Three-day festival celebrates Zelda Fitzgerald and mental health initiatives

BRINGING ART TO THE COMMUNITY: Trey Mourey is among the participants at Aurora Studio & Gallery's free weekly art class. The organization works with individuals who have mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Photo courtesy of Lori Greenberg

In a 1938 letter concerning his wife’s mental health, author (and occasional Asheville resident) F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Supposing Zelda at best would be a lifelong eccentric, supposing that in two or three years there is certain to be a sinking[.] I am still haunted by the fact that if it were me, and Zelda were passing judgment, I would want her to give me a chance.”

The letter’s recipient, Dr. Robert Carroll, was the founder and director of Highland Hospital in Asheville. Celebrated flapper Zelda Fitzgerald first arrived at the facility in April 1936, seeking treatment for schizophrenia. She spent the final decade of her life in and out of the institution. On March 10, 1948, she and eight other patients perished in a fire at the hospital. In subsequent years, both her diagnosis and the treatments surrounding her illness have been scrutinized by biographers.

A writer, dancer and painter, Zelda found solace in many art forms while confronting her mental health issues. In its second year, the local festival Celebrate Zelda! looks to highlight and honor these endeavors in conjunction with the anniversary of her untimely and tragic death. The three-day happening, held Friday through Sunday, March 10-12, will feature a series of local readings, performances and events.

The Asheville Art Museum will launch this year’s celebration with Art Break: The Art of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald at noon Friday, March 10. It centers on an abstract floral painting by Zelda (circa 1945) titled “Japanese Magnolias.”

ABSTRACT WORK: The Asheville Art Museum acquired Zelda Fitzgerald's "Japanese Magnolias," in 1997. It has been on display in the past and will be so once again for Celebrate Zelda!
ABSTRACT WORK: The Asheville Art Museum acquired Zelda Fitzgerald’s “Japanese Magnolias” in 1997. It will be on display for Celebrate Zelda! Photo courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum

“The painting really stands the test of time, and it rewards deep looking,” says Pam Myers, director of the Asheville Art Museum. Art Break also includes a gallery talk and a reading by local writer and poet Melanie McGee Bianchi. Myers says both activities promote “alternative avenues of interpretation for viewers to find their way into the painting.”

Lori Greenberg, who co-organized Celebrate Zelda!, views the three-day series as a way to spotlight the benefits of the creative process for those struggling with mental health issues. “Art really does help restore a person’s self-confidence and ability to feel better about themselves,” she says.

Greenberg is the founder of Aurora Studio & Gallery, a program that provides free weekly and monthly art workshops for individuals struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. The volunteer-based program began in 2012. Both its art supplies and classroom spaces come through donations by a number of local artists and organizations. “I’ve had a few people struggling with their depression say to me, ‘This is the first time I got out of bed all week because I wanted to be here,’” Greenberg says. “They come to be with the group and work on art and feel that strength through community.”

Many of those who participate in the workshops will have their pieces available for sale at the Outsider Art Sale. The event, which is part of Celebrate Zelda!, will take place Saturday, March 11, from 6 to 9 p.m. at The Academy at Terpsicorps. Greenberg hopes the show will shine light on both the individuals and the organization. Proceeds from the sale will benefit both the artists and the program.

A dance recital will be performed that same evening by students from Terpsicorps. Titled “Zelda’s Dance,” the piece is an abridged version of a full-length production that Terpsicorps’ artistic director, Heather Maloy, intends to bring to the stage in the future. The performance will focus on three periods of Zelda’s life: when she and Scott first met, their relationship during the peak of Scott’s literary success and the final years of her life spent in hospitalization.

The recital will also highlight Zelda’s affinity for dance. During the Fitzgeralds’ 1927 stay in Paris, she rediscovered her childhood passion for ballet. “I worked constantly and was terribly superstitious and moody about my work,” Zelda wrote in a 1932 autobiographical sketch. “I lived a quiet, ghostly, hypersensitized [sic] world of my own. Scott drank.”

Maloy notes one of the greatest challenges in producing “Zelda’s Dance” was finding a balanced account of the Scott and Zelda story. “Each book that’s been written has had a different point of view,” she says. Some works cast Zelda in a negative light, suggesting her mental health issues led to Scott’s own turmoil and alcoholism. Others point to Scott’s alcoholism and possessiveness as the source of Zelda’s struggles.

“I think it’s probably somewhere in between the two,” says Maloy. “That they loved each other, but were a difficult pairing.”

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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