patsy Hollister, “and very proud of what she has accomplished.” Says sister Meggin, “The take-home message for families struggling with mental illness is, ‘Don’t Give Up.’”

As for Noah’s ark, Annick says she plans to do at least 40 pairs of animals. Among the dozen or so she’s already done are whales, birds and giraffes peering with their long necks over the railing of the ark. She’ll finish up, appropriately, with a pair of doves.