The National Art Exhibition by the Mentally Ill (NAEMI) holds its 22nd edition this month. Proof that art is often found in the unlikeliest of places, this organization focuses on presenting the work of the mentally ill to South Florida audiences with a mission that is stated on their website: “Through public exhibitions NAEMI seeks to educate the public about this art and to aid in overcoming and dispelling any negative bias associated with the circumstances of its production and to affirm the importance of the creativity of individuals experiencing mental illnesses” (www.naemi.org).
NAEMI was founded by Juan Martin, who worked for years counseling mentally disabled individuals at a community mental health center in Miami. As a mere counseling technique, Martin once offered one of his patients the option of drawing as a therapeutic release of frustrations or inner battles. The patient drew a piece that on one corner read: “Perdone por mi mal dibujo” (I apologize for my bad drawing). The patient’s work impressed Martin so, that it inspired him to explore the artistic abilities of other psychiatric patients.
Martin knew that these most unexpected artists had an incredible need of expressing their emotions and inner worlds, and knowing that the best artwork is always born from this most basic of necessities he got together with some friends and founded NAEMI in 1988.
Since then, Martin and the wonderful people at NAEMI have worked each year toward the exhibition by sending invitations to different institutions, centers, and mental health departments, and also by welcoming visitors to their webpage. The development of their site has put NAEMI in contact with artists from China, to Italy, to anywhere in the world, making their annual art inventory approximately 900 to 1,000 pieces.
Martin describes past exhibitions and the interaction between artists and guests as any other exhibition that one might attend. He also states that NAEMI does not profit from the sale of art-work at the exhibition, explaining that part of the experience is for artists and guests to negotiate the sale of pieces as a way of breaking down communication barriers between the mentally ill and the exhibition’s guests; “I know of some guests that have developed an incredible friendship with our artists,” he says.
Like most non-profits, NAEMI is in need of volunteers, “It is of great interest for the organization for students to visit the exhibition and become involved in our mission against the stigma that exists toward mental illness,” says Martin, “I think that people who have suffered from mental illness have been marginalized in our society; something that is even evident in President Obama’s health plan in which ‘Mental Health’ isn’t even mentioned.”
NAEMI’s ultimate goal is to open a museum dedicated to the art of the mentally ill. With this purpose in mind, the organization has collected over 1,000 permanent collection pieces that they hope will one day grace the halls of the first museum of its kind in the country.