A Mental Health Journey through the Press Play Webcomic
By Emma Grover
I first stumbled across Edward Gunawan and Elbert Lim’s exhibit, Press Play, at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center (OACC) during their annual Celebrate Asian Love Gala and Auction. The installation was a quiet retreat from the lively conversations and festivities taking place in the main room. Outside the reception doors, a labyrinth of winding hallways unfolded before me, all lined with a single row of beautifully depicted illustrations that seemed to extend infinitely.
Press Play is an award-winning mental health project originally launched in 2019 as a webcomic. It was first conceived in 2018 when Edward started writing about his own struggles with mental health. After completing and workshopping the original piece, Edward’s brother, Elbert, a talented and accomplished visual storyteller, agreed to collaborate with Edward in turning his story into a webcomic. They worked on the illustrations and overall aesthetic for a year, even presenting the comic to mental health professionals for guidance, before launching the webcomic online in 2019.
The webcomic received many positive responses, including the “Speaking Out” Mind HK Media Award and nominations for a Shorty Social Good Award and two Webby Awards. In response to their readers’ requests, they were able to translate the project into six languages, including Chinese and Spanish. In 2020, Sweet Lit published Press Play as a chapbook. As of this year, Press Play has been viewed by over 10,000 readers across 100 countries.
In 2021, OACC offered Edward and Elbert the opportunity to present Press Play as an in-person exhibition. Edward shared, “I immediately leapt at it! Even though I had no prior experience in exhibition installations… We [Edward, Elbert, and OACC] recognized that this would also be a wonderful opportunity to revitalize and reinvigorate our communities after the limitations of gatherings in the past couple of years.”
As I viewed the exhibit, it was impossible not to feel like I had embarked on my own journey. Following the numbered signs, I disappeared deeper and deeper into OACC, only stopping to read the intimate prose inscribed below each image. The detailed drawings, held in place by clothespins on a single wire, were all drawn in black-and-white, conjuring the uncanny feeling I was stepping into someone else’s memory interlaced with my own. Like the protagonist, I felt myself become enveloped both metaphorically and literally in the waves of Edward and Elbert’s artistry.
Edward thoughtfully explained the installation process to me, “I eventually settled on the concept of displaying the comic panels on clothespins, as though they are laundry being aired to dry under the sun. To me, they made a great fit. Especially for this project, we’re sharing a vulnerable story of one person’s mental health journey. Because doesn’t it feel like when we express our emotions or share our mental health experiences, it can often feel as though we’re airing out our dirty laundry? These negative associations, I believe, are rooted in shame and stigma, which is what we’re actively trying to dismantle. After all, even clean laundry will start to smell too if we do not air them out from time to time.”
With the support of their community partnerships, including ARTogether as the fiscal sponsor and co-presenter, followed by Asian Health Services, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) SF, Justice Murals, and Lincoln Summer Nights, Edward and Elbert curated special events to accompany the artwork and promote mental health awareness during Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct 3-9) & World Mental Health Day (Oct 10). The events included a discussion panel with mental health professionals, writers, and artists, as well as a family-friendly collaborative mural painting activity with Justin Murals at Lincoln Summer Nights.
Edward wrote to me: “I feel these activities are meaningful ways for folks, especially those struggling with their mental health, to connect with organizations that offer mental health services and resources. They also have the opportunity to simply engage with one another. We believe this will improve not just the individual’s well-being, but also strengthen our community’s health.”
It is incredible that we have artists like Edward and Elbert to remind us of how interconnected we are, even when we are at our loneliest. Just as each single drawn panel plays a vital role in composing this beautiful and powerful story, the connections and relationships we build with one another have the potential to expand our lives and communities in ways we never imagined.
Edward shared, “By offering this space, we all can contribute in supporting and encouraging one another… to let those who are struggling know that someone else has been there too… By sharing such an intimately vulnerable story, I hope it can truly encourage and empower others to do the same — to talk more openly and honestly about their circumstances and feelings with others… It’s through these actions that we all collectively contribute to normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health conversations.”
Edward is proud to share he is hosting storytelling workshops with NAMI Marin County that are geared specifically for folks who want to share their mental health experiences. The first cohort workshopped their work on October 16, and the next cohort will follow early next year. Edward will also release a hybrid collection of poetry and prose entitled The Way Back this upcoming November, published by Foglifter Press.
Press Play is available for public viewing from Oct 1st to 31st during OACC’s regular opening hours or by appointment. Admission is free of charge. Visit projectpressplay.com/exhibition for more information and to RSVP for Press Play’s last event of the month: a Writers Discussion Panel (in person/hybrid) featuring Bay Area poets Michelle Lin and Christine No, taking place on October 29 at 2:00 pm at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.
Emma Grover is a freelance writer from New York City who recently moved to the Bay Area after completing her degree in English and Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. She is passionate about the healing powers of written and artistic expression as well as highlighting the voices of underrepresented and diasporic writers like herself. She has a background in non-profit work and education.