Day after day, the woman diagnosed with schizophrenia walked to and from her treatment center, cutting across the Schenley Park Golf Course.
On her way was a tree — a stately one with a wide canopy of branches. She watched that tree every day and every week, as its leaves changed colors in the autumn and finally dropped to the ground during winter.
To this woman grappling with a serious mental illness, Charlee Brodsky said, that tree became more than a tree.
“This tree came to symbolize to her stability,” Brodsky said. “It was one of the few constants in her life.”
A stark black and white photo of that tree in the dead of winter is one of the 20 photos to comprise Brodsky’s new exhibit at the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center.
“I Thought I Could Fly: Photographs by Charlee Brodsky,” which opens Jan. 11 in the Fine, Perlow, and Weis Gallery, and runs through March 31, is based on Brodsky’s book of the same title. It uses a camera lens to capture provocative scenes — ones that invite exhibit goers to learn more about people dealing with mental illness.
Those people need not have been diagnosed themselves, said Brodsky, an author and professor of photography at Carnegie Mellon University. They may have friends or relatives with mental illness, but their lives are affected just the same.
For instance, Brodsky’s own daughter, who posed for one photo in the exhibit, has been diagnosed with mental illness.
After that, “I wanted to understand mental illness more,” Brodsky said.
What she discovered was mental illness is not some dark, exclusive group. “Mental illness is all around us,” she said. “You just have to scratch the surface to find this one is an alcoholic or this one has an aunt who committed suicide, maybe for depression, but maybe for other reasons as well.
“One of the hopes of the exhibit is when people become familiar with mental illness that they can seek help,” she continued. “There are places out there; there are therapists out there; there are psychiatrists out there; there are treatments out there so that people can have very fulfilling lives.”
Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, described the exhibit’s goal more succinctly: “stigma busting.”
The photos in the exhibit — each accompanied by firsthand narratives of people coping with mental illness — are not of people’s faces.
“I don’t think you can say this is the face of mental illness,” Brodsky said. “I don’t think mental illness is something you see when you first look at someone.”
Instead, she shot scenes and things — even mundane things such as a wall outlet or a doctor’s examination table.
Each shot is somehow related to a narrative; it’s meant to entice the viewer to read the related story.
“You see that photograph first and you wonder what does that have to do with mental illness,” she said.
“I wanted you to look at the photograph and be intrigued by the image,” Brodsky added. “For me it’s more interesting to do things that are a little less predictable than more predictable.”
The exhibit is actually the first of two back-to-back exhibits dealing with Brodsky’s work. The second, “India: A Light Within,” opens Jan. 31 at the Berger Gallery and features some of her rare color photography.
Hiller said the museum found two foundations interested in awarding grants for two shows by the same artist — something almost unheard of for the AJM.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever done it,” Hiller said. “This is the first time we’re getting to see this exhaustive view of two bodies of work by the same artist, and they’re incredibly different.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)