The hope to become whole

Ellen Pasay working on a sculpture at Eastern Connecticut State University in fall 2008. She studied briefly at Warren Wilson, and a show of her paintings is up at Posana Cafe. Photo by Nick Lacy, courtesy Anne Burke

At the age of 18, I yearned to find a place to live where my ideals and notions of personal responsibility could thrive. My attempt at college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina did not succeed. Travelling there was a long-distance excursion that did grant me one clue in finding a place where I could witness a clearer picture of a lifestyle I longed for. Without living the disciplined lifestyle of an artist, I would not find bliss. That apparently is what I must have claimed to desire in conversations with people. I did not own the responsibility; I only spoke hesitantly around the hope to become a whole artist.



— Ellen Pasay 1981-2009

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Ellen Pasay battled manic-depressive episodes for 10 years, and was hospitalized at least eight times. In April of 2009, she took her own life at the age of 28. Though the paragraph above suggests that Pasay struggled to define herself as an artist, an exhibition of her work, An Unfinished Woman, now on display at Posana Café, reveals a dedicated woman who spent countless hours devoted to her craft.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Pasay’s mother, Anne Burke, arranged the exhibit to shed light on mental health issues. Burke spoke candidly with Xpress about her daughter’s illness, with hopes of quelling the stigma and shame felt by families and patients diagnosed with a mental illness.

“When you have the battle of depression, you just feel like you’re the worst person in the world. I compare it to beating yourself to death,” says Burke, who has been living with depression for most of her life. “Ellen grew up with both parents having to be hospitalized for mental illnesses. This goes on in families all the time. It needs to be talked about more.”

In addition to her work as an artist, Pasay is described by her mother as “a gentle soul who loved art, music, nature, gardening, cooking and spending time with children.” As she continued to have manic-depressive episodes, Pasay kept journals to document her feelings. “In her last notes to herself she wrote that she felt the need for rebirth. I feel like she didn’t want to be a burden to society or a burden to her family — that’s my belief,” says Burke. “When you’re manic you do things that are uncharacteristic of your behavior, and then the depression sets in. I think she feared living a life like that — with the constant ups and downs.”

An Unfinished Woman
represents a sample of the huge assortment of paintings and drawings Pasay left behind. Many of them are landscapes she made while still in high school under the tutelage of her mentor, David Brewster. Her figurative studies are astutely rendered, and her self-portraits gaze with sincerity at the viewer. A pastel drawing of her father (who was also bipolar) calls to mind the German expressionists with its fiery use of color and distorted angles.

Pasay was born in Connecticut and visited Asheville while in high school to work at her aunt and uncle’s restaurant, the former Café on the Square — where Posana Café is now located. In 1999, she briefly attended Warren Wilson College and later moved to Olympia, Wash. “She was painting a lot out there,” says Burke, “I think some of her best work was made during that period.”

After a manic-depressive episode on the West Coast, Pasay relocated to Connecticut in 2004. A poignant painting of the windows of her studio, made by Pasay during that time, gives insight into the final years of her life. A loosely painted sepia window contrasts with a brighter, more defined window that reveals a sun-filled sky beckoning flight. 

“In Connecticut she had three years of incredible personal growth,” says Burke, “But then she went off her medication, and I didn’t know that. The two things to keep a person well are to stay on your meds and to stay in touch with your therapist.”
Says Burke, “Accepting the illness is the hardest part. Ellen accepted it, but she didn’t want to live with it.”

Though Burke lives in Connecticut, she is a strong advocate for the services of CooperRiis mental-health treatment community, located in Mill Spring and Asheville. An alternative model for mental health care, CooperRiis integrates psychiatry, nutritional counselling and life skills into its community-based programs. Burke speculates what might have happened had Pasay known about CooperRiis. “They give patients something to do instead of just sitting around all day. They have an art studio and gardens. Ellen would have loved that.”

An Unfinished Woman
will be on display at Posana Café until May 29. The Ellen Pasay Memorial Fund was established to provide educational scholarships and support for local art centers. For additional information contact Donations can be made to Cooper Riis at NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness,

— Ursula Gullow writes about art for Mountain Xpress and her blog,

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