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artist statement

by Don Manning.

The Bob and Melissa Project

A photographic journey that explores how self-expression through music and a simple faith can bring solace amongst the struggle with mental illness and a troubled U.S. healthcare system.

Originally created in 1992, and never before exhibited, this body of work examines the life of Bob and Melissa from Urbana, Illinois, as they waded through the dysfunction of the healthcare and human services system. Sadly, what has become self-evident is that almost three decades later the system still oozes with broken lives in need of an opportunity for wholeness.

Both the Covid 19 pandemic and a fractured political system have endangered the fundamental framework of our democracy. The voices of the underserved remain deafened by governmental turmoil. They are the voices of the anguished, infirm, abused, and uninsured. They are the voices of those with PTSD resulting from gun violence, trauma, or service in our armed forces. They are the voices of those with pre-existing conditions that are being bankrupted by medical bills, those coming off addiction, and those needing mental healthcare.

Over the decades of unresolved issues and changing policy, these voices have become pleadings. Now the pleadings have
become a cry for change. Our nation must address the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. In doing so, perhaps we can
begin to rebuild our moral character to once again become the welcoming nation that our founders had envisioned.

Bob described both his and his wife's illnesses as a combination of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Bob's emotional turmoil began early in childhood with behavior difficulties at home and in school, which soon socially separated him from most of his peers. After continued social isolation, Bob's life was further distraught after being sexually abused by a neighbor as an adolescent. Bob hid his pain through what became chronic alcohol use. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, added additional lifelong complications. Eventually, after short-term stays in hospitals for mental care, he spent a year and a half in a nursing home where he received electro-convulsive therapy and a regimen of medication. There he met Melissa.

Bob and Melissa married after about two years of courtship. They found themselves quite inseparable, making their home in government-subsidized housing where Bob provided Melissa with guidance and attention in the most basic details of daily life. Melissa was unable to remember directions (N.S.E.W.), therefore getting lost easily.  Bob felt truly needed, and believed he had found a dear friend with whom he could share his life. Bob was unemployed for over 14 years prior to receiving Social Security Disability because of his challenges and the substantial quantities of medication he was prescribed. When at home, he enjoyed listening to his collection of cassette and eight-track tapes of ’70s pop and soft rock music, as well as an extensive collection of recorded humor, collected audio recordings of numerous Johnny Carson monologues, comedy guests like George Carlin and Bob Hope, and other humor- related programs. Bob found enjoyment by recording and editing these tapes for hours on end.

Bob also wrote and recorded his own music in hopes of publication. The wholeness through self-expression that Bob experienced helped bring solace throughout his life. He hand-cut and edited the cassette tapes of his recordings as he sat on his living room floor. He produced demo tapes that he hoped to sell to recording companies. Bob’s written lyrics, sheet music, and original audio recordings are included to provide an immersion into his life and creative spirit.

Bob and Melissa relied on public transportation for all of their travels. The agencies and businesses they frequented are spread out all over town, some not serviced by the bus system, making a trip to more than one location frequently an all-day affair. (This was prior to the government cell phone access program, so Bob and Melissa were forced to use their neighbors phone when needed, as they could not afford service).

At home, Bob did all the cooking, bookkeeping, and laundry. Meals were kept simple with few dishes to wash. Bob prepared cold cereal by pouring powdered milk and sweetener into a bowl, adding cereal, then pouring cold water over the whole thing. This saved having to mix and store the powdered milk ahead of time. For Bob, keeping track of the family finances involved pouring over a maze of complex government forms with their confusing and sometimes conflicting rules, exclusions, and due dates.

Through it all, Bob and Melissa maintained a simple Christian faith with family prayer and some church attendance. Their care for each other and a spark of humor further bound their relationship.

The project is a composite of photographs from Bob and Melissa's daily life, his personal reflections, and both his written and preformed music. Approached as a social documentary and not as a photojournalistic effort, it was conceived to be experienced as a synergy of visual, written, and audio elements. The photographs are to be viewed as parts of the whole, not necessarily individual artistic endeavors.

Bob’s music has been registered with the U.S. copyright office, although he passed away never having the opportunity to see his music published. An MP3 download of Bob’s music is available for purchase to make his dream a reality. 100% of the profits from sales will be donated to support music education for the underserved beginning in Bob’s home community.

Bob and Melissa's life, as I have been able to experience it, has shown itself to be a tribute to persistence, stubborn love, and a simple faith in the midst of an incredibly complex and unforgiving healthcare system.

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