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Artists put positive spin on mental illness
By Cheryl Chojnacki | Daily Herald correspondent

This work, "Don Pedro Pistola," was created by Peter Austin of Elgin, a member of The Awakenings Project.


Courtesy of Awakenings

"The Brain," a sculpture by Peter Austin of Elgin, was purchased by Chicago School of Professional Psychology.


Courtesy of Awakenings

Awakenings members meet at an artists' workshop Saturday at the new studio in Elgin. The space, room 415 of the Elgin Professional Building, 164 Division St., will have its grand opening Saturday, Sept. 27.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

A painting by Chris Newman of Elgin depicts his memories from Janesville, Wis. The painting is displayed at Awakenings, a new studio in Elgin for artists with mental illness.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Nancy Uscicki of West Dundee works on a painting at Saturday's artists' workshop at Awakenings. The public is invited to see the new studio from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27. Visitors can view or purchase artwork.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Virginia Goldrick of Glen Ellyn shares a laugh with one of her friends at Awakenings.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/24/2008 12:04 AM

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In a small studio in downtown Elgin, a community of artists and writers is painting a fresh picture of mental illness.

These creative types come together every week to work on their craft and share camaraderie. Some are self-taught, and at least one has a master's degree in art; all have been diagnosed with some form of psychiatric disorder.

This is The Awakenings Project, and it plays a vital role in the well-being of many who struggle with mental health issues. Because of Awakenings, some are discovering for the first time that mental illness has an upside.

"Some people see mental illness as a burden, as a limitation," said Virginia Goldrick, a group facilitator at Elgin's Ecker Center for Mental Health. "But it can also open your eyes to many things - not just to human suffering, but also to the depth of the human spirit."

Some experts believe psychiatric illness also stokes creativity. In her 1993 book, "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," Dr. Kay Jamison builds the case that mental illness often goes hand-in-hand with artistic ability - citing Lord Byron, Robert Schumann, Vincent van Gogh and others as examples of authors, composers and artists who suffered from psychiatric disorders.

Robert Lundin, a Glen Ellyn social worker affected with a form of schizophrenia, was intrigued by Jamison's research and conclusions 12 years ago while helping to plan the Illinois state convention for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"I thought, 'Well, if it is true that people with mental illness have this positive quality,'" Lundin said, "'if we host an art show we ought to be able to draw some of these people.'"

When the call for entries went out, submissions were received from 40 artists, each struggling with some kind of psychiatric disorder. Lundin used his own money to fund the inaugural exhibit at the state convention that year.

"It was just a smash hit," Lundin said. "The whole place was abuzz. This was something that was really new and cutting edge. Here we were in Lisle, Illinois, doing this fantastic art show."

That convention in 1996 was the birthplace of what would become known as The Awakenings Project, a donor-supported, peer-run coalition for artists with mental illness. Invitations from art galleries followed, giving established artists as well as newcomers an outlet for healing and creativity - and, for some, a client base of customers and commissions.

Trish Evers was a professional artist with a psychiatric disorder who helped Lundin put together the first show. Before succumbing to cancer a few years later, Evers donated her Glen Ellyn studio space to the Awakenings coalition.

A studio of their own meant that artists could come together to work on their paintings or sculptures, store supplies, exhibit work and enjoy each other's company. They scheduled drama and music workshops and poetry slams. A group of writers started a high-quality literary magazine, The Awakenings Review, which takes submissions from Florida to Alaska, Lundin said, and half a dozen countries.

"There's not a competitive spirit among these artists," said co-director Irene Lamb O'Neill. "Everybody's there to help each other."

In 2006, the Awakenings Project won a Celebration Recovery award for "Outstanding Contribution to Recovery by a Non-Profit Organization," presented by the Irwin Foundation of Austin, Tex.

But Trish Evers' studio is no longer suitable, and Glen Ellyn's loss turns out to be Elgin's gain. Over the summer, Awakenings moved into its new studio in Room 415 of the Elgin Professional Building, 164 Division St.

Artists meet Saturdays from 11 to 2 p.m., and writers meet Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m. to work on a short project, then share it with the group.

Writer John Breault said a topic usually is suggested, but most participants just journal about whatever is on their minds.

"For me, it's more heart issues," he said, "things that are tugging at my heart."

Breault has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but "the illness is one aspect of my life," he said.

"I don't feel that it identifies my life."

An Elgin resident, he said he expects the new location will draw more people to Awakenings. As the coalition gets established in the Professional Building, O'Neill said she hopes to be able to add more hours.

The public is invited to see the new studio from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 27. Besides opportunities to view or purchase artwork and The Awakenings Review, the coalition will offer music, poetry and refreshments free of charge.

Elgin artist Peter Austin used to travel to the Glen Ellyn studio just to keep in touch.

"It's a chance to talk with other artists and see how their perspective might interact with mine," he said.

But most of Austin's artwork - acrylic and oil paintings, pen and ink, mixed media sculpture - is created at home. A steel and copper "brain" he produced was purchased last winter by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

When he can plug into his illness, a mood disorder, he said, "it really produces some fine artwork. It gives me an entirely different perspective sometimes. It's like walking up to a piece I'm working on and getting a fresh start every time."

Lundin is gratified to see how far the coalition has come and how well it has served.

"The initial idea was to investigate Kay Jamison's claims of the artistic characteristics of great artists," he said. "Her initial research was very important to all of us because it showed that mental illness could be seen in a positive light.

"We give (participants) a sense that their work in art, their work in literature, has a positive dimension, and it also provides a social dimension," he said. "The fact that we've been going for 10 years now indicates that there's something of merit."