Photographer and artist Michael A. Philip's provocative new installation "Without a Face: The Eyes of Mental Illness" opened Thursday evening with a mission: Getting people to think about the issue of mental illness through the medium of art.
The exhibit includes 18 photographs of people living with, and suffering from, mental illness, but there's a catch. The shots reveal the eyes of the subjects, and nothing more.
In addition, the show is being billed as "a collaborative art and social cause installation," reflecting the participation of Heron Peacock Assisted Living clients and its board president, Sherry Read. Heron Peacock provides supportive living services and housing to clients in Marathon and Key West.
"I had learned of an exhibit called 'Looking Into the Eyes of a Chinese Worker' and mentioned it to Michael," Read said. "I proposed that we do something similar, and happily, he agreed."
The pair applied for, and received, an ArtReach Grant from the Florida Keys Council of the Arts. They commenced work on the show last summer.
"I thought we were going to have more time to put it together, actually," said Philip, who holds a bachelor's degree in psychology, and has worked at Wesley House, among other social service organization. "I figured it would take a year, but we managed to finish it within six months."
Aside from the photographs, the installation also includes six medicine cabinets containing pill bottles labeled with the side effects produced by the drugs needed by clients to maintain a reasonable state of mental health. This aspect of the project was inspired by British artist Damien Hirst's 1992 "Pharmacy" exhibit.
Then there are the captions to the photos, which tell tales of loneliness, depression -- and hope.
"I lived at the Peacock Apartments while going to [Florida Keys Community College] and got a degree from [Florida State University] in communication. Now I live at the Heron but getting a job isn't working out," reads one.
"I did not know what was wrong with me. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders when I got a diagnosis," said another.
Philip, who was born and raised in Venezuela, said that his enthusiasm for the show comes in part from a belief that society should do more to help the one in 17 American adults who lives with serious and persistent, no-fault mental illnesses.
"At the end of the day, I'm a social worker at heart," he said. "What we want is for people to come away with a better understanding of what it's like to live with mental illness. But I didn't want it to be just another community service piece. I wanted it to be edgy."
Philip describes himself as a conceptual artist, and a somewhat less than prolific one at that.
"I don't really produce a lot," Philip said. "It's maybe every two or three years that I come up with something. I take concepts that are given to me. Sherry gave me this project, and I just started thinking about it and how to turn it into an art show, and make it interesting and different to people."
For Read, who has worked with the mentally ill for four decades, the installation is a chance to put the issue out into the public's eye.
"We want people to start to think about the subject," she said. "We want them to start asking questions, and bring the whole discussion out into the open. We also hope that people will find it in their hearts to support organizations, like Heron Peacock, that help the afflicted."
"Without a Face" will hang through Feb. 14.
For information on the show, go to http://tskw.org/
For information on Heron Peacock Assisted Living, call 305-743-4129, or go to www.heron-peacock.org.