The beauty that's inside:
Awakenings Art Show will display work of those surviving mental illness
by BRIAN KLEEMANN
APRIL 15, 1998
THE NAPERVILLE/LISLE SUN (Naperville, Illinois)

Kurt Taecker is compelled to paint.  "I have to," explained the 44-year-old Naperville resident.  "It's like having to eat -- it's a necessity.  It's the only thing to take my mind off of my depression and troubles."

Taecker, diagnosed as manic depressive at the age of 17, became interested in art during one of his many hospital stays.  He picked it up, finding it therapeutic, and has been honing his craft for more than 20 years.

In 1997, he decided to submit a few pieces of his work to the first Awakenings Art Show, an exhibit of artists who have survived mental illness.

"It was a humbling experience for me," he said.  "I saw the work of other people that was so perfect and excellent.  When you attach the stigma of mental illness to it, it's an emotional kind of change in thinking.  There is a great deal of talent that people with mental illness can show."

And show they did.  Nearly 50 artists displayed their work last year, and more are expected to participate in the second annual Awakenings Art Show.  It is held from April 18 - 19 at the Lisle/Naperville Hilton Hotel.  Admission is free and open to the public; most artwork will be for sale.

The show is the brainchild of Robert Lundin.  He thought NAMI wasn't doing enough to attract people surviving mental illness.  "I thought something participative would attract a greater number [of mental health consumers to NAMI], explained the 41-year-old Glen Ellyn resident.  "My hope was that an art show would motivate artists with mental illness to organize, join hands in doing, and look forward to doing."  Lundin would have been happy to attract a mere dozen artists to the first show, held - as it is this year - in conjunction with the NAMI-IL annual convention.  Lundin had spent $2,000 of his own money, willing to accept the loss if the show had failed.

Through word-of-mouth and places like the NAMI-IL newsletter, the show caught the attention of artists around the state.  They varied in talent from experienced to those who simply had something they wanted to display.  The show broke even, and Lundin earned back his money.

"I truly believe the general public needs to understand that people with mental illness do contribute in valuable ways to society," said Lundin, diagnosed as bipolar/manic depressive in 1979.  He exhibited his own photographs in last year's show.  "Since medications have worked so well for me, I had a sense of wanting to give back," he said.

For Irene O'Neill, it's a way to give back and educate.  The 42-year-old Naperville woman has volunteered countless hours to organize the event both years.  She has participated in the show as well, having been diagnosed as bipolar in 1976.

"I thought it was a stigma," she explained.  "I struggled with it for 13 years after I was diagnosed.  I didn't want to be on medication.  But once I tried lithium, it stabilized me."

The show was a perfect fit for her, as O'Neill considers art one of her life's passions. In addition to working at Lucent Technologies, she operates the Four Corners Gallery along with fellow artists Ruth Anne Unik and June Dicke.

"I hate the word 'empowering,' but the show was empowering." O'Neill said.  "I was overwhelmed.  It was so expressive, so colorful, so meaningful.  A lot of art is more decorative to me than coming from inside."

Taecker found the show to be "awesome."  One of his pieces was selected for the cover of a NARSAD (National Association for Research into Schizophrenia and Depression) 1997 Christmas card (and it is still in print today, ten years later).

"I'm completely motivated by trying to shape my own style and devising my own technique.  I use brushes, palette knives, spatulas and fingers," he explained.  "It's layered painting, where it gets to be very thick."

"When I paint, I feel much better.  Lithium stopped the hallucinations I had.  I felt clearer and more in touch with reality."

Few shows like Awakenings exist in the United States, but word is slowly spreading.  The ARC (Artists, Residents of Chicago) Gallery has asked to exhibit this year's Awakenings winners.  Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Hoffman Estates has requested pieces for an upcoming silent auction fundraiser.

Even participating artists are expressing themselves.  For example, several participants from last year's show opened the Fufu Gallery in Glen Ellyn.

Ideally, we would like this idea to catch on in other states. Awakenings has grown enough to merit fund-raisers; an operating organization will be created later this year.

"A lot of consumer art shows out there are museum-type show, where the director finds the very best consumer art and makes out a restrictive invitation list," Lundin said.  "Awakenings is a little different.  Anyone can show - the only criterion is that you have a mental illness and are not shy about the public knowing that."

O'Neill sees the show in simpler terms, "The more open we can be," she said, "the more we can eradicate the stigma."

Copyright (c) 1998, Naperville/Lisle Sun