Brushes with Life art gallery battles mental illness

Brushes with Life, an art gallery and peer and art support group located at the N.C. Neurosciences Hospital, provides patients living with mental illness a space to showcase and sell their art—and reduces the stigmatization of mental illness in the process.

Brushes with Life art gallery battles mental illness click to enlarge Taylor Lancaster, "Can You See Me? I Can See You."
Brushes with Life art gallery battles mental illness click to enlarge Heather Nash, "Folk Times"

by Zach Read -

Traversing the hallways at UNC Hospitals can be confusing for patients and visitors, but with any luck, if you find yourself lost, you’ll wind up in the first-floor lobby and third-floor hallways of the Neurosciences Hospital, in the “showrooms” for Brushes with Life.

Since 2001, Brushes with Life has served artists with severe mental illness, providing them space to showcase and sell their art. Some of the artists have gone to universities for training in the arts, others are beginners, but all have talent and all represent the world, as they see it, for their viewers.

Without the gallery, Julie Pace, occupational therapist at UNC Hospitals and volunteer director of Brushes with Life, believes opportunities for these artists would be fewer.

“Although our artists may have the artistic skills to produce excellent pieces, they may not have the skills necessary to go to a gallery and ask for a showing,” says Pace. “So this gallery has enabled a lot of artists to have a space to show their art, one that they can call their own.”

To date, thousands of pieces of art having been collected and hundreds of artists have participated in mediums such as photography, acrylic, oil paint, and watercolor, among others. And the artwork keeps coming in, featured in two gallery openings per year in the Neurosciences spaces. Artwork has even been featured in showings at RDU International Airport and the North Carolina Museum of Art, among other locations.

Pace is proud to report that artists receive 100 percent of the sales profits, which some artists invest in supplies so that they can continue producing art. But in addition to money, gallery openings serve a larger purpose: they push artists to finish work for the shows, which in turn helps some through the difficult realities of their conditions. Taylor Lancaster lives with schizophrenia and has produced and sold a variety of work at Brushes with Life. The showings, she says, motivate her to keep producing.

“Every day you have to work on your art because it pulls out the negative emotions and the stress of dealing with the illness,” says Lancaster. “Creating art removes those emotions from me and allows me to stay more level, and the showings push me to continue, to have pieces ready for them.”

Lancaster’s father believes that the commitment to producing art has helped his daughter control her illness.

“It has been very positive in that it gives her focus and purpose that eludes her at times when she’s in less-than-reality states,” he says. “It helps her tremendously. She enjoys going to the art classes and it gives her a real sense of purpose, so it makes a huge difference for her.”

According to Taylor, focus on “process” rather than “end result” is key—what matters is not how a piece turns out, but that it is made at all.

“Everybody gets their art out into the world differently, and I think one of the key things about the therapy group we work in is to reiterate the fact that you don’t need to make masterpieces,” she says. “The key is getting hooked onto those emotions and working them into art. That’s a masterpiece in and of itself.”

As Brushes with Life continues to evolve, Pace believes it’s increasingly important to introduce viewers not only to the work of those battling mental illness, but to the person producing it. Therefore, she has begun working with artists to provide explanations of their work and to write artists’ statements.

“The information helps viewers see the artist as a person,” says Pace. “It provides an understanding of who the artists are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. In some cases they talk about how mental illness has impacted their lives, and how it is represented in their art.  This information becomes a window into their struggles with mental illness so that others can begin to understand their life experience. When people don’t understand mental illness, they’re often scared of it.”

Although Taylor Lancaster is deeply committed to her work and to grappling with the emotions behind it, she appreciates and believes in the gallery’s mission of raising awareness about mental illness. Each piece of art that’s produced helps educate people.

“It helps develop that connection and allows understanding to happen,” says Lancaster. “So we no longer are viewed strictly by our mental illness—we are viewed as people and artists first, with an illness that manifests itself through art. I believe the gallery is helping both sides connect with each other and overcome the fear and uncertainty people feel about how to respond and how to act around mental illness.”

Brushes with Life has a showing at Raleigh Brewing Company on Aug. 17, from 4 to 6 p.m. For information about the event, click here.

Brushes with Life was created to support UNC patients who were hospitalized for severe mental illness. It is a program of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health. Volunteers who can assist with gallery openings, including the framing and hanging of artwork, are welcomed. To volunteer with Brushes with Life, please contact Julie Pace at 919-966-4344 or Janice Linn at 919-445-0206 . For more information about the gallery visit our website at

Newell--Trip Aces Jeff Newell, "Trip Aces"