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Artists' works shows the creative side of mental illness

by Kirstin Fawcett
Nov 15, 2012


Kirstin Fawcett/MEDILL

Robert Lundin is co-founder of "The Awakenings Review", a Chicago literary journal featuring the work of mentally ill writers from across the world.


Fernando Ramirez

Drawing by Fernando Ramirez, an artist with Project Onward, a Chicago-sponsored art studio and gallery featuring the works of mentally ill or developmental disabilities.

Whether or not Fernando Ramirez’s surrealistically bright portraits resemble his subjects is in the eye of the beholder.

Subjects posed behind his drawing board can’t see the 35-year-old artist’s fingers skirt across a piece of paper as he sketches countenances into existence. But they can be sure that the end result – their torsos rendered in panoply of shades ranging from puce to persimmon – will vibrate color.  

“I use every color I can imagine,” said Ramirez, who works with Project Onward, a city-sponsored art studio and gallery at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Project Onward features the work of artists with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Ramirez has bipolar disorder, and his signature, color-saturated drawings and paintings do more than portray a world of verisimilitude. They also spur public awareness about his condition that, like his swings of color, causes his moods to swing between manic highs and paralyzing depression.

Psychologists, who’ve long believed that a link exists between creativity and psychological disorders, corroborated this theory most recently in a ScienceDaily study report released last month. The study Swedish study tracked some 1.2 million people and documented that those in creative professions are more frequently treated for mental illness than other groups.

A growing corps of Chicago-based artists with mental illness are using their inspiration to promote understanding and combat stigma. Whether or not these individuals – a drawer-painter, a writer and the star of a one-man show – channel manic musings or deep despair into their work, they nevertheless use their occupations to share life stories fraught with mental and literal ups and downs.

Ramirez is soft-spoken and replies to questions in short sentence spurts. As he scrutinizes subjects’ faces, he’ll discuss his multiple hospitalizations, or his medicines, or the six days he said he spent homeless last summer after he was forcibly evicted from his apartment building for causing disturbances.

Ramirez, who now lives in a group home in Pilsen, started creating art at the age of 5. But when he was 23, doctors identified him as bipolar. After his younger brother committed suicide, Ramirez experienced visual and auditory hallucinations – his sibling’s voice, as well as “a lot of religious stuff – the Virgin Mary, Jesus… It seemed like I could hear God.”

Ramirez was treated for his illness. Later, he became a guild artist at Gallery 37, a Chicago youth arts program founded by Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs' Lois Weisberg and the late Maggie Daley.

In 2004, Project Onward sprung out of Gallery 37 to create a platform for artists like Ramirez with mental and developmental disabilities. He joined the fledgling organization as one of the most celebrated participants. He has produced paintings for Mayor Richard Daley, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other visiting dignitaries.

“I’m known for my speed and my accuracy,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez primarily draws and paints portraits, but he also paints on many mediums – canvas, glass, wood and metal. He’s expressed an interest in working with bone, envisioning a project in which he paints a deceased animal’s life cycle onto its skull. But when Project Onward asked him to address his mental illness in his work – the visions and dreams he experienced during manic-depressive spurts – he declined.

“I didn’t know how to draw it out,” he said.

Ramirez does, though, agree that the artistic process is therapeutic for both him and his contemporaries.

“Everyone I know who has some sort of disability draws really well,” he said.

*   *   *

In his second year as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, Chicago-area writer Robert Lundin experienced his first psychotic episode. After he was released from the hospital, he was forced to re-think his future ambitions while learning to live with schizoaffective disorder.

Schizoaffective disorder is a psychiatric condition characterized by high or low moods mixed with hallucinations, delusions and paranoia. Lundin, now 46, was eventually prescribed medication that helped control his illness. The next step involved rebuilding his life.

A natural-born writer, Lundin went on to become a freelance suburban reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a one-time managing editor of The American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation. He also joined the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI)’s Board of Directors in Illinois, which allowed him to educate schools, church groups and convention crowds about mental illness.

Lundin’s life changed even further after reading “Touched with Fire” by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison’s seminal work was one of the first to trace the correlation between mental illness and creativity, and Ludin was curious to showcase her theory. He also wanted to provide a platform for the mentally ill to express their experiences.

“My feeling was, ‘OK, if Jamison is right and there are all these people who are mentally ill who are geniuses and have artistic abilities, we should be able to get some really good artists if we have an art show,'" Lundin said.

Lundin helped sponsor an art show at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – Illinois Conference. The event, which featured works by mentally ill contributors, helped Lundin meet some “very fine artists.” The initial show’s success was replicated at venues and galleries across Chicago. But Lundin, who possessed more of a literary bend, was also feeling the itch to create.

Lundin partnered with Irene Lamb O’Neill to start “The Awakenings Review” in 2002, a literary journal featuring the poetry and prose by mentally ill writers. The duo received hundreds of submissions from across the United States, as well as several foreign countries.

“The quality of the material we’re able to publish was really first rate,” Lundin said. “It just kind of took off on its own.”

Today, “The Awakenings Project” that Lundin co-founded publishes the literary journal, holds art shows and has expanded into dramatic performances, music and other artistic pursuits. But while all submissions are encouraged, not all are accepted. Like any other art show or literary journal, project entries are evaluated and accepted based on their composition quality.

Does Lundin think Jamison’s theory still stands?

“I don’t know if it really is true that having a mental illness makes you more creative” Lundin said. “I think it’s true that having a mental illness makes you more willing to express yourself and being willing to share yourself with others.”

But Lundin did note that artists have one thing in common.  

“The real artists are the ones who create for the sake of creating,” Lundin said. “They don’t create every once in a while. They have a drive in them.”

*    *    *

Wendell Tucker, a playwright who has written several hip-hop musicals, said he dislikes a lot of things – Republicans, red-light cameras and hippies, for starters. A self-proclaimed cynic, Tucker’s newest play, “Wendell Tucker Hates the World,” featured a comedic yet angry version of himself whose vitriolic rants land him on trial before God.  

While writing the play last year, though, Tucker landed in the hospital following a mental breakdown. After receiving the news that he had bipolar disorder, the 32-year-old realized that his self-aware smart alecks concealed a lifelong struggle with depression. So instead of focusing on his problems with the world, he decided to use “Wendell Hates the World” to explore his own.

Tucker was born and raised in an African-American community in which he said mental illness was taboo and the concept of therapy or psychotropic medication was shunned. Despite his suicidal tendencies, he never considered the possibility that he was mentally ill. “I really didn’t know what was going on with me,” he said.

“Wendell Tucker Hates the World” debuted last July at Chicago’s Provision Theater. The play features Tucker’s music – and misanthropy – but now he also uses his grievances as confessional vehicles that allows him to spiral into a pivotal moment of self-reflection.

“I look the audience in the eye and tell them that I’ve attempted suicide,” Tucker said.

According to Tucker, his main goal was to encourage people to realize the sad prevalence of mental illness. He feels he has succeeded. After the show ended, Tucker said, he received many emails from viewers who said they hadn’t realized mental illness was such a prevalent problem – and that they wish they’d come to troubled friends’ aid in the past.  

“A lot of people are willfully ignorant about mental illness,” Tucker said. “Even once they know about it they still for some reason don’t take it seriously. “

Tucker hopes “Wendell Tucker Hates the World” to make another appearance. Until then, he continues to write and perform new material, including a documentary called “The New Face of Depression” that he plans to start shooting next month.

Tucker has no intention to glamorize the “tortured artist thing.” He did, however, say that his bipolar disorder is one of several driving forces behind his work.

“I don’t know what it is about humanity but somehow our suffering brings out our greatest inspiration,” Tucker said. “When we’re comfortable, we don’t create as much because we don’t need to change our surroundings. We’re good.”