by Mary Seymour, Director of Recovery Initiatives

This painting is the most treasured item in my office.

Palm Bright

It reminds me of where I come from and why I do the work I do. Its message is both poignant and hopeful.

My grandfather, Jon Gnagy, created the painting in 1935, while he was a patient at a mental institution in Philadelphia. Jonnie ended up there after having a psychotic episode; my mother, who was six at the time, remembers him lying on the living room couch and saying, “Take the children away! God is telling me to kill them!” My grandmother made an emergency phone call, and attendants came and whisked Jonnie off in an ambulance. He was twenty-eight.

At the time, my grandparents were living in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Jonnie was working for an ad agency. He was under tremendous stress both professionally and domestically, with a wife and two young children to provide for, while all he really wanted to do was paint.

Jonnie and my grandmother Mary Jo, three decades after his hospitalization
Jonnie and my grandmother, Mary Jo, 25 years after his hospitalization

Jonnie spent the next nine months in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with dementia praecox (“precocious madness”), a chronic, progressive disorder marked by delusions and steadily disintegrating thoughts . The doctors said his disease was not curable, and he was likely to have more breakdowns. They gave him elephant-strength sedatives and electroconvulsive therapy.

As his mind began to emerge from its neuron-tossed storm, Jonnie took  a box of paints and illustration board into the hospital solarium. He painted what he saw: a potted palm bathed in golden light. His brush strokes were sure and clear, his colors dazzlingly intense. Vibrant shades of orange, green, and yellow saturated his creation.

That day, in the sun-washed solarium, Jonnie began to come back to life. He reconnected with the things that fed his spirit: light, color, beauty, art. “Potted Palm” marked his first brave, vivid steps back to selfhood.

Jonnie was never hospitalized again, but his symptoms followed him for the rest of his life. He alternated between phases of expansive, charismatic, highly creative energy and low, dark, depressive cycles. Throughout it all, he drank. Today he would most likely have a dual diagnosis of alcohol dependence and bipolar disorder.

And yet he managed to be a star at NBC, where he became the first nationally televised art instructor. His show, Learn to Draw, reached millions of viewers in the 1950s and ‘60s. He continued to make his living as an artist until his death in 1981.

Jonnie in an NBC publicity shot
Jonnie in an NBC publicity shot

I only met Jonnie twice, but we are connected in ways both mysterious and clear. Like him, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital due to a psychotic episode. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a creative spirit that is both a curse and a blessing.

These days I work at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, where I help spread the word that people can and do recover from mental health challenges. The work, while inspiring, can also be draining. When I falter, I look at Jonnie’s painting.

It tells me that even in the midst of suffering, there is beauty and light and hope.

Thank you, Jonnie, for reminding me.