'Looking for the Light' art exhibit aims to destigmatize mental illness

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

When downsizing his mother’s home, Dan John Miller was overwhelmed with grief after re-discovering a series of paintings from his late brother Michael Francis Miller. Michael had taken his own life 20 years ago, and the family was at a loss for what to do with the vast collection. Selling them at the estate sale seemed too impersonal, but keeping them hidden in basements was a waste. Miller wanted to do something that shared his brother’s work while also honoring his memory.

After brainstorming with his friend Gretchen Gonzales Davidson, the two paired with Detroit’s Galerie Camille to create “Looking for the Light,” an art exhibition and event series aimed at destigmatizing mental illness and bringing comfort and support to those affected by it. It features more than 60 works, including about 20 paintings from Michael Miller and mixed work from more than 45 other artists, as well as panels, performances and meditations. It begins at 5 tonight and coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month and runs until May 31. 

Michael Francis Miller

Though inspired by a tragedy, Miller said the event isn’t meant to be sad. 

“I want to make it about celebrating my brother and his life and other people like him who really were able to overcome and live meaningful lives and create beautiful artwork and other things,” he said, “not just artists who suffer or artists who go through these things.”

Galerie Camille curator Dalia Reyes said when Miller and Davidson came to her with the idea for the exhibit, she knew there was a much larger story to be told. They decided to open it up as an open call – something Reyes said she’d never seen in her three years at the gallery – and got an overwhelming response from artists. 

The collection, she said, features all media, including digital art, photos, sculpture and glass, in addition to paintings.

“Picking the art was amazing,” she said. “A lot of the work is really fabulous and interesting; I’m really excited about it.”

The “Looking for the Light” event series includes:

An unnamed painting by Michael Francis Miller.

•    May 13: Opening reception (5-9 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 14: “Back Body” – A performance by Biba Bell (5-9 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 15: Sonic meditation by Sophiyah E. of Afro Moone (2-4 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 15: “Frame of Mind” Fundraiser for Kadima Mental Health Services (5-8 p.m., Museum of Contemporary Art)

•    May 17: “I Am a Caregiver” Panel Discussion (5:30-7:30 p.m., Bas Blue)

•    May 19: “The Role of Animals in Mental Health Supportive Services” Discussion (5:30-7 p.m., Michigan Humane Detroit)

•    May 21: Music Night with Dan John Band and the Seedsmen (7-9 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 23: Gen Z Art and Design Students: “The Need for Wrap Around Wellness Support” (5:30-7 p.m., College for Creative Studies)

•    May 25: Mental Health FAQs lead by Henry Ford Health System (5:30-6:30 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 29: Sonic Opera Meditation with Detroit Opera and Afro Moone (2:30-4 p.m., Galerie Camille)

•    May 31: Closing reception (6-9 p.m., Galerie Camille)

Rabbi Daniel Symes, who has worked extensively in suicide prevention, will be joining Miller on the May 17 “I Am a Caregiver” panel. Symes, who also lost a brother to suicide, wants to share his experience on how to help those who are struggling. He said he felt guilt and shame beyond measure when his brother died and wants to help others to prevent that from happening again.

“I resolved at that point in time that I would do whatever I could to save the lives of kids in pain,” he said. “And that’s what my role in program is all about.”

Miller said a focal appoint of the series is to destigmatize mental health issues and give people an opportunity to connect with each other. He said it was also important to provide resources for people who are struggling with their own mental health or supporting a loved one struggling.

“The number one thing is to just take away from any kind of shame or weakness and encourage people,” he said.

Reyes said it’s a powerful thing to find beauty in an intense and stigmatized topic. She said the intent isn’t to sugar coat it but to show it in a different light.

“I want viewers to feel like they can look at mental health challenges a little bit differently, maybe through the lens of an artist and have a more open experience about it,” she said. “Because creativity is freeing.”

“Looking for the Light” runs until the end of the month at Galerie Camille at 4130 Cass Ave., Suite C, Detroit. An opening reception will take place from 5 – 9 p.m. Friday, May 13, and the series will feature other events throughout the month. For more information visit www.galeriecamille.com.