‘Art saved me.’ Charlotte artist urges people to talk openly about mental health

Vanessa Infanzon
·4 min read

Arelys Ripoll noticed the tantrums and fluctuating feelings when she was 9 years old growing up in Kissimmee, Florida. She only knew how to show her anger by hitting walls and tree trunks.

“I didn’t know how to explain my emotions or communicate how I felt,” said Ripoll, now 23. “So I would punch holes in walls. I would break knuckles.”

On one particularly bad day, she grabbed a pencil from her bookbag and drew a bee on lined notebook paper. She immediately felt better. Writing poetry and drawing gave her the power to communicate her feelings.

“I’m not as worthless as I think I am,” she said. “I noticed there was some type of talent there, that just opened doors mentally for myself for goals and achievements.”

Ripoll now works out of a Charlotte Art League studio, near NoDa. CAL executive director Jim Dukes says he noticed her talent as soon as she arrived in late 2020. She hasn’t begun to tap into her well of emotional experiences, he said.

Arelys Ripoll works on the floor in her studio at Charlotte Art League. CAL executive director Jim Dukes says Ripoll is an evolving young artist whose current work is “subtle and raw.”
Arelys Ripoll works on the floor in her studio at Charlotte Art League. CAL executive director Jim Dukes says Ripoll is an evolving young artist whose current work is “subtle and raw.”

Bees have a special symbolism in Ripoll’s artwork.

Her “Beehive Collection” represents the importance of bees and art, she said. She donates half of the proceeds from the sale of her paintings to Karma Honey Project, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the bee population in Puerto Rico.

“I feel like I am important now,” she added. “I am that bee. If that bee isn’t around then my art doesn’t exist.”

Charlotte artist Arelys Ripoll works lakeside on a piece she calls “Emotions.”
Charlotte artist Arelys Ripoll works lakeside on a piece she calls “Emotions.”

‘Subtle and raw’

Ripoll spent her preteen years in Puerto Rico. It was there that she was diagnosed with depression and epilepsy.

Although she’s tried medications to manage the depression and epilepsy with some success, she said she doesn’t have health insurance now and goes without medical care and medication.

She typically has one seizure every other week but has had as many as 15 grand mal seizures in one day. Such seizures involve a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. Ripoll said they affect her mood and ability to paint.

Arelys Ripoll says her art represents her mood at the time. If her mood is dark, she adds a happy or positive element, like the flowers that bloom in “Chaos” (above).
Arelys Ripoll says her art represents her mood at the time. If her mood is dark, she adds a happy or positive element, like the flowers that bloom in “Chaos” (above).

Ripoll said she moved from Florida to Charlotte in October 2019 to escape her family’s concern for her health. She worked as a vet tech in South Charlotte until her hours were cut due to COVID-19. She walks dogs, dog sits and sells art to make money.

Ripoll works out of her rented studio at Charlotte Art League, a nonprofit that offers affordable studio space and a public art gallery. It also offers classes and community outreach programs. CAL has become her second home, Ripoll said.

CAL’s Dukes said he’s aware of the struggles Ripoll has faced emotionally and physically. He believes she will get past feeling intimidated and vulnerable, like other artists he has encountered.

“What she’s doing is subtle and raw,” Dukes said. “When she just lets herself say, ‘It’s OK to put all of this out on a canvas for people to see,’ then her work is going to be something fully unique and complex, and will challenge the viewer. It will inspire other artists to follow behind her.”

‘Moody Artist’

Ripoll signs her work “Moody Artist,” a signature she says acknowledges the depression she has faced. She believes artists should talk about mental health openly.

“When I got into art, it saved me,” Ripoll said. “It saved me physically. I know a lot of people relate to that and it’s a touchy subject people don’t want to talk about. But art saved me.”

Ripoll has felt socially awkward for most of her life and sometimes people assume she is being rude. It’s hard for her to make friends, she said.

“I knew I wasn’t normal,” Ripoll said. “There was something wrong. All these people were telling me how amazing I was, but inside, I did not feel like that at all.”

Artist Areyls Ripoll says this work, “Self Happiness,” is her style of portrait, “no details, just feelings and finger paint.”
Artist Areyls Ripoll says this work, “Self Happiness,” is her style of portrait, “no details, just feelings and finger paint.”

Although Ripoll took art class electives in elementary school in Florida, she’s mostly self-taught through trial and error. She’s used Pinterest and Tumblr to learn new techniques and broaden her use of mediums. She’s worked with acrylics, charcoal, oil, resin and watercolors.

One technique she has tried is a dirty pour.

She stacks paint in a cup, always starting with white at the bottom and adding layers of colors she’s chosen. Then she flips it over. The cup is removed after two minutes, giving the paint time to settle. She maneuvers the canvas to manipulate the paint in a form and style she wants.

This piece, called “SKIN.,” was painted by Arelys Ripoll. She said it’s a mesh of all skin tones from all over the world, “showing that with unity life can be beautiful.”
This piece, called “SKIN.,” was painted by Arelys Ripoll. She said it’s a mesh of all skin tones from all over the world, “showing that with unity life can be beautiful.”

Her art represents her current mood.

If it’s particularly dark, she adds something happy or positive to the painting. Flowers bloom through “Chaos,” a chaotic world she’s created on canvas with melted crayons.

“I definitely put my emotions into my canvases,” she said. “You will see that. I think that’s one thing I really like about my art: You can feel it, instead of just see it.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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