Catherine Edgerton is getting ready for a dinner party. It’s a sunny afternoon, and the light filters through the living room of her airy Durham home, brimming with potted plants, books, and artwork. The thirty-five-year-old has just put the finishing touches on a creamy chocolate dessert, and before an interview starts, she points out an important house rule: “You have to have a side pie,” she says matter-of-factly. “So if you would like some pie, this one is a chocolate tort. It’s setting.”
Edgerton, a Durham native and self-identified queer artist, has shaggy brown hair and a warm smile. An alligator is tattooed on her forearma symbol of a decision she made five years ago to quit drinking. It’s a theme that makes its way into her personal artwork, which, among other things, explores addiction and mental health issues. In addition to oil painting, bookbinding, and making multimedia collage journals, Edgerton started making kaleidoscopes for people struggling with their own mental health and addiction issues after she got sober. Now she gives them away to people “with the purpose that they’d be re-given, so they’d have their own little journeys,” she explains. So far, she’s passed out twenty-two.
Edgerton distributes other resources to people struggling with mental health and addiction. As a member of Art Asylum, a Durham-based group comprising about fifteen people that “builds creative pathways and reduces isolation among folks who struggle with mental health and addiction,” she’s helped create a mental health resource guide for a range of Triangle-based care providers: therapists, healers, trans-affirming care providers, massage specialists, herbalists, and assault and family violence centers, to name a few. They’ve also compiled a customizable booklet of advanced directivesa guide for someone going through a mental health crisis who may be unable to make decisions or communicate effectively.
Edgerton says the decision to create the organization and the resources it provides came from a place of personal need. Art Asylum made the advanced directives, for example, after a friend had a psychotic break. “We didn’t have all of these things, and it was really awful,” she explains. After her friend got out of the hospital, he ended up contributing significantly to the project. “It feels important to me that everybody engaged in this work is benefiting from it.”
That includes Edgerton. As a high school student, she was institutionalized, expelled, and struggled with addiction. She came to internalize the idea that she was crazy and, in some ways, began to strongly identify with her diagnosis. Her perspective is different now; after years of art, community building, and sobriety, she sees her high school self as presenting symptoms of a “sick society.”
“Our culture and our system needs people to be crazy and criminal to institutionalize them and get them out of the way,” she says. “I think there was some piece of me that molecularly knew this that whole time. A lot of my art in high school was reflective of knowing that something was wrong and that it wasn’t me. And that I was carrying it in a way. I feel like I was reflecting a lot of the maladies of society.”
The experience didn’t just provide Edgerton with insight into society’s relationship with mental illness; it also helped her develop an understanding of her own privilege as a white woman relative to the care she received.
“I think a lot of other people who were going through the same stuff could have easily ended up in prison,” she says. “And so I came through it and gained the analysis of what it means to be privileged enough to come through that. It made me really critically think about the fact that it’s not random.”
Edgerton finishes her thought and steps into the kitchen. The pie is done, and it’s time to get started on the party’s savory fare. She grabs a handful of small potatoes, halves them, and then drizzles them with olive oil, placing them on a baking tray. The kitchen is bright and filled with spices; tacked on the wall to her right is a sketch of the “father of bluegrass music,” Bill Monroe.
As Edgerton continues methodically chopping, she talks about the specific mental health needs she sees manifesting in the community: stressors caused by gentrification, poverty, displacement, and the state legislature’s famous hostility toward the LGBTQ community and trans people in particular.
For now, Edgerton is hoping that more people find their way to Art Asylum’s mental health resources and advanced directives. As the conversation winds down, she makes sure to highlight one group of people in particular: the artists quietly working outside of the limelight.
“How many artists struggle with mental health do that in so much silence?” she asks. “You come home and you’re exhausted and go paint. I’m sure ninety-nine percent of people who live in that reality are anonymous. It’s such a privilege to be able to connect with other people doing that work.”
And with that, she returns to drizzling the potatoes. Evening is just around the corner, and her guests will soon be on the way.