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Breaking the Mask

Network, Spring 2004

Singer-songwriter James Gordon has spent almost 30 years performing, as founder and former member of the Canadian folk trio Tamarack, as a solo artist, and more recently with pop musician Sandy Horne. He has over 30 albums to his credit, and still maintains a gruelling tour itinerary that regularly takes him to cities across North America. He composes music for theatre and dance, teaches songwriting workshops in schools, and has his own recording studio where, in his free time, he produces other artists. Just in case that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he’s also written a book, A Thousand and One Canadian Nights, describing what it’s like to spend a large chunk of your life on the road, touring as a singer.

But when his 15-year-old son was diagnosed with a mental illness, James Gordon decided he needed to add something else to the mix. He considered how he could use his performance abilities to somehow reach teenagers like his son, hoping that artistic expression would make a difference in their lives. He soon discovered that being given the chance to express themselves through a picture or a song or a painting gave them greater confidence. More than that, it gave them a voice to express the things that were important to them. Gordon realized that if he could help young people reach a wider audience of their own peer group, re-telling their own story in a way that other teens could identify with, not only would it get the message out about mental illness, but the ones delivering the message would be given a chance to grow through the experience.

Breaking the Mask, a video that incorporated all the talents of a team of 10 young artists, was the vehicle he used. The symbolism in the video is that of one person finally having the courage to pull off his mask, willing to be seen for who he is. That mask was taken off symbolically in the video, but for some of the young artists who shared their stories with their peers in a question-and-answer format after the video was shown, that mask was literally thrown away.

Sponsored by the Homewood Foundation, with the participation of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, Breaking the Mask had its debut in June 2001 in Guelph, Ontario and again at the National Conference for Schizophrenia in Toronto. Although none of the participants had any previous video experience, they were collectively responsible for every aspect of the production, sharing their stories through music, drama, art, poetry and photography. Gordon’s son, Evan, acted as musical director.

For production manager Joanne Tofflemire, who suffered from depression and an eating disorder through high school, the process brought greater confidence in herself, her work capabilities, and her ability to communicate effectively with others. Other participants called it an “incredible opportunity to learn new skills,” and said they gained a new realization that “mental illness doesn’t have to cripple you.”

Breaking the Mask continues to be shown in schools across Canada and the United States. Gordon has produced a study guide for teachers, and whenever possible he attends the viewing, ready to answer questions from teen audiences.

His advocacy work didn’t stop with Breaking the Mask. At about the same time, Gordon founded the Family Mental Health Network in Guelph, which successfully lobbied for an Assertive Community Treatment team. In 2003 he launched “Tour of Hope,” a series of awareness-raising and fundraising concerts in the United States, with proceeds going to support educational programs for local chapters of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

In 2003 Gordon also recorded 1 in 5, a twelve-song CD about mental health issues. “The songs are from personal stories people have shared with me,” he told an interviewer. “Some are dark, others bright.” The title track refers to the high prevalence of mental illness, the fact that one in five people will experience it in their lifetime.

More recently, Gordon has turned his attention to theatre. In October 2003, he debuted Hardscrabble Road, a dramatic musical about homelessness, and he is currently working with Spark of Brilliance, a community-based arts program, to create a theatrical production about mental health. In the same manner as Breaking the Mask, participants will take on all levels of responsibility, including writing, acting, video documentation, and live production.

Teamwork and creativity have proven to be a successful combination in the past. “Being involved with the Breaking the Mask video was my first big step in getting back into the community,” says artist Jay Lefler. “It was a collaborative work of ten people that James Gordon orchestrated. It was a big project, it took nine months, but it was well organized and it ended up being a landmark event in my life.”

Viewers agreed. After watching the video, one member of the audience commented, “I changed my mind about the future of young people who are diagnosed with mental illness. Good things can happen. There is hope.”

For more information about James Gordon, or to purchase videos and CDs, visit www.jamesgordon.ca.


Speaking Out

As a child and young teenager, Joanne Tofflemire loved taking photographs, mainly of the family dog, Suzy. Working as the production manager for Breaking the Mask was the doorway to improving her self-esteem and getting her involved in photography once again.

“Photography helps me feel safe,” says Tofflemire. “The camera acts like a protective barrier between me and the world and helps me find the courage to interact with people in various settings when I would otherwise be too afraid to become involved. This is important because it is so easy to become isolated.”

“The act of creating, for me, is anything that helps me to feel connected both with my true self and the world around me. Interacting with nature, the ultimate creation — interacting with life — is probably the most important part of my creative process, my healing journey, and my life’s journey.”

“Four years ago I really struggled with telling my story. But I’ve learned that the best way to deal with it is to speak out.”


» Return to Network, Spring 2004 – Contents