This morning, I found out my freshman college professor had died. After some digging from some friends today (or just a simple google search, actually) we found out it was suicide. When we clicked on the second story, we realized how messed up she had been. Apparently schizophrenia ruled her life, and while she was an amazing woman, producing amazing artwork, she could only fight off the disease for so long.
I had no idea she was this troubled… it doesn’t seem that anyone did. We can all imagine her at Hartsfield, shutting down the runways while she grabbed a photo for her work. I remember when she announced she was moving to ATL – she was so excited, and she had discussions with me about the kudzu and its need to take everything over. She couldn’t wait to be a part of that world.
Even after reading this article, I can’t quite imagine. The Gretchen I knew was very calm. She dispensed the best criticisms, peppered with advice and kudos, but it was never emotional.
On Dec. 14, 2002, at 1:30 p.m., Atlanta artist Gretchen Hupfel arrived at Ed’s Gun and Tackle on Canton Road in Marietta, which advertised its “Indoor, Climate Controlled Ranges” open seven days a week. After filling out a release form, Gretchen rented a handgun and requested Lane 1 of the range, the one farthest from the customer entrance and next to the wall. She waited for 30 minutes for that lane to become available despite other lanes being open. At 2 p.m. she began shooting paper targets.
The other shooters who were in the firing range at the time never saw Gretchen turn her attention away from the target, lift the gun to her head and fire a bullet into the brain that had caused her so much suffering.
As news of her suicide traveled through Atlanta, family, friends and even acquaintances who only knew Gretchen through her work were shaken by the dark end to a life filled with such accomplishment and talent. Those who knew Gretchen, myself included, were haunted by the helpless feeling her death inspired — the feeling that, maybe, we could have done something to save her. Those closest to Gretchen had tried to surround her in a cocoon of support and protection.
But ultimately it was Gretchen who fought, and fought alone.
By the time she walked into that Marietta shooting range, Gretchen had been struggling for a very long time. It is tempting to say she didn’t kill herself, although that was the result. Instead, Gretchen destroyed the psychotic disorder that had plagued her for years.
Gretchen battled an illness that defined her art, which consisted of photography mostly, but also video and sculpture. Her obsession was with unseen dimensions: the airfoil lift of airplanes, the miracle of gravity and an atmosphere seemingly devoid of matter but buzzing with unseen communication in the form of power lines, radio waves and her own auditory hallucinations. The world of invisible forces in her photographs was a world Gretchen knew well from her own silent battle with schizophrenia. Though her illness was inarticulate, Gretchen’s art was uncannily communicative — even prescient.
Her work was a glimpse into the controlled environment she had built to keep chaos at bay. Her day-to-day existence was a network of routine: anti- psychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, doctors’ appointments, activities to fill the time so mania could not seep in and a diary to contain the spill-over ravings, as if even madness could be compartmentalized.
The same rigor and elegance that characterized Gretchen’s black-and-white photographs of airplanes and radio towers extended to her manner. Gretchen looked like something sprung from the world of her photographs — pared of extraneous detail, almost mechanical. I had never seen work that seemed to embody the personality of an artist so precisely.
From outside appearances, Gretchen was order and refinement, even at her sickest. She was thin and neat, with bleached white hair cropped into chic obedience. Her raspy voice, spiked with wit and pixyish charisma, suggested a tantalizing mixture of woman and child. That impish quality drew people to her, from the psychiatrists who treated her to the students she taught at the University of Georgia.
“What was so amazing about her,” says friend Sheila Swift, “was that she was so desperately ill but still carrying on in a way.”
None of the clerks working at the firing range that day noticed anything unusual or significant in Gretchen’s demeanor. She had returned to the counter twice with questions about the Glock 9 mm pistol she fired and still never drew their attention. Even on the day of her death, Gretchen fooled everyone.
Part of the nightmare of schizophrenia is the mystery that continues to surround it. Unlike other organic brain disorders such as Parkinson or Alzheimer’s, which target people at the end of their lives, schizophrenia is especially cruel. It typically strikes between ages 16-30, when victims are just beginning to survey their horizon, only to have it suddenly limited.
The manifestations of the disorder are the stuff of science fiction: an unimaginable invasion of the body snatchers in which the components of self-identity are overtaken by nightmarish symptoms. Sufferers hallucinate fully formed visuals and hear persecutory voices spewing horrifying litanies of self-hatred and rage.
“She was in a lot of pain, most of the time,” recalls Doug Allison, a psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner who treated Gretchen the last year of her life.
Schizophrenia has been described as a progressive death of the individual: The illness eats away at the personality of the sufferer. Medication can dull the symptoms but cannot eradicate them.
Gretchen heard the voices continuously. She suffered, by most accounts, from an extremely self-destructive strain of the disorder defined by constant suicidal thoughts, auditory hallucinations urging her to kill herself and a paranoia so profound she would often be convinced that people — whether a stranger walking across the street from her or someone in the room at a small gathering — were conspiring against her.
While Gretchen’s lovers saw the most brutal side of the disorder, friends saw little evidence of her manic, tortured side. Despite the onslaught of her most psychotic episodes, it was as if she never escaped the eager-to-please decorum that defined so much of her life.
Gretchen was born into a world of politeness and achievement in 1963 in the same small, affluent city where her parents, Alice and Mott, had grown up. Wilmington, Del., is known for its concentration of Du Pont money and preppie ambience. Her mother worked at the Delaware Art Museum and her father was a stockbroker. “As a kid she was also considered a fabulous artist,” her sister Allison recalls. “She was picked out very young as being very creative, very motivated, very smart. She always knew what she wanted to be — knew she wanted to be an artist.”
With that goal in mind, Gretchen attended Brown University. But in her junior year, something went horribly wrong. She was overcome by feelings of paranoia, delusions and the sound of ugly, ranting voices in her head.
“She did have what the doctors thought was a clinical depression, but now in hindsight, maybe it was the first psychotic break,” her mother says.
Gretchen spent nine months at a Philadelphia hospital, and after she was released, Allison came to live with her. Whether due to her remarkable self-will or a lull in the as-yet-undiagnosed disorder, Gretchen managed to graduate magna cum laude from Brown. She earned just one B, her godmother Beth Barnett proudly remembers. After living a while in Africa and on a boat in Mexico with her sister, Gretchen attended graduate school, first at the Maryland Institute College of Art and then at the University of Delaware.
She seemed to have put the college breakdown behind her. And a bright future seemed certain when in 1991 she met Michele Shauf, a graduate student in liberal studies at the University of Delaware. Michele became Gretchen’s lover, and the pair moved to Kansas when Gretchen was offered a teaching job at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Although Gretchen appeared mentally healthy, she was not without certain eccentricities. She absolutely refused to step into a grocery store, she had a consuming obsession with radio towers, and she required large chunks of solitude and silence. Nevertheless, Michele never saw anything pathological in her behavior. Gretchen seemed to crave structure and someone to order her life, and Michele, like so many others in Gretchen’s life, was happy to provide that for her.
“I was just willing to accept the little quirky things about her, because that’s what I loved about her,” Michele says.
In 1998, Michele was offered a position at Georgia Tech. The couple moved to Atlanta. Gretchen’s goal was to establish herself as an artist, but she eventually found it difficult to make a living on art alone. She applied for a job as the studio foundation coordinator at the University of Georgia in 1999. In the usual formula of her achievement-oriented life, she beat out 250 applicants for the position.
But in the winter of 2000, Gretchen’s doctor discovered an ovarian cyst and had it surgically removed. Although the cyst was benign, she plunged into an unshakable conviction that she was going to die. The stress of the cyst seemed to trigger something horrible in Gretchen — an uncontainable mania.
Again she was drawn to the radio towers.
The story that circulated in the Atlanta arts community in October 2000 was that the intrepid artist had been arrested for trespassing on the tarmac at Hartsfield International Airport, where she’d gone to photograph airplanes. Gretchen shut down I-75/I-85 that day when she scaled a communications tower at the airport. She was taken to jail and held without bail for interfering with federal communications property. She was, some believed, willing to risk criminal prosecution and injury for her art.
There was one problem with that story: Gretchen did not have her camera with her.
When Michele received word of the arrest, she went to the jail and found Gretchen “in this giant room with male criminals, and she’s totally out of her mind. She looks crazy. She’s scared. And I couldn’t do anything for her. This is what finally leads me to call her family — I have to say, ‘Gretchen is in big trouble here, and I need some help.'”
Two days later, with the help of a pricey lawyer, Gretchen was arraigned and released with a $1,500 fine. But for Michele, it was the beginning of the end.
“I had been involved with someone who was now gone. We were constant companions and all of a sudden, Gretchen was checked out. She started telling me, ‘I’m having psychotic episodes,’ and I couldn’t find her. She would kind of disappear. She started drawing on her body with razor blades. This is where the radio tower drawings happened, obsessively drawing lines. The art part of it were the drawings, the really crazy parts were the lines on her body. I was just like, ‘What the fuck is going on?'”
Michele found herself to be ill-equipped to deal with Gretchen’s still undiagnosed but increasingly frightening illness, and in February 2001, she began seeing someone else.
“Not to be too mystical about it, but in looking back I think it was a kind of deliverance for me. If I had been Gretchen’s partner on Dec. 14, I think I would have lost my mind.”
Despite her arrest, Gretchen’s obsession with airplanes was unabated. At the same time, her career was beginning to take off. In January 2001, her first solo exhibition in Atlanta premiered at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. It was called Horizontal Stabilizer. It featured 10 photographs and one sculpture of airplanes — airplanes that, in image after image, appeared to crash into buildings in an uncanny anticipation of Sept. 11.
“Airplanes have hubris,” Gretchen wrote in her artist’s statement. “I understand the airfoil but that doesn’t help when it comes to comprehending the miracle of lifting tons of metal into the sky. Airplanes are something like angels. As passengers, we are closer to heaven than we’ll ever get. This might explain why it’s particularly devastating when they crash to the ground.”
The show received a positive review in the April issue of the prestigious Artforum magazine — a significant landmark for a young artist.
Like so many others in Atlanta, Helena Reckitt, the Contemporary’s education director at the time, was captivated by Horizontal Stabilizer and by Gretchen. After Gretchen moved into an apartment at the Contemporary in October 2001, the two began to see each other more frequently. Soon they were inseparable.
At first, Helena attributed Gretchen’s frequent bouts of loneliness and vulnerability to melancholy over the end of her 10-year relationship with Michele. But the better Helena came to know Gretchen, the more she realized her depression was something more chronic and frightening. It was not the mendable tear of some romantic ache but something more infinite and consuming.
A few months after the two met, Gretchen checked into Menninger, a psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kan. “Gone fishing,” she spelled out on the window of her studio at the ontemporary. Gretchen’s new romance with Helena was suddenly structured around shock treatment, a regimen of drugs and constant talk of suicide.
After five months in Menninger, at a cost of $200,000 to her parents, Gretchen received a definitive diagnosis: schizophrenia, a condition that had undoubtedly first manifested itself during that breakdown at Brown.
“I think one of the really sad things is — partly because Gretchen was so good at putting on a public face and seeming really much better than she was — that she got really, really sick before people knew,” says Helena, who is now the Contemporary’s curator. “By the time she was correctly diagnosed, she was deep into this and totally untreated and in fact on drugs that had been the wrong drugs, for bipolar and other things, electric shock treatment, all sorts of things not correct for her ultimate diagnosis.”
But Gretchen was relieved to at last have a name and an explanation for her illness. Others were devastated by the diagnosis.
Perhaps for the first time, Gretchen’s mother confronted a limit to what her gifted, tenacious daughter might achieve. Alice says she felt like her daughter had been given a death sentence. The fact that only 10 percent to 15 percent of those suffering with schizophrenia commit suicide was little comfort.
“She was a very severely sick person. She was one of the high-risk patients,” Alice says. “But she was also so smart and so serious about trying to help herself, I thought, well if anybody can, Gretchen can conquer this.”
By now, there was only one thing that seemed to keep Gretchen’s suicidal thoughts at bay, says psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner Doug Allison. “When she was busy and she was structured and working … everything else went away — the symptoms and the bad thoughts.”
Helena could see that, too.
“One of the things she would love to do when she wasn’t having a good day was to go into her studio and just look at all her work. She said it made her feel really calm. It made her feel whole. She could look at this work and really gain a sense of identity through it.”
Balancing two parallel worlds, Gretchen entered into one of the most productive and most nightmarish phases of her life. The summer of 2002 was particularly rough.
“She heard … male voices with a very critical tone, always telling her she’s a piece of shit, she’s a failure, she should just put an end to it all, and if she didn’t put an end to it all, it was just because she was a coward,” recalls Helena. “She had a lot of paranoia. If she heard a fire engine or a police siren go, she would literally think they were coming for her.”
At the same time, Gretchen was making some of the strongest work of her career.
In August 2002, Gretchen created a single sculptural work for the annual Shed Space exhibition called “The Negative Space of My Fist,” formed from epoxy tightly compressed in her hand.
“It kind of suggests that she was really conscious of the enormity of what she was dealing with, and feelings of loss and anger,” says friend Sheila Swift.
Gretchen was given yet another affirmation of her talent when Atlanta magazine named her Best All Around Artist. And in one of the most important moments in an artist’s career, Gretchen secured representation with the well-regarded Marcia Wood Gallery in Buckhead, which scheduled a solo show for spring 2003.
Despite the accolades and success, it’s possible that instead of bolstering her self-confidence, public recognition only fed Gretchen’s growing fear that she was losing touch with her creativity. The busyness that had once been her balm — the art making that had focused her energies into a fine, concentrated ray that kept the barking voices at bay — was becoming less effective.
Gretchen lived with a constant drone of suicidal thoughts that often drove her to a perpetually changing string of hospitals — DeKalb, Emory, Ridgeview, Grady, Peachford — in hopes of finding some end to her suffering. Because she was considered high risk, Alice Hupfel says, a lot of doctors wouldn’t take her. They said someone that severe would usually be in an institution.
“Gretchen was fired by many doctors,” she says.
There often was little communication between Gretchen’s changing cast of doctors and the hospitals where she would go for emergency treatment. So the delicate balance of the medications she depended upon to maintain her mental equilibrium would be changed on a whim. The admitting doctor would modify or change her medication when Gretchen entered the hospital; the discharging doctor would make his or her own alterations when she left.
“The way the insurance companies work is, at the first sign that Gretchen was out of harm — basically not suicidal, not homicidal — she would be let out of hospital,” says Helena. “I mean, this is a woman who’s been on the brink, who’s had five days or 10 days of hospital, who is let out, just because she doesn’t want to kill herself anymore.”
After fighting a valiant effort to keep her illness hidden, Gretchen finally began acknowledging that schizophrenia was an undeniable part of her identity. High Museum photography curator Tom Southall recalls a studio visit with Gretchen in September 2002.
“She was quite frank about the fact that a lot of [her art] was an act of discipline and focusing her consciousness,” he says. In October, Southall’s visit yielded a significant result. The High purchased her photograph “Crossed Lines,” which features 111 radio towers connected by 8,000 lines drawn with ink.
In a letter that same month, Gretchen was open about her illness with Nicholas Hess, vice president of the Mad Housers, a guerilla group of homebuilders for the homeless. She had been volunteering for the group since the previous fall. In the letter, she explained that she was taking a break from volunteer work, stating that she was suffering from “a chronic illness that sometimes rears its ugly head (in my head) and at times like this I have to lay low.”
Like a prophet in the desert, Gretchen had a tendency to fight her battles of personal faith in solitary quests. She would test herself to see if she could emerge from difficult situations unscathed. In November 2002, she made one last, heroic stab at trying to regain control of her illness. Helena watched Gretchen pack a tent and some supplies and head off alone to Florida.
“I thought she was going to die,” Helena recalls thinking when Gretchen left, her frail body and snowcapped hair ambling into the distance like a child off for an adventure in the backyard woods. “She said that she was in God’s hands now. She wanted to drive away from the voices in Atlanta in the hope of losing them forever. Do you want to know what she did there? It involved rituals of making a fire and swimming in the water. She fell asleep on the beach and her watch stopped.”
When Gretchen returned, she ascribed a sad, poetic meaning to that watch.
“[Gretchen] thought that she had ‘died’ at the moment that her watch stopped functioning,” Helena says.
“She had pretty much tried everything to get better,” says Alice. “She wasn’t trying to hide things as much anymore. She wasn’t being deceptive. She even said, ‘I’m dead, I died down there.’ That’s how sick she was. I think that was the turning point. She thought, ‘I’m never going to get better.'”
Upon her return, Gretchen entered a psychiatric hospital in Smyrna, but her insurance company informed her she had exceeded her limit of hospital stays for the year. Gretchen knew she would now have to go into a state hospital for treatment. But her dream was to go back to the expert doctors of Menninger, where she had first been diagnosed in 2001. Desperate, Gretchen cashed out some of her IRA savings for the two weeks that would buy her in Menninger.
But Helena saw Menninger as “kind of a false illusion,” and, in fact, Gretchen never made it back there.
Gretchen continued to produce her artwork. But Michele saw that she was starting to remake earlier pieces, like the “Time Spent” sculpture crafted of scotch tape she made for the Out There show at the Contemporary in 2002. It was a copy of a piece that she had given her brother Mott for Christmas in 1996.
“The sad part was that she was so sick that it was weakening her creative energy that had always been so profoundly, astonishingly strong,” says Michele. “And to see her remaking very old things was just heartbreaking for me.”
“She felt that she was losing her focus,” says Helena. “I think I can say that one of Gretchen’s life quests was to distill meaning and find a sort of harmony in the world. And I think that might have been a reaction to the chaos that she felt invading her when she was at Brown, and that she may have felt marginally hovering at different points in her life and that finally engulfed her. So I think that incredible distillation and search for essence may well have been her very brilliant attempt to not be schizophrenic.”
If Gretchen couldn’t make sense of her illness, at least she could find some order and reason in her work. When she began to lose touch with her art making, when she felt her creativity slipping away, it’s possible Gretchen may have begun to envision the final death of self that her schizophrenia foretold.
“You’ve got to divide people with schizophrenia into two groups — the one group who is not really aware that they are ill because they have damaged the [part of the] brain that we use to think about ourselves,” says Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, an expert on the disorder and author of Surviving Schizophrenia. “And then you have the other group who are acutely aware that they are ill and acutely aware that they will never achieve the things they wanted to or expected to because they now have a disease that interferes with the function of their brain. And those people are relatively high risk for suicide because they are aware of the devastation of the consequences of their illness for their whole life.”
Gretchen fell squarely into the second group.
Last Thanksgiving, Allison left her husband and three children in Washington state to stay with Gretchen so she would not be alone over the holiday. Allison’s greatest fear was that her sister might try to hurt herself while they were together. Instead, Allison found the visit comforting. Although Gretchen was afraid to leave her apartment and would spend much of her time in silence, Allison was grateful for the chance to be with her. She feared it might be the last time.
“I was here because she couldn’t be alone,” says Allison. “What I realized about her was how absolutely hard she was working. I really got the impression she was staying alive for us.”
In December Gretchen called Nick Hess asking for his mailing address to send Mad Housers a donation. A few days later, he received a letter from her with a Christmas card and a $350 donation — the cost of one hut. The letter was postmarked Dec. 14. It wasn’t until later that night that Hess discovered Gretchen had died that same day.
In her apartment the day after her death, a stack of unfinished Christmas cards lay on Gretchen’s writing desk. Helena found a note in Gretchen’s studio that read: “Focus. Groceries. 8X10.” It seemed to indicate to Helena a concise, fragile assessment of the enormous force of will holding Gretchen together: Mind. Body. Spirit.
There was an elegance and order to Gretchen’s apartment. It was filled with family antiques and photographs of her nieces and nephews, a family portrait of Gretchen as a child with her mother, father, brother and siste;, a healthy, happy family — now cleaved.
Next to those Christmas cards was a leather-bound diary where she recorded her increasingly erratic and disturbing thoughts. There were drawings of guns and talk of difficult tests to perform in order to go on living. A vortex of chaos, her diary was a portal to her burdened, ruined consciousness, the place where Gretchen, the real Gretchen, no longer held sway.
Years ago, Gretchen had given friend Toni Vandegrift a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It’s about a swimmer who tries to escape from an oppressive island but is caught up in a strong current. “When dawn comes she sees the green of the land, and she realizes she’s in the same place,” recalls Toni, who thought back to that story when she heard of Gretchen’s death. “The illness consumed Gretchen. She had every desire and will to live, she had every motivation in the world to continue on. She did not surrender at all. But I think she made a very intuitive decision that this illness was going to, if not kill her, it was going to kill her ability to work, and she’d rather not live,” says Vandergrift.
When the coroner inventoried the possessions belonging to Gretchen the day she killed herself, at the top of the list was the remnant of that last, futile trip to Florida — a watch “missing glass face and small and big hand.”
In 1984 while Gretchen was at Brown, a fellow student made a short film about her called “Artist’s Proof.” Gretchen is almost unrecognizable. Her hair is dark and curly, her figure slightly pudgy. She has an African straw bag on her shoulder as she strides with a poignant purposefulness into her studio.
Gretchen, who was 21 at the time, can be heard on the film’s voice-over speculating about her future.
“Who knows? It may be 15 years before I get my first show. There’s going to be a lot of work between now and then that won’t seem to be getting me anywhere. I’ll see the progress, and I’ll see the development. But it’s a totally different system of rewards than any other career. You don’t get the raise, you don’t get the promotion. It’s something you just have to keep working at. You have to be almost crazy. You have to have enough confidence in yourself for those 15 or 20 years to think that you could actually do something.
“I just hope that I keep my confidence up to persevere. Because it’s something that I can’t imagine living without.”