One hundred reasons for living

Gilroy artist Jackie Lea Shelley developed the 100 Unicycles project to raise money for suicide prevention and bring awareness to mental illness.Photo: Robert Eliason

If you’ve never ridden a unicycle, you can now add it to your bucket list. Jackie Lea Shelley, a Gilroy artist specializing in portraiture, developed the 100 Unicycles Project to raise money for suicide prevention.

Shelley, 37, started the project in January as a way to bring awareness to a serious, isolating, and often stigmatized illness.

A former English lecturer at San Jose State University, Shelley had worked hard to achieve her goal of being an instructor, only to find she was miserable once she’d arrived. She had so many interests that it seemed everyone around her knew she was an artist before she declared herself an artist four years ago.

Her watercolor project has brought a lighthearted buoyancy to the problems related to mental health by donating 50 percent of the proceeds to San Francisco Suicide Prevention.

Although dealing with depression was nothing new for Shelley, it was three and a half years ago when Shelley had experienced a severe depression that brought her to the planning stages of suicide.

She knew then that she was in trouble and needed help.

“When I got to that point, I knew enough to know that I’m not acting myself and I need to get help,” says Shelley. She decided to go to Emergency Psychiatric Services at Valley Medical Center in San Jose and got treatment.

“My best guess right now is that it’s seasonal depression. It usually hits during the winter months,” says Shelley.

Shelley, who uses both spectrum lighting and medication as part of her treatment plan, admits that throughout much of her life she knew she had emotional problems rear their head from time to time, but that she had a difficulty finding the exact diagnosis and medications to treat it. She says it took a lot of years and a lot of trial and error before she found a course of treatment that actually helped her feel better.

When Shelley decided to do the unicycle project she was emerging from an unusually dark place. “I needed something to help me get back to work and get out of my depression,” she says.

“This year I opted to start taking antidepressants before the winter and so the rest of the year, I’ve been fine.”

She says the biggest question she is asked is, “Why are you painting the 100 unicycles?”

Focusing on something she could look forward to made this project particularly useful to her.

“Most of the things I was focusing on that were reasons to live were actually making me feel worse,” she says. The thought of leaving her family behind or her two young children only made her feel guilty or more ashamed.

“A lot of the things I had to get through were just getting up and taking a shower and eating. It was a way to say there’s gonna be more than just survival, but thinking about something fun that I hadn’t done yet and something to look forward to that was fun—that was exciting,” she says.

Shelley would tell herself: “‘Right now I have to survive, but eventually I get to do more than that.’ It’s like a promise to yourself that there will be a better day ahead.”

When she’s in that space, Shelley says, it’s like all she can see is what’s right in front of her and she can’t see anything beyond that. “I wasn’t thinking about my future. I’m thinking I can’t even get through a shower. I’m just screwing up and everything is wrong.”

She says that the unicycle idea was just plain goofy. “I have a weird sense of humor. Pledging that I was going to learn to ride a unicycle was also something that made me laugh, because I was always pretty klutzy and never good at anything athletic.

“I could prove to myself that I could be good at something I used to not be good at,” she says.

“Right now I’m very good at falling off—that’s as far as I go.”

Shelley says her advocacy work was a big part of her journey toward wellness. “Pretty much by the time I found medication and treatment that worked, that was the same time I started speaking openly about the fact that I had depression and so it’s like getting well coincided with having a lot of other people come forward and tell me that they had it too.”

She attends a regular accountability group that offers her a lot of support and says that picking the right charity was also a key factor in her success. For each donation, she receives a letter from the program. Shelley says that these letters have kept her going.

“Once I started the project, it was that feedback, not just from people that were viewing and buying the paintings, but the people that work at the suicide line,” says Shelley. Hotline volunteers sent her a thank you card. In response, Shelly painted a miniature unicycle for each of the volunteers.

Eve Meyer, program director at San Francisco Suicide Prevention says that 100 Unicycles is an “Extraordinary lifesaving project. They are just gorgeous. The other really beautiful thing I observe is how many lives that it’s saving and how much our volunteers who talk to the people who need our help appreciate that they are being supported by someone who is this creative and this dedicated.”

Meyer says the people who buy the art are also supporting them. “It becomes a highly interwoven fabric of beauty that everyone feels.”

Shelley says that the more people she talked to about the project, the more she heard other people’s stories. They didn’t even need to necessarily know Shelley’s personal history. People were moved. They had some connection to the cause, even if she never got to the part where they knew that it was her own depression that led to embark on this project. “I didn’t have to be that vulnerable. If I felt comfortable, I would tell people that I actually started the project because I was depressed and I needed a way to do something about it,” she says.

Shelley was excited that she could continue to do her artistic work and at the same time, raise money for charities. Other projects she is working on include 100 Cupcakes, of which part of the proceeds go to No Kid Hungry and 100 Robots, which helps raise money for the cancer center at UCSF Medical Center.

“If I don’t have a portrait commission in hand, I’m busy painting cupcakes and robots and unicycles. I always have something to do,” says Shelley.

“It’s so amazing that I get to do this for a job.”

Shelley’s unicycles have raised more than $2,000 for San Francisco Suicide Prevention. With each 10 paintings in the series, the cost goes up $10. The message behind the project 100 Unicycles is a simple one: You haven’t done everything there is to do in life because you haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a unicycle.

To learn more about the 100 Unicycles Project or to discover more about Jackie Lea Shelley and her artwork go to or

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