Painting over Bureaucracy

By Michael Beadle

Phyllis Jarvinen was tired of all the paperwork, the endless forms and bureaucratic red tape that clogged up her job as a therapist working with children.

Since the state of North Carolina tried to reform its mental health care system several years ago, it’s been nothing but headaches and confusion for this former school therapist who now works part time for KIDS Place, a children’s advocacy center in Franklin. Too often, Jarvinen explains, the hours it takes just to fill out the documents delays key services from being provided to children who are victims of sexual abuse, neglect and online predators.

So after writing letters to newspapers and politicians in an effort to raise awareness about how maligned the system has gotten, Jarvinen decided to try another avenue — art.

Having recently enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Western Carolina University, she found a way to channel two of her lifelong passions — art and therapy. The result became a series of thought-provoking paintings now on display at the Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City.

“Pilgrimage to the Dark Star and Other Works,” which is on exhibit through March, is actually a mix of two themes for Jarvinen. About half the paintings are outdoor scenes, swirling pools of water, creekbeds and familiar river haunts for local hikers. As a 10-year veteran of the Nantahala Outdoor Center back in the 1980s, Jarvinen worked as a cook and rafting guide along various rivers in the region and has traveled throughout the country hiking parks and painting water scenes. Her works include gicleè prints of Bradley Fork, Deep Creek and Kephart Prong, and acrylic paintings of Cullowhee Creek and Nantahala Falls. Currents churn around boulders sculpted by ancient mountain streams. It’s a timeless interplay of movement and stability, fluid and solid forms finding balance.

But the second part of Jarvinen’s exhibit takes on that paper trail of documents which has become such a source of frustration to her and fellow professionals in her field. Using all sorts of monotonous forms and letters as a backdrop on the canvas, she painted, screenprinted and collaged images to create a layered story of children caught in the struggle of government regulations.

Jarvinen’s paintings take children’s faces, house advertisements, cookie-cutter images of paper dolls and even rows of coats from an L.L. Bean catalogue to illustrate a kind of Orwellian world in which words symbolize the false promise of order and the threat to individuality. Though a “pilgrimage” seems to suggest a journey to some place of peace, the “Dark Star” becomes a kind of oxymoron of misguided hope.

In the face of frustration in her work as a therapist, Jarvinen has learned to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Her titles hint at her sardonic wit — “The Devil is in the (Repetitive, Mind-Numbingly, Endless) Details,” “Cutting Corners,” and “The Buck Stops Short of Here.” The mental health field is certainly not the only place people feel overwhelmed by paperwork.

“I think everybody can relate to that,” Jarvinen says.

A relentless repetition of words crowds these paintings but also draws the eye deeper into its subjects.

“Repetition of words can paradoxically remove meaning while also raising questions,” Jarvinen notes in her artist statement. “Words used to hide intent become nonsense and their repetition may bring meaning to light if held up to close scrutiny.”

Jarvinen welcomes all sorts of questions with this exhibit — what does all this paperwork accomplish? Who benefits and who loses as these rules and procedures are implemented? Why does each new governmental program promise to make life better for its citizens when it only seems to complicate things even worse?

One of the largest pieces in the exhibit — “Dear Governor (Lifting the Veil)” — is a self-portrait of Jarvinen pointing into a veil-shrouded dollhouse where all the bodies are prone or face down on beds. The background is pasted with letters and documents of correspondence between Jarvinen and Gov. Mike Easley’s office about the mental health reform crisis.


Art and Therapy

Jarvinen grew up as the eldest of four children in a military family that moved around throughout her childhood, finally settling in Florida. Born in Illinois and now a resident of Webster, she’s lived all over the country. Perhaps all the moving made it easier to meet people, but she’s always felt at ease listening to people’s stories, whether it was family relatives or patients in drug rehab.

Around 2003, she took some time off from her work as a therapist to take art classes at the University of Minnesota. Throughout her life, she had sought art as a kind of therapy, a fun way to make sense of the world and to document experiences.

About the same time she was in Minnesota, state-funded mental health centers began cutting jobs, and many therapists had to start out on their own. When Jarvinen returned to North Carolina to continue her work as a therapist, the mental health system had drastically changed.

“There is no mental health system in the state,” Jarvinen now declares. “There’s isn’t one. It’s destroyed.”

When she sought art as a kind of therapy from this stress of paperwork, Jarvinen took the very object of her frustration as the source of inspiration. The forms and documents became fodder for artistic expression. Thus, a Medicaid form becomes a template to distort and decorate with layers of paint.

The gobbledygook of legalese gone amok makes it hard for therapists to know what services they can contract for and get paid for, Jarvinen explains, so the very people who need services the most are denied or delayed while professionals are left shaking their heads over the sheer paperwork — some of which they’re not even billed for completing even though it could take hours out of their day jobs.

Jarvinen believes the state is abusing its right to regulate mental health care services and has created a needless bureaucracy of codes and forms and rules.

“There’s an ulterior motive,” she says, “and I think it is to drive people out of business.”

Jarvinen sees the future of mental health services moving towards a handful of privatized Wal-Mart-type mega-corporations instead of a myriad of smaller health care providers. Only the larger companies that can keep up with the documentation and incessant rule changes will be able to manage.

This big-box theme shows up in her latest art exhibit. Some pieces give the impression of flowcharts with colorful boxes that keep the eye guessing as to where the focal point should be.

“I think it invites you to study it more,” said Tracy Chapple, a long-time friend of Jarvinen’s and a psychology instructor at Southwestern Community College.

It’s as if a cunning prankster was able to break into the government’s offices, sneak off with some regulation manuals, and turn those pages into a coloring book collaged with photos, crayon drawings and rubber stamps.

In Jarvinen’s paintings, words bleed into each other, expand, contract, transform into symbols and nonsense fonts, and race in various directions and angles like a labyrinth of city streets. Jarvinen paints plumes of ominous clouds, bright red bull’s eyes, obelisks, yellow blocks, shafts of light — a myriad of abstractions — to cover the endless repetition of bureaucratic words. Some typed words stream across the landscape, masking faces, dulling people’s expressions, reducing them to automatons.

But amid these bleak scenes, Jarvinen also introduces a cartwheeling blonde-haired girl who plays the acrobatic jester, the child of innocence as a reminder of hope and humor.

This girl shows up in many of the paintings as a symbol of mischief and wonder, the child who will not succumb to the pressures of conformity.

For more information about “Pilgrimage to the Dark Star and Other Works,” call the Swain County Center for the Arts at 828.488.7843 to schedule a viewing or go to Phyllis Jarvinen’s art is also on display at

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