It was just a sunflower growing in his back yard, an image he captured when he was 18, an image that stuck in his mom's mind.
About five years ago, at his mother's urging, Philip Brubaker dug up his photograph. He brought the image, the flower's bright yellow petals beginning to unfurl from its center, to a new art gallery on the third floor of the UNC Neurosciences Hospital.
It was the first time Brubaker, who was hospitalized in 2000 and was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, exhibited his artwork. His sunflower drew fans and, soon, buyers eager for a copy of the image.
The gallery, called Brushes with Life: Art, Artists, and Mental Illness, began as part of the Schizophrenia Treatment and Evaluation Program. It features artwork by former inpatients; current clinic outpatients; and clients of Club Nova, a center in Carrboro run by and for people with mental illnesses.
"And it's high-quality work," said Dr. Diana Perkins, psychiatry professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and STEP medical director.
"So instead of having the stigma of being seen as a person with an illness, [the patients are] recognized for their talents and the contributions they can make," she said. "The artwork is a contribution, a product of value."
The gallery displays work by more than 150 patient artists with disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, said Angela Paige, co-chairwoman of the hospital's art committee. The third-floor hallway is packed for each opening reception, with splashes of color greeting visitors as they step out of the elevator.
On display now is an untitled, representational oil and spray painting of the World Trade Center towers in New York City by 22-year-old Grayson Bowen.
Bowen was admitted to the hospital four months ago for schizophrenia. He has studio space in Bleecker Street Studio & Gallery in Carrboro and displays his work online at thezedgallery.com.
"I find it very therapeutic," he said. "I try to express myself in the truest means, and what comes out comes out."
But Bowen said his illness doesn't drive his art. He has just always been an artist.
"I believe that schizophrenia is a part of me. However, focusing on the symptoms can be self-destructive, and people should focus on other aspects of their personality," he said.
In November, Eli Lilly and Co. gave the hospital its Lilly Reintegration Award for advocacy. The $5,000 prize honors people and institutions that support people with mental illness, as well as the achievements of people living with mental illness.
Brubaker, 25, who works at Weaver Street Market, said displaying his art did more than boost his self-esteem. It helped him see himself as an artist, one who could produce work others would appreciate and pay for. He has sold about 40 photos so far.
For the gallery's latest exhibit, he unveiled his first painting, an oil on canvas piece titled "Haystacks by the Highway."
"I thought the gallery was a perfect place to show [the painting]," he said, "because it's a very sort of nurturing environment there, where even if your work is not polished, it's a good place to show your painting."
Staff writer Meiling Arounnarath can be reached at 932-2004 or email@example.com.