North Central College exhibits the artistic talents of people who have mental illness

Apr 23, 2014

Irene O’Neill ’86 is the force behind an art exhibit at North Central College that celebrates art created by people who have a mental illness. “The Awakenings Project” opens Friday, April 25, and will be on display through Sunday, June 22.

O’Neill is the president and cofounder of The Awakenings Project, which began in 1997 and represents talented artists in DuPage County and surrounding areas who have a psychiatric illness. Their art represents a broad range of work, from casual paintings, sculptures and photographs by amateurs to seasoned works by professional artists. 

“We’re trying to eradicate the stigma of living with mental illnesses by being open about our disabilities and sharing our abilities,” she says. “We hope viewers will see lots of amazing artwork and ask questions of the artists.” 

The exhibit, presented by the Arient Family, is free and open to the public in North Central College’s Schoenherr Gallery at the Fine Arts Center, 171 E. Chicago Ave. An artist reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 2. In addition to complimentary refreshments, visitors will enjoy live music by one of the artists and a panel discussion about self-taught art and the interconnectedness of art and mental health.

The Awakenings Project underscores the ability of artists to communicate the essence of mental illness—its experience, its pain and its reality—or, in the case of some, its detachment from reality. The exhibit celebrates their ability to create stunning exhibits and sell their artwork. Much of the artwork will be available for purchase.

O’Neill’s guidance of the project is in addition to her full-time job as a psychiatric social rehabilitation specialist for DuPage County. She helps people with mental health issues find jobs and resources, including many young people who are residing in nursing homes and seeking other types of housing. “My work with the project helped me get this job,” she says.

The Awakenings Project began as a simple art exhibit but has continued to flourish as an organization of artists. “I joined Robert Lundin, Awakenings’ cofounder, in planning the very first Awakenings Art Show,” says O’Neill. “It was only supposed to be one weekend in 1997 at a National Alliance on Mental Illness-Illinois conference, but it's still going, like the Energizer Bunny, and it's been quite a ride.”

For more information about The Awakenings Project visit For gallery hours or to learn more about the exhibit, contact Nickole C. Lanham, North Central’s gallery director, at 630-637-5375 or