National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Sowing Seeds of Hope

Artwork at the Sunflower Art Competition in Yolo County, Calif.


By Stephanie Corkett, NAMI communications intern

When people think about famous images of sunflowers, one artist tends to come to mind: Vincent van Gogh. His two series of still-life paintings devoted to sunflowers completed in the late 1800s have become synonymous with van Gogh’s name and technique.

Although not quite as famous as van Gogh’s paintings there are an increasing number of pieces of art devoted to sunflowers in Yolo County, Calif. Known for the bright yellow flowers, Yolo County, home to NAMI Yolo, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, chose the sunflower as a bold symbol of hope for people living with mental illness. (Those who have studied van Gogh’s life and art believe that he lived with bipolar disorder.)

The Sunflower Art Competition, held by NAMI Yolo was co-founded by Melissa Lyans and Leslie Carroll. The annual competition has continued to grow in popularity since it was first held in 2003 and just celebrated its tenth anniversary. This year it showcased over 500 submissions. Contestants submit artwork that is chosen to appear on NAMI Yolo “Seeds of Hope” sunflower packets which NAMI Yolo sells to raise funds for mental illness awareness.

All ages are encouraged to participate, especially school-aged children. The local schools incorporate learning units about mental health issues to educate the children while also learning about art. A memorial award is given by NAMI Yolo each year to a local teacher who exemplified teaching about mental health. This year, the William Albrecht Mental Health Education Award was granted to Sue Darst, a second grade teacher at Patwin Elementary in Davis, Calif. Darst, who had several students diagnosed with mental illness in her class, educated her students on how to self-monitor their emotions and express themselves through art.

Marjan Kluepfel with her winning piece.

NAMI Yolo showcases all submissions at the Sunflower Art Reception where winners in each of the different categories are chosen as well as the winning design. Co-creator of the competition, Melissa Lyans explains how the art reception has grown over the years: “We used to only have a one day reception to showcase the art, now we have a three week viewing period at the Davis Art Center; it really is spectacular to see all the artwork together.”

A prize of $100 goes to the artwork selected for the NAMI Yolo sunflower seed packet. This year’s winner was Marjan Kluepfel. Kluefpul’s design was a quilt square that incorporated the sunflower with a blue background.

The sunflower seeds are then used by residents of Yolo County as part of a competition to grow the tallest sunflower. Last year’s winning sunflower was 18 feet tall.

With the increased participation the competition has received every year, NAMI Yolo hopes that as people, especially children, become educated about mental health, this education will reduce misconceptions and prejudices that result in the stigmatization of mental illness which leads to delays in much-needed treatment. Lyans comments, “Every year we get someone who is so glad they participated because they are concerned about loved ones and want to help raise awareness.”

NAMI Yolo’s mission to make the wider community aware of mental health resources and issues is succeeding with events like the Sunflower Art Competition. Their competition helps people of all ages get involved in NAMI’s mission of building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI Yolo hopes that the next time someone sees a sunflower they think of a symbol of hope for people living with a mental illness.