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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a home for making art at Duke.

5 Questions for Melissa Miller, Curator of The Art of Mental Health

Published By Duke Arts
Published on: December 2, 2019

Why would a psychologist want to organize an art exhibit? We asked Miller five questions that reveal her motivations and hopes for The Art of Mental Health.

Pyschologist-Turned-Community Art Curator

Melissa Miller

The latest exhibit in the Ruby’s upstairs gallery, The Art of Mental Health, is the brainchild of Melissa Miller, a licensed psychologist at the Triangle Area Psychology Clinic. Dr. Miller was previously an assistant professor in the Cognitive Behavioral Research and Treatment program, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center. The Art of Mental Health is supported by the Ruby’s art projects program, one of the core ways the arts center nurtures artistic innovation.

Why would a psychologist want to organize an art exhibit? We asked Miller five questions that reveal her motivations and hopes for this project.

You’re a clinical psychologist—why an art exhibit?

I love creating and consuming art. Art is one of the key factors in my own wellness. I have always been engaged in various artistic endeavors, and I’m so grateful for the vibrant arts communities in the Triangle. The Art of Mental Health seemed like a unique way for me to give back—by investing my time and effort into a community art project.

I’ve also reached a point in my career where I feel compelled to engage with my local community to talk about mental health in new ways. Mental health impacts us all—whether it’s our own personal experience or the struggle of someone that we love. Yet it can still be a difficult topic for many people to discuss. I hope that this exhibit will demonstrate the universal need to actively work on mental health and ultimately reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns.

All photos by Robert Zimmerman.

Do you have a creative practice?

Plant Pieces by Chelsea Amato.

I’m not a formally trained artist, but I usually have several different creative projects going on at any given time. Most recently, I made a piece of psychology-themed wall art for the TAP Clinic, where I work. Other recent projects of mine include refinishing an old gossip bench that I found at a thrift store, creating a large nature scene painting out of tiny puffy stickers (inspired by a piece by Ye Hongxing that I saw at 21c Museum Hotel last year), and making a surprise scrapbook for a friend and colleague of mine that was moving away from North Carolina. The scrapbook was extra fun because I invited our colleagues to participate too. A few colleagues jumped right in and made their own pages, some worked together with me to try their hand at paper crafts, and others provided me with photos or messages that I could use throughout the book. The gift was so much more meaningful because so many people had contributed to it, and it was also a special way to connect with my colleagues creatively.

Did you learn anything unexpected while reviewing submissions?

Sujal Manohar’s ink pen piece, Prescriptions for Duke,highlights the elements needed to help students cope with the stress and pressures that they face.

I didn’t expect to be so moved and to feel so many emotions myself while reviewing submissions for The Art of Mental Health. As a clinical psychologist, my work provides me with daily reminders of how people have a remarkable capacity to change, adapt, and overcome, so I was surprised by my own reaction to the process. It definitely makes sense when I think about it, though. I generally experience visual art as emotional and stirring, plus there is an added layer of intensity created by the artists’ stories, which are so relatable and engaging. I wasn’t expecting to feel so much emotionally, and it was a pleasant surprise.

What do you hope people will keep with them after visiting The Art of Mental Health?

A view of Mental Monsters—The First Appointment, 2019, by Stacey M. Jones-Bayne.

I hope everyone who visits will think about their own mental health in new ways. I hope that The Art of Mental Health will inspire people to talk about mental health more openly. We can all benefit from active work to improve or maintain our own wellness, and it’s helpful for us to support each other in these efforts.

For any people who are really suffering right now, I hope that they realize that struggling is universal and human. There is hope, and there are things that they can do to feel differently. For some people, this may involve increasing self-care activities and seeking support from family or friends. For others, this may entail seeking professional help and participating in a structured treatment to get back on track. It’s hard work, for sure, and people really can change, adapt, and overcome. I have the privilege of seeing this every day in my clinical work.

Can you share any tips for others who might be interested in organizing a similar exhibit?

Go for it and try to make your ideas happen! I think that it can be easy to dismiss unconventional ideas or feel discouraged by obstacles that arise, so half the battle is having the confidence and drive to go out and try. A year and a half ago, I was a clinical psychologist with a wacky idea to curate a community-involved art exhibit. Now, I can walk through the gallery and see that my idea has come to fruition.

On a practical level, I would recommend reaching out to people with experience. I talked with many people throughout the Duke and Durham art communities, and these conversations really helped me to solidify and shape my initial idea. I created a detailed plan to organize and manage all the pieces. Being organized definitely helped, and I’ve also found that flexibility is necessary too. I couldn’t have foreseen all the encouragement, support, and opportunities for collaboration that are now arising, so I am revising and adding to my plan flexibly.

I would be remiss to not mention that the team at the Ruby has been exceptionally helpful. They have struck an artful balance of providing invaluable guidance and practical support while also allowing me to direct and execute my own creative vision.

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