O’Hara family turns grief into the Positive Painting Project to create messages of hope

This article first appeared at NEXTpittsburgh.com, a media partner of Kidsburgh. Sign up here for NEXTpittsburgh’s free newsletter filled with all the latest news about the people driving change in our city and the innovative and cool things happening here. Photo above courtesy of the Positive Painting Project.

Even as she was battling her own anxiety and depression, Fox Chapel Area High School freshman Katie Whysong was comforting classmates who were feeling down.

“She took it upon herself to try to help out her friends and tell them little slogans to make them feel better,” says her dad Todd Whysong of O’Hara.

“You Matter,” “Never Ever Give Up,” “Hold on to Hope,” “It’s Okay to Not Be OK,” “No Feeling is Final” and “You Are Not Alone” — these are the phrases that Katie turned into inspiring works of art. Her goal was to paint the stalls in school restrooms, providing hope to students who duck into the facilities for refuge during a stressful school day.

Positive Painting Project
Katie Whysong is the force behind the Positive Painting Project. Photo courtesy of the Whysong family.

Now, nearly a year after her suicide, her dream lives on through the Positive Painting Project and the Katie Whysong Scholarship for the Arts.

Spearheaded by her grieving family members (who remembered Katie’s idea of painting uplifting mantras on girls’ and boys’ room stalls), along with teachers and friends, the project invites folks of all artistic abilities to paint canvases that will be installed in middle and high school restrooms to share the messages of hope.

Many school districts have been holding painting parties, where students can express themselves while socializing with friends; a welcome activity after two years of pandemic isolation that experts say have put extraordinary stress on students.

The paintings are already displayed at Shaler Area High School, Freeport High School, North Hills High School, Marietta College, Duquesne University, Sharpsburg Library, the Lauri Ann West Community Center and Dorseyville Middle School, where Katie was taught by art teachers Nanci Goldberg and Mackenzie Seymour.

Positive Painting Project
Dorseyville Middle School, which Katie attended, bears signs of her legacy. Photo courtesy of the Positive Painting Project.

Goldberg, who owns Ketchup City Creative in Sharpsburg, contacted Todd and Alisa Whysong shortly after Katie’s death to offer condolences and assistance with realizing the 15-year-old’s dream.

“I feel fortunate that I had the time I did with Katie,” she says. “And I’m very thankful for the time I have with Alisa and Todd and the team to spread the message of positivity well beyond the bathroom walls of Fox Chapel.”

“The Positive Painting Project is helping to provide our students with visual reminders of how special they are to us, their loved ones and friends,” Fox Chapel Area High School Principal Michael Hower says. “The project also demonstrates an amazing commitment by the Whysong family to help children be reminded of that, while they themselves experienced the horrific tragedy of losing a child. We are so grateful to them and the community members who support this endeavor.”

Positive Painting Project
tna Print Circus created T-shirts that benefit the Positive Painting Project. Photo courtesy of the Positive Painting Project.

In addition to painting canvases, people can show their support by purchasing tie-dye T-shirts made by Etna Print Circus. Available in rainbow (to honor Katie’s LGBTQ+ activism) and teal and purple to match the suicide awareness ribbon, all proceeds go to purchasing supplies and hosting activities for the project. Donations are also accepted online.

Encouraging students to pursue art for fun, therapy or a future career is also important to the Whysongs, who are raising three children. The Katie Whysong Scholarship for the Arts provides funding for students in grades 5 through 8 who may not otherwise be able to access art enrichment and education. The nonprofit organization partnered with Artissima Studio in Fox Chapel, where four scholarship recipients are taking a semester of art classes. The cost is $350 per student.

The organization focuses on middle school students because Katie started to show signs of depression when she was 13. As a seventh-grader, she began receiving treatment at the STAR-Center at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.

Katie wanted to get better, and she did for a while.

Then the pandemic shut down schools and nearly all social outlets. Her depression took root again and continued even when in-person classes resumed.

Photo courtesy of the Positive Painting Project.
Photo courtesy of the Positive Painting Project.

On March 10, 2021, the 15-year-old girl took her own life.

The Whysongs realized they had to tell people the truth about their daughter and hope it can help save other parents’ children. They are encouraged that the Positive Painting Project destigmatizes mental health issues and creates a dialogue among children and their parents, teachers and friends.

“We’re out here spreading the word more than anything,” Alisa Whysong says. “The whole idea is to encourage adults and teens to talk more about their mental health. … Talking is better than keeping it to yourself.

“It’s so hard to wrestle with mental illness and being in middle school and social issues. It’s OK to not be OK.”