Art rallies respect for mentally ill:
JANUARY 20, 1999
OAK LEAVES (Oak Park, Illinois)

The healing power of art, together with the visual medium's ability to affect change, has been debated in highly philosophical terms over the ages.  Throughout the month of January, however, area residents have an enlightening opportunity to witness concrete ways in which the creative process has helped artists take control of their lives and bolster their self-esteem.

Running throughout January, the Oak Park Art League exhibits "The Awakenings Show," featuring an intensely diverse range of sculpture, paintings, photography, fiber art and mixed-media pieces executed by survivors of mental illness.  This is a joint venture coordinated with the Awakenings Project, an organization founded and administered by individuals with various forms of mental illness.  It is associated with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).

Robert Lundin of Glen Ellyn has been actively involved with NAMI for the past 10 years.  He founded the Awakenings Project in 1996 as a forum for artists with mental illness to get involved with advocacy issues.  Today, this group has established a respected organization with over 20 active members.  It has coordinated exhibits throughout Illinois, at times featuring 60 artists in one show.

"The Awakenings Show has a political message," said Lundin, a professional photographer who also serves as a research associate at the University of Chicago.  "And it's 'Look, I have a mental illness and I'm going to stand up and be counted.' We want to let people know that, even though we may have some form of mental illness, we can be constructive, dignified members of society."

His black-and-white portraits portray individuals with mental illness in ethereal, contemplative and whimsical ways.  "I like to take an ordinary person and make them look extraordinary by bathing them in different light," commented Lundin.  "These people show their intensity through their eyes.  I'm planning to do a series of portraits of persons with mental illness in state hospitals to make the general public more aware of issues pertaining to mental illness."

Artists represented may suffer from various degrees of clinical depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Their work, however does not always address their mental illness.

Curator Irene O'Neill of Naperville considers herself an "artistic activist" determined to debunk harmful stereotypes of people with mental illness.  "When I was putting together this exhibit," she explained, "I wanted to show humor, raw emotion, variety, and the things people feel are better kept hidden.  There is still such a stigma associated with mental illness.  We aim to change that.  Everything here is done as a group effort.  We even protested the remake of the movie, 'Psycho' together."

Her own watercolor monotype works reveal O'Neill's fascination with the crescent moon, which looms calmly in the background.  In "Web of Life" and "La Luna," she has painted various objects (like a mask and pieces of driftwood) to form optical illusions of an octopus or tree trunk.

"Through my involvement with the Awakenings Project," she continued, "I've discovered that I'm really good at organizing, establishing trusting relationships, and following through on things.  When you've been hospitalized for mental illness, you have to try really hard to fit in with the mainstream.  This group is so crucial to improving our self-esteem."

Oak Park resident William Alexander, a long time member of the Oak Park Art League, recalled how difficult it was for him to get this emotionally arresting paintings shown because curators felt they were "too anguished."  His "Madman Series" graphically illustrates inner terror.  But the Awakenings Project has provided an outlet for him and has pushed him to expand his vision into larger media.  Alexander's "primitive" sculptures are constructed of found objects, like a banana-bicycle seat and a valve from a heater.

"I want to continue with my 'Asylum Series' said the artist, "and I hope to expand my 'Madman Series' to bigger standing figures painted on door panels.  I get really turned on by creativity.  Being a part of this show allows me to help and encourage young artists to not be afraid to honestly express themselves."

Copyright (c) 1999, Pioneer Press