Rows of black and white portraits line the Wittliff Collections interior. Each of the 38 photographs is matched with a different voice speaking about mental health. Denial, fear, stigma, healing and humanity are all given voices from real people exploring the world of mental health.
Artist Michael Nye’s “Fine Line: Mental Health / Mental Illness” traveling exhibition recently came to the Wittliff Collections on the heels of the university’s push to further explore this year’s Common Experience.
“The stories of these people are larger than life. Their voices are amazing and honest,” Nye said. “What society can learn from these people is important—important for our shared humanity.”
Nye said each individual depicted in the collection tells a story and remembers what many try to oppress and forget. The exhibit brings several different feelings and emotions to light so they can be explored, he said.
“I think we all can relate to these people—it gives us an opportunity to relate with that Common Experience (theme),” said Wittliff curator Carla Ellard. “It is important that visitors walk in with an open mind and really listen to these people and their stories because it’s very powerful.”
Prior to becoming a professional photographer, Nye spent 10 years working as an attorney. Nye said his legal background taught him problem solving and language mastery that he still applies to his artwork.
Nye’s process is immersive, requiring him to spend a significant amount of time with each of his subjects. Nye said he stays with each subject for about a month, and it takes between 50 and 60 hours of editing to produce five minutes of audio for the exhibit.
The photographer’s hands-on approach to the collection spilled over into the physical layout of the exhibit as well. Nye worked directly with the library museum to ensure that his vision was executed perfectly.
“(Nye) handpicked the 38 portraits we have and where they would go within the rooms,” Ellard said. “‘Fine Line’ is one of the few collections that relate to Wittliff’s Common Experience theme, which is just a plus for the museum and the exhibit.”
Martha Fierro Alarcon, communication design senior, said she was overwhelmed by the stories she heard when visiting the collection.
Fierro Alarcon said the name of the collection implies simplicity, but the exhibit itself is rich and complex.
“I was very overwhelmed by the power of their voices. It’s almost too much in the moment to absorb it all,” she said. “I was thinking about it long after I left the exhibit.”
Ellard said all students are both welcome and encouraged to view the exhibit to reflect on what it has to offer, adding that the collection’s audio-visual component makes the experience special by bringing the theme to life.