WU student works with Oregon State Hospital to open new art exhibition

by University Communications,

Jordis Miller ’14 knew she wanted to research something worthwhile with her Carson Grant.

With the support and collaboration from history professor William Duvall and staff at the Oregon State Hospital, Miller’s research came to fruition in the form of an art exhibition called “Works by Us, Words by Us,” which displays art created by people who are mentally ill.

The exhibition — featuring a mixture of 20 paintings, sculptures, mixed media pieces and drawings — is on display in the Art Department’s Installation Gallery through March 14.

The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I hope that viewers are challenged to think about their pre-conceived notions about the mentally ill and their definitions of art,” says Miller, who is majoring in history and minoring in art history. “It’s so unique. It makes us think about an issue and an establishment that is present in Salem, but maybe not necessarily in our minds.”

Investing Time and Experience

Miller became invested in the project in December 2012, when she was brainstorming ideas for a Carson Grant. Since the grant funds undergraduates who pursue scholarly, creative or professional research projects, Miller wanted to connect the award with her study abroad experience in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She found her inspiration at the Musée de l'Art Brut in Lausanne, which is home to art brut, also known as raw or “outsider” art. Miller learned about the movement through a course taught by art professor Abigail Susik.

“I was excited to do something with art history because it’s a subject I thoroughly enjoy and wanted to spend more time working on,” Miller says.

Miller submitted the proposal after arriving in Lausanne for the spring of her junior year, which was later accepted.

“What I proposed was to visit the Musée de l’Art Brut, analyze literature on Art Brut, and evaluate how the two presented the artist,” Miller says. “My initial research for the proposal left me with the question, ‘What about the artists?’”

Miller says she wanted to reinsert the importance of the artists in a movement, which is defined by the experiences of individuals. So after returning to Salem, she reached out to the Oregon State Hospital for help. Only after connecting with a therapist there was she able to identify patients who wanted to participate in the project.

“We worked in collaboration to gather patients who would be interested in showing their art,” Miller says. “The hospital put in a lot of work to gather the artist statements and prepare the art to be displayed.”

Connecting and Healing

Familiar with Miller's project, Susik says it invites viewers to reconsider their views on art and people with mental illnesses in a more intimate and local context.

“The exhibition that Jordis curated is extraordinary,” she says. “It joins together two important Salem institutions that are geographically proximate, but culturally disparate. I hope that through her project, visitors will become more aware, as Jordis herself has, of the way in which visual expression can become a bridge for the divided aspects of our society.”

During an opening reception on Feb. 28, the exhibition’s 14 artists shared their stories. For many of them, this is the first time their art has been publicly displayed.

“Earlier today I was down,” says Dana Sword, who created a painting of a peacock titled, “Strut Your Stuff.” “There were tears streaming down my face. But being here with friends really helped lift my spirit.”

Sword and the other artists at the reception said they were excited to share their work and were grateful to Miller for putting the exhibition together. Miller shares this sentiment, adding that the project is not only meaningful to her, but to the entire community.

“The opportunity for Willamette and the Salem community to view their art is enlightening for us, but it is also rewarding for them to have support and appreciation of their art from beyond just the hospital,” she says. “Having the public appreciate their skill, their vision and their art will hopefully make them feel proud of their work, if they didn’t already.”

• Article by Natalie Pate ’15, politics and French/Francophone studies major