'Soloist' sister at last finds a way to help

Fayetteville woman starts foundation to explore mental illness and the arts.

Jennifer Ayers-Moore stares at a wall while she talks about it, that day when mental illness became a part of her life.

It was the early 1970s, and she'd traveled from Cleveland to New York with her mother to pick up her older brother from the Juilliard School. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers was always the brightest guy, the best looking, the most meticulous, with incredible skill and intensity for every instrument he touched.

She thought he'd be famous some day. Instead, he was disheveled and not making sense.

"I remember that look in his eye like it was yesterday, sort of this expression of 'Can they tell?'" said Ayers-Moore, 53 and living in Fayetteville. A film about her brother, "The Soloist," opens Friday. A few months ago, Ayers-Moore founded the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation to connect art and mental health.

When she and her mother saw Nathaniel that day, of course they knew, she said, but they didn't understand schizophrenia. Information was limited, drugs unhelpful, stigma unavoidable. Their mother hoped shock treatment would return her son to normal. It didn't.

He became notorious on the streets of Cleveland for his musical wandering. After their mother died in 2000, Ayers moved to Los Angeles. His sister lost track of him until 2005, when she got a phone call from Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. He'd met the virtuoso on the streets and would make him front-page news and turn his story into a book. "The Soloist," a film about Ayers and Lopez's friendship, stars Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as Ayers and two-time Oscar nominee Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez.

"I didn't want to lose my brother again, didn't want to have a book that everybody reads, a movie that everybody sees — and what happens to my brother?" Ayers-Moore said.

The Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation is a nonprofit that explores the links between art and mental health because, she said, "there are a million Nathaniels." Foundation leaders will work on research, advocacy, education, building ties between arts and mental health groups and measuring success. They want to create opportunities for gifted artists with mental illness and access to art therapy.

They have fledgling partnerships and programs in Los Angeles and Cleveland, and in Atlanta through Fulton County government, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Skyland Trail, a nonprofit that teaches life skills to adults with mental illness and has 20 years of experience with art therapy.

"It takes something like 'The Soloist' coming to town — it's a great thing for Atlanta, and will only add to increased awareness," Skyland Trail President Beth Finnerty said. "People with mental illness deserve a place in our society, recognition for their talents."

Hollywood might help, too. Foxx said the film adjusted his perspective, and that he'd do "anything" the foundation wanted.

"You take these types of projects, and you stay involved with it," Foxx said. "That really gives the heart and the life to the project."

Ted Sapp, foundation executive director, points out that the organization relies on donated space and start-up grants. The book and movie will spread the word but won't directly add dollars to their budget, he said.

Ayers is lucky, with donated instruments to play, a room of his own and a growing network to support him. Music stabilizes him.

He is growing more accustomed to the spotlight. Ayers attended the film's premiere this week and told his sister he likes having his name on a foundation.

For that, they'll keep going, Ayers-Moore said. It's what their mother would have wanted.