A week into his hospitalization at the Elgin Mental Health Center in Illinois, Jeffrey Eppard was given pencils and paper and invited to draw anything he wanted. The subject he chose was his left arm.
He outlined it in a blur of charcoal, then filled in the details: the lines crisscrossing his palm; the bracelet spelling out "Angel"; and the still-fresh scar that began at his wrist and slashed toward the crook of his elbow.
The wound was a remnant of the suicide attempt that had landed him in the hospital. He said evoking it with a sketch was, to his surprise, a comfort.
"It brings back some of the anxieties, but it's not entirely bad," said Eppard, 24, who suffers from bipolar disorder. "Just visually seeing it (on paper) tells me it's OK. I'm sick, but it's going to be all right."
Though he used the language of recovery, it was no therapy session. It was a simple afternoon of drawing put together by some who had battled their own demons that they believed could be quieted, at least for a moment, with a swirl of graphite.
The organizers were from the Awakenings Project, a collective of people with mental illnesses who have found strength in art. They meet weekly in a suburban studio to draw and paint, and, on occasion, they travel to mental health centers to share their materials and enthusiasm with those still emerging from crisis.
"My hope is to unleash the joy," said Irene O'Neill, one of the group's founders. "I just want people to get into it and have fun."
Psychologists long have believed that art provides a window into troubled minds, but what once was mainly a diagnostic tool - Draw a tree that represents your feelings - has become an instrument of healing.
Randy Vick, a therapist who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said making art brings a precious sense of control to those suffering from schizophrenia and other mental disorders. When the mind, body and emotions unite in the act of creation, a person can feel he has regained power over his life, Vick said
The Awakenings Project doesn't offer formal therapy, but it follows similar principles. It was founded in 1996 to showcase the artistic abilities of people with mental illness, allowing them to earn self-respect.
"Most people with a mental illness don't work, so they don't have a work identity," said co-founder Robert Lundin. Exhibiting their art "gives them a kind of identity in the community. They can legitimately call themselves an artist."
In time, the group began to seek out and cultivate that talent. It rents a downtown Elgin, Ill., studio, where its members produce oil paintings, watercolors and collages. It spreads the word at national mental health conferences. For the last five years, it has reached out to institutions where people with severe mental illnesses are treated.
That is what led O'Neill and four fellow Awakenings volunteers to the Elgin Mental Health Center one recent Saturday. They passed out pencils, paper and a few art books to a dozen patients, and after they made a few introductory remarks, the sketching began.
Francis Chereck, 29, had an elegant, polished style. He had taken plenty of art classes when he was younger, he said, and even now, despite the bipolar disorder shaking his life, he liked to draw video game characters to give away as gifts.
He drew a human eye, its pupil dabbled with points of light, its lid heavy with charcoal. He shaded the corner over and over again until it appeared to be weeping black tears.
Art teachers "always told me not to overshadow," he said. "I tend to like things dark. That's just me."
John Miller, 30, worked in a lighter vein, reproducing simple likenesses of a rabbit and bird he had found in a book. Then he tried a freehand portrait of his childhood home. It was a place of sad memories, he said, yet he smiled as he drew its crooked stairs and wind-whipped flag.
"I think art's a good getaway," he said. "When we're sitting here doing this, it takes us away from our troubles. It's like we're kids again."
Other sketches were difficult to grasp. They were patchworks of runes, figures and phrases that remained impenetrable, even after their creators tried to explain them.
One young man stricken by schizophrenia drew symbols in the chunky, 3-D style of a graffiti tagger. The man, who asked to be called "Pi," said he was obsessed with numbers and formulas. Reproducing them gave him a feeling of tranquility.
His drawing was striking and skillful, but he dismissed it, telling a visitor to take it away.
"It's frivolous," he said. "I'll reproduce it another way, another time. I could burn this right now and it wouldn't mean anything to me."
A moment later, though, he asked to look at an image of his sketch that had been captured by a Tribune photographer.
"Oh, that's beautiful," he said.
He went back to the visitor with two clean sheets of paper, urging him to sandwich the drawing between them so the lines wouldn't smudge.
Such small moments of pride were evident throughout the three-hour session. But when it ended, it was hard to say whether it had produced any lasting effects. Most of the patients left their work behind when they headed back to their rooms.
Packing up the materials, O'Neill said she was optimistic. Her bipolar disorder brought her plenty of misery after she was diagnosed in 1976, when she was 20. She had been hospitalized against her will, clapped into straitjackets and shot up with debilitating medications.
But she never lost her childhood love of art. And when she helped found the Awakenings Project, she said, she learned that her painting and collage-making - and most important, her relationships with other artists - could give her stability.
She had a new identity, one in which her mental disorder was only a single shard in a larger mosaic. Maybe, she said, art could help a few more reach the same place.
"Some of them will re-identify as artists," she predicted. "Some will start to see themselves in a different light. People get back in touch with themselves and know that they are more than just their illness."