Jewel’s Debut Art Show at Crystal Bridges Is a Mental Health Journey in Three Parts

Jewel pictured with Mazda by Sam Gilliam in the Contemporary Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of Am...
Photo Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Growing up on a homestead in Homer, Alaska, Jewel was surrounded by art and immersed in the outdoors. Born into a creative family, she was raised to paint, draw, sing, and play all kinds of instruments, and while the singer-songwriter has been outspoken about the many difficulties she faced while coming of age (like being abandoned by her mother as a child, and dealing with homelessness in her late teens), she credits her deep ties to the earth as one of the main reasons she was able to find her way.

“The doses of hardship I was given were made much easier by the fact that I got to be in nature,” the now 49-year-old “You Were Meant For Me” singer recently told W. “It taught me to be human. It parented me, and I'm really grateful for that.”

In light of this, it makes sense that Jewel’s visual arts debut is happening at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—a spellbinding place within the Ozark mountains, where art and the landscape seem to merge as one. Though it’s her first major public foray into the art world, Jewel studied sculpture and painting in school, designing sets and honing her love for visual arts even before she found her passion for music. Now on view through July 28, 2024, The Portal: An Art Experience by Jewel is a meditative affair for visitors to view art as a healing medium while connecting with what Jewel refers to as the “Three Spheres,” or realms, of human existence: the inner world, the outer world, and the unseen world.

The multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated artist first visited Crystal Bridges ten years ago while in town to attend a local film festival, and she immediately felt connected to the museum’s essence.

“Museums can feel quite sterile and intimidating. This museum is so warm, it has so much heart. They want people from all walks of life to be here and experience this. It’s in service to its community and that ethos really touched me—so when I [first thought about this project], I literally cold-called the director of the museum and said, hear me out,” Jewel recalled, laughing.

Jewel and Crystal Bridges team pictured with Guernica (Resist #3) by Mickalene Thomas in the Contemporary Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art January 3-4, 2024.

Photo Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The artist’s vision has come to life as a one-and-a-half-hour experience, available on Thursday and Friday nights, which invites guests to be present and mindful of the space and artworks curated for the show.

The Portal is deeply informed by Jewel’s journey as an outspoken mental health advocate. Over the past twenty years, the musician has become a voice on the subject, developing a range of behavioral health programming to democratize wellness through her foundation, Inspiring Children, and, more recently, through her company Innerworld, a virtual reality-based mental health platform offering 24/7 peer-to-peer support.

The show at Crystal Bridges is specifically influenced by the last decade Jewel has spent discovering and practicing a range of healing modalities in her own life.

“Ten years ago, I just sort of pushed stop and quit touring. I had gone through a divorce, and I needed to understand things in a much more foundational way,” she recalled. To do so, the artist devoted herself to meditation, spending a lot more time “going down and in where I’m led, and where ideas, thoughts, and inspirations come to me,” she said.

“The three realms came to me as a way to navigate healing,” Jewel added. According to the artist, the inner realm refers to thoughts and feelings, the seen realm to families, finances, and jobs—the practicalities of physical life, and the unseen realm, to whatever gives people a sense of awe and inspiration.

To begin the experience, visitors engage with three original artworks by Jewel, corresponding to each of these realms. The first, which stands at seven feet tall at the entrance of The Portal, and represents the unseen realm, is a holographic rendering of the artist herself, inviting viewers to listen and tune in. Next, at the entrance of the museum’s contemporary wing, visitors encounter Double Helix (2024), an oil painting of Jewel’s child alluding to the seen realm and which the artist has made to honor both her son and her commitment to mothering. Alongside this painting is the third piece, Chill (2024), a lucite sculpture of a cross-legged body full of floating pharmaceuticals. “The sculpture represents the inner realm,” Jewel said. Reflecting on themes of meditation and medication, “It’s about the connection between longevity of life versus quality of life.”

A still from the hologram by ProtoHologram welcoming visitors to The Portal.

Photo Courtesy Philip Thomas for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Jewel, DOUBLE HELIX, 2024, oil on aluminum, 14” x 18”.

Photo Courtesy of Jewel.

Jewel, Chill, 2024, Lucite.

Photo Courtesy of 7th Unit Productions.

For the following section of the affair, visitors enter the museum’s contemporary wing to contemplate a series of artworks from the permanent collection, specifically selected by Jewel for the occasion. The pieces, including works by American greats such as Ruth Asawa, Julie Mehretu, and Alma Thomas, are presented alongside digital wall labels written and narrated by Jewel, inviting viewers to engage with each work of art carefully.

For instance, for one of the selected paintings, Guernica (Resist #3) by Mickalene Thomas, a piece reflecting on themes of conflict, uprising, and civil rights, Jewel asks viewers to wonder, “What is an area in your life that is painful or filled with conflict? Is there anything you can do to make peace?”

As the night sets in, guests go outside to see the three realms interacting in a mesmerizing light show over the museum’s pond, featuring two hundred drones choreographed and set to an original score by Jewel. “The show is based on the idea that a portal opens up in the sky and a message comes through, but it’s not exactly what we thought the message would be. It takes you on a journey, and, hopefully, once it’s done, people go back into their lives with the ability to know that if we’re open to change, new things will grow in our lives,” she said.

Part of the drone experience at The Portal

Photo Courtesy Brad Horn for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Referencing her decision to incorporate technology into the show, like holographic art and drones, Jewel spoke about her growing interest in mediums with which the general public doesn’t have a strong relationship yet. “We all have a relationship with traditional mediums like oil and sculpture, but with new mediums that’s not the case. I hope people will come in and there will be a sense of emptiness. I hope that they’ll receive the messages with a much more blank slate and that this creates a sense of awe and inspiration,” she said.

While the experience at Crystal Bridges is certainly a departure from the art Jewel is known and celebrated for, the musician sees it as an extension of her broader mission as someone born to be of service and to help others heal. “I think my suffering has really shaped me,” she said. “When you know great suffering, you know what that’s like for somebody else. And if there’s anything that I can do to help with that—well, I can’t think of a more rewarding thing.”