Jessica Tookey

is creating Art to Save Lives
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About Jessica Tookey

I am so happy that you are here! Your pledge will help my suicide prevention efforts. The more funds that I get in, the more I can give back to people who have lost a loved one. You can be a giver of light, just by pledging. That means you care about art, and life in general.  

Here's the whole story...why I am who I am and WHY I decided to focus on suicide prevention...

I’d like you to try to imagine a curly-headed little girl drawing - and writing - with her left hand, even before she starts school. Her big sister would come home from school and teach everything learned that day so, the little girl could draw and write well before other children her age.

Picture this little girl, starting school full of excitement because she wanted to show her teacher how much she already knew. But soon found out she was doing it wrong and was made to change. She did not know this would be the first of many well-meaning adults that would try to change her.

Now, imagine this little girl winning coloring and art contests with her right hand. And even though she was already winning money and prizes for her art, listen as she is told she can’t make any money as an artist and needs a “real job.” She feels lost because she knows she’s an artist but is told over and over again that she can’t be.

I don’t have to imagine all of this, the little girl was me. When I first discovered, many years later, that my kindergarten teacher had made me switch hands, I was very annoyed. Thankfully, this turned out to be a blessing because last year I discovered I can work with both hands at the same time. But that’s a whole other story. Come talk to me later, and see it in action because I’ll be drawing in my booth, just over there.

For now, here’s the rest of my story.
I always excelled in all things artistic. I joke that I am good at it because my family was boring. They really weren’t, but as a child, I thought they were. Whenever we visited family, I would get bored out of my mind staying inside so we could “spend time with our grandparents and the rest of the family.”

So, rather than sit and twiddle my thumbs like the rest of the family, I brought my sketchbook. I would make a drawing in my grandparents’ house and then give it to someone when it was time to leave. Everyone always told little me that I was very good and I would reply excitedly, “I’m going to be an artist when I grow up.” Yet, it seemed the adults never failed to smash my dreams by saying, “that’s a great hobby, but what are you going to do for a real job?” Throughout elementary school, the well-meaning adults in my life -teachers and family - continued to try to guide me to a “real job,” until I felt completely lost. I knew in my heart that I was an artist, but they kept telling me that I couldn’t be one.

The first time I remember having suicidal thoughts, I was in the third grade. The teasing at school began to really bother me and I struggled with WHO I was. By this time, I was quite a tomboy, with hair cut short and doing all the things the boys loved to do. Most girly stuff just wasn’t cool in my mind. It also seemed like the bus driver was constantly yelling at me, “Little boy, turn around and sit down!” I didn’t listen, which would make him even angrier and eventually pull over the bus... I wasn’t a little boy so he couldn’t be talking to me. Of course, being called a little boy by the driver made the teasing worse. He knew where I lived, I almost always wore big earrings to show I was a girl, yet somehow he couldn’t remember I was a girl.

Intent on showing the other kids that I was cool, I misbehaved on the bus, talked back to the driver, and got many pink slips. At one point, I was nearly kicked off. I don’t know if this new attitude was the result of not being allowed to be ME, but I certainly never wanted to do what was expected of me. I hated to look at myself in the mirror because when I turned sideways, I disappeared, except I had a huge nose and a mustache (well, I did have a little fuzz but now I proudly attribute that and my nose to my Basque heritage). I honestly DID look like a boy, but I didn’t want to be called one. I was very hard on myself, and whatever the other kids said about me became my words to myself. I often was a brat to people, lashing out and hurting others, which I guess was my way of coping. Don’t get me wrong, I had plenty of friends and was outgoing, yet I always felt like an outcast. I constantly had the feeling that everyone would be better off without me and no one would miss me if I were gone.

As a child, trying to figure out who I was, since I couldn’t be an artist, my behavior became increasingly self-destructive. I began to self-harm in elementary school, but never enough that anyone noticed. And, if I started to cry over something someone said or did, I would press my nails so hard in to my skin that I would bleed, as I said to myself, “only the weak cry.” I became an expert at bottling everything up and putting on a good face. It got so bad that as a teen, I held the iron on my hand just so I could feel SOMETHING. I kept it there long enough to hear the sizzle of my skin, telling my mom later that I accidentally knocked the iron over. I didn’t want anyone to know about my inner turmoil.

I began drinking alcohol regularly at age thirteen (I don’t remember how I always had access to something to drink, but I did). By age fifteen, I was secretly drinking from a thirty-two ounce mug full of Rum and Coke almost every day at school. I remember cheering at a basketball game, barely able to stand, because I had had too much to drink that day. I told my cheer coach that I just didn’t feel well and needed to sit down. After almost getting caught that night, I backed off the alcohol at school, but continued to sneak out and go to parties regularly until the summer of my junior year when I got pregnant. This was a wakeup call for me, and a dear friend helped me realize what a blessing it was.

Through all of this, I was still drawing and painting because it wasn’t possible to stop completely. In those years, I was known as the girl who was good at her “hobby” of art. By the end of my senior year, I figured I would settle for being an art teacher, since I couldn’t be an artist. I now had a beautiful little girl to take care of. She was born two weeks before my high school graduation and was present at my commencement. I started classes at Treasure Valley Community College, including art classes, which I loved and still excelled, but my struggle continued with feeling lost and suicidal. When a second abusive relationship was coming to an end, I found myself sitting in a dark bathroom with a razor blade. It was one of my darkest moments. I couldn’t see any reason I should continue on. And then my little girl -who always slept soundly through the night - cried out for me at the crucial moment, bringing me back to the light. She gave me a purpose, and saved my life.

Thankfully, not long after that incident in the dark bathroom, I married Chuck, an amazingly supportive man. He adopted my little girl, which made our family feel complete. Unfortunately, this peacefulness soon suffered another blow when I was told at age 28 that I was in premature ovarian failure. Even though we had decided we didn’t want any more children, it was still very difficult to be told that I could NOT have any more. Around this time, I was also diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I began taking medication, which was horrible for me. I was a zombie. My creativity was zapped. Eventually, I decided I didn’t need the medication (it helped that the obgyn had finally gotten my hormones under control). I was feeling better but it seemed a good time to write out my funeral wishes and goodbye letters to all my loved ones, just in case I didn’t live long. I didn’t have any plans, but I wanted to be prepared.

I was “fine” for several years until I was pushed to the edge again after a stressful day teaching at Kuna High School and a horrible fight with our daughter, who was a teen at the time. I can’t even remember now what we fought about, but once again I felt everyone would be better off without me. But, this time, God’s light was shining bright. As my husband and daughter kept trying to reach me on the phone, I drove to a cliff outside of town...but Air 1 radio and their calls pulled me back from the harm. In 2014, when our daughter graduated and moved out, I was lost again. I had always just been “mom”...what would I do now? I was teaching full time but was not happy. It was a former student who gave me the courage to follow my dreams. She had been posting all sorts of inspirational things and was writing about a local networking group. I decided to put my art portfolio together and go to the group’s “power breakfast.” It was absolutely terrifying but glorious! For the first time in a long time, I felt like ME again - the person I was supposed to be.

In the first two years after our daughter’s graduation from high school, I exhibited in more than twenty locations and left teaching to be a full time artist. My life is not easy - I work seven days a week to create custom art for clients and exhibits - but I finally feel like I am doing what I was made to do. The first exhibit I created was on the theme of anti-bullying. I selected five girls (one of them my daughter) who weren’t society’s typical beauty. I knew they had been picked on because of how they looked, even though they are all truly beautiful girls and I remembered how that made me feel. This exhibit was called “What is Beauty?” Then, while working on these portraits, the idea came to me that it would be powerful to connect with families who had lost a loved one to suicide, and to create portraits of those people for display, side-by-side with these girls. Half the faces would be of people who overcame bullying and half would be those who could not find a way out.

My intention was to make people realize that their words could be either the saving grace or the final push for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts.

This idea has become a mental health and suicide prevention exhibit that has an underlying anti-bullying message that is called, “Words Matter.” It has been shown at about 20 location (I have lost count) and continues to travel and grow. I have teamed up with a local non-profit, called Gr8ter (there’s our booth right over there), to help this exhibit get in front of more people. I believe Words Matter is making a difference in many lives, including the families who chose to share their loved one’s story. It allows that loved one to continue to make a difference, even after they are gone.

While I was working on one of the portraits of a suicide victim, I suddenly felt as if I had been hit with a ton of bricks. I did NOT want to be one of these faces. I realized I was given a gift that I am supposed to share. That is why God woke my daughter up that night and why I was protected at the cliffs after our fight. Art has saved my life, and I believe my art has the ability to save the lives of others. Many watching my journey on social media have found hope and the strength to be who they truly are instead of letting society tell them who they are supposed to be.

I still struggle from time to time with the difficulties of life, but I am back to who I was created to be -left-handed, ambidextrous and all! I work hard to only allow positive self talk to happen in my head. If negativity creeps in, I squash it like a bug. One of the things that I use to smash negativity is this thought, I am going global with my art and I will continue to save lives with my gift because I know who I am. I am an artist, and art is life.

Won't you help me bring light and art back to the lives of those struggling in darkness?
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I am still adding faces to my "Words Matter" exhibition. It is on display in public galleries and pop up locations to open a dialogue about suicide and mental health. Half of the faces in my cover photo are of people who ended their life by suicide. The other half are faces of girls and guys who were bullied or struggled with mental health issues (but did not take their own lives). Displaying them together makes people realize that anyone could decide to end their life, you just never know what people are going through. Your donations will help me frame the drawings and continue this important work.
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