Arts feature: 'Vulnerable Strength: Naima van der Does, in memoriam'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive
Naima van der Does

Rasheedah Crawley doesn't usually check Facebook at night; it helps her avoid getting so riled up she can't sleep. But last Jan. 23 she was moved by some force to look in. When she saw that Naima van der Does had posted, “Nobody is to blame except me. I am sorry for hurting everyone,” she knew her friend was gone.

An incoming call a few minutes later from Naima's father, Michael Vander Does, confirmed it. It was a difficult but, unfortunately, not unexpected call. Naima had struggled with bipolar depression her entire life — her father said that it began to manifest itself when she was 2 years old. She had sought and received treatment from a variety of sources, yet had still attempted to take her own life on numerous occasions, the first when she was in her teens.

Those close to Naima knew what her mental illness was doing to her, and they had sought some therapy of their own to help cope with what they knew would be the ultimate, painful, devastating outcome.

“I'm not mad at her. I had a lot of good years, and I knew we weren't going to get the same amount of time as friends as some others are going to get,” Crawley said. “She survived so much longer than she could have. We always knew we could lose her that way.”

“I knew she wasn't going to live to be 60. [The news of her death] was devastating, but it wasn't a shock,” Michael Vander Does said in an interview at his Clintonville home, with a selection of Naima's paintings filling up two rooms, which were awaiting transport to Fresh A.I.R. Gallery, where they'll be on exhibit as “Vulnerable Strength: Naima van der Does in memoriam,” opening Wednesday, Dec. 19.

“It's pretty much the worst thing I've ever been through in my life,” he said, seemingly needing to state the brutal truth aloud.

Michael said his daughter had always shown an interest and ability in art, but it wasn't until her high school years at Fort Hayes Arts & Academic High School that she took it seriously. Her illness nearly kept her from graduating, but eventually she enrolled at CCAD, where she would learn techniques and have her eyes opened to the possibilities in her painting, even though she was unable to complete her studies. She turned to figurative painting, and while her illness wasn't obvious in her work, it certainly informed it, Michael said.

As did her politics. An activist, Naima was involved in Black Lives Matter, protested in Ferguson and advocated for mental health.

“She was a strong, vibrant, involved person who provided support to others in their mental health issues,” Michael said. “But her brain would give her conflicting messages saying, ‘You're worthless,' [and], ‘People would be better off without you.' She was always struggling between what she felt her place was in the world and what her mental illness lied to her about.”

Naima knew they were lies, Michael said, but there's only so much you can do when your brain is relentless. Still, Naima fought for others who suffered the way she did.

“People would call her up when they were suicidal and she would talk them down,” he said, choking up. “The number of people … at her memorial who said she saved their lives was incredible.”

Before her death, Naima had applied for and been granted a show at Fresh A.I.R., an initiative of Southeast Inc., one of the agencies from which Naima would receive care when she couldn't cope on her own. It's important, Michael said, that the exhibition go on.

“She was proud of her art, and she knew that you don't make art in a vacuum,” he said. “I never considered not doing the show. She wanted people to see this work.”

“Art was so much of who she was, and so we continue the show to honor her talent, but also to point up the issues facing those with mental illness, for people to get to know [Naima and her story],” Gallery Manager Lauren Pond said.

Michael recalled an exchange with Naima while he was helping her fill out the application to exhibit at Fresh A.I.R. “She came over and brought the application,” he said, “and was saying, ‘They want to know all this stuff about what I'm thinking, and I don't know any of that. I don't decide. I paint.'”

“Vulnerable Strength” will remain on view through Jan. 11, 2019.

Fresh A.I.R. Gallery

Reception 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19

131 N. High St., Downtown

"Vulnerable Strength"