Art show an outlet for hidden talent

OCTOBER 20, 2005
GLEN ELLYN NEWS

"Robert Lundin of Glen Ellyn was always intrigued with the writings of author, psychiatrist and researcher Kay Redfield Jamison. Her book, "Touched with Fire" explored connections between manic depressive illness and creative artistic ability.

"I was fascinated with the idea that people with mental illness were often more artistic and creative than the general population. Some of the world's greatest artists had mental illness," Lundin said.

Jamison's book cited examples of creative forces such as composer Robert Schumann, artist Vincent Van Gogh, poet Lord George Gordon Byron, and writer Virginia Woolf to state her case.

"She wrote in incredible detail about the lives of these artists," Lundin said.

Lundin in 1996 was active on the planning committee for the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill state convention. He got an idea about adding an element to the event and ran with it.

"I asked the head planner, 'Would it be possible to have an art show?' " he recalled. "I got the OK from NAMI of Illinois. I bankrolled it myself."

Irene O'Neill was involved in the art show. She had first met Robert Lundin, who has a type of schizophrenia, when he visited Lucent Technologies, where she worked, and was impressed with him.

"He spoke so openly about having mental illness," she said.

When Lundin asked O'Neill to get on board with the art show, it was a natural fit.

"I was already involved as a co-owner of a gallery with two other women," O'Neill said.

Lundin asked O'Neill to be his co-director. They decided to call the endeavor the "Awakenings Project," a nod to the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks.

The first NAMI art show, held in 1997 at the Lisle/Naperville Hilton, exceeded everyone's expectations.

"At first we thought we'd get around a dozen artists," O'Neill said. "We had over 50 artists, each with about five pieces."

Showcased was the work of artists all diagnosed with some form of mental illness. O'Neill has bipolar disorder. It was so well received by the public, they were asked to return year after year, and over time, the group has become a popular draw all over the Chicago area. Many of the original artists featured in that first show are still active with The Awakenings Project.

O'Neill, of West Chicago, is now the president of the Awakenings Project, which recently combined with the Lucid Artist Co-op to hold a show at Chicago's Lake Point Tower from late September through October.

Everyone benefits from the art showings, according to O'Neill.

"For an observer, it's eye-opening," she said.

The artist, in turn, feels valued, and gains self-confidence with the appreciation of his or her work.

"It helps improve communication and self-image, especially when we sell a piece," O'Neill said.

The community as a whole also benefits, she because "it demonstrates how much talent and how much positive impact people with mental illness can have."

Erasing the stigma of mental illness is important to both O'Neill and Lundin.

O'Neill wants to emphasize that people with mental illness can contribute great things to society. She works at DuPage County Health Department as a consumer specialist, acting as a role model and facilitator. The term "consumer" refers to someone who is a "consumer of mental health services".

Lundin also is very open about his mental illness. With a background in writing and research at the University of Chicago, he now uses his skills as a support service coach for Evanston Hospital.

"I work with individuals with mental illness who are trying to reintegrate with the community," he said. "It is fascinating and gratifying."

Lundin is vice president of the Awakenings Project and the founding editor of the literary magazine "The Awakenings Review," which has contributing writers from all over the country.

The Awakenings Project Studio is open limited hours September through June at 413 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn. For information, call (630) 606- 8732, or visit www.theawakeningsproject.org .

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Copyright (c) 2005, Glen Ellyn News