The Fine Line

The Fine Line exhibition is coming back to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, April 16-May 31, asking the community one more time to overcome the stigma that comes with mental illness.

Beth, in this photo, was horribly abused. This photograph of her is among those on exhibit.

In a photograph, Beth stands in a garden, leaning against the wall facing the camera wistfully. She is brilliantly talented, performing poetry in high school and songs on stage. But her parents horribly abused her. She later became agoraphobic, a fear of public places, and stayed in a chair in her kitchen for years.

“This exhibition is comprised of beautifully articulated photographs that, along with the stories of those people, communicate the many issues related to mental health, and we are pleased to be the host site for this exhibition, especially during May, which is Mental Health Month,” said Van A. Romans, president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

President of the Mental Health Connection (MHC), Patsy Thomas, said it’s hard to address an issue that nobody wants to talk about. At first the FWMSH said no because it has a reputation as a children’s museum; however, it was rebranded when they celebrated its 50th anniversary. While parental discretion is advised for small children, many teens suffer mental illness. 

“Then they came back to us and said, this is too important for us not to host this,” Thomas said.

It was in 2006 when the museum hosted this provocative exhibition the first time. More than 75,000 people showed up, some coming back every day to absorb these peoples’ stories about overcoming through 24-inch by 30-inch framed photographic portraits. Thomas attended frequently because she was worried how the exhibit would do, but every time she saw the room filled and someone in tears.

“Invariably there would be someone there that would take their headset off and turn and say, ‘Oh my gosh. I never understood my brother before this happened.’ Or, ‘I didn’t know I was alone,’ ” she said.

The exhibition is a series of black-and-white photographs of people overcoming some form of mental illness. Artist Michael Nye takes their portraits with a Civil War-era camera and develops the 8-inch by 10-inch negatives in a dark room. It is a slow process, but one that allows him the time to think about the images in his portraits.

Nye spends days with the subjects earning their trust as he records their stories. He edits their voices into roughly five-minute segments. The museumgoer can choose to listen to these stories as they study their portraits.

“Everyone has a wisdom about their own life that nobody else knows — how they have dealt with things. There is an enormous amount of wisdom in these stories. It is a study of human nature,” Nye said. “The audio in the exhibit allows the patron to hear the voice rise and fall and hear the voice crying or laughing or communicating metaphor.”

Nye said the exhibit is less about human suffering and more a reflection about the nature of mental illness. It is the person next door, your mother, brother, best friend, or the most popular girl in your school. It isn’t just the begging man on the side of the road with a cardboard sign.

“I don’t know where mental health ends and mental illness begins. This exhibit is about the fine line that moves through all of our lives as we weave our ways forward. It is about the recognition of our vulnerabilities and the fragility of control,” Nye said.

The senior vice president of behavioral health at JPS, Wayne Young, said a very small percentage of people who have mental illness actually seek help. Young approached Thomas with MHC to think of innovative ways to reduce this stigma. After a series of conversations, they reached out to the FWMSH.

Through this collaborative effort between JPS Health Network, the MHC of Tarrant County, and the FWMSH, Fort Worth will have a second chance to study human nature.

“This exhibit isn’t only about our shared humanity but our shared fragility… It is also about issues of justice and people who are mistreated,” Nye said.

  • One in four adults—approximately 61.5 million Americans—experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 60 percent of adults, and almost one-half of youth ages 8-15, with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.
  • Only 25 percent of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness.
  • One in every five adults in America experiences a mental illness. Nearly one in 20 (approximately 13.6 million) adults in America lives with a serious mental illness.
  • African Americans and Hispanic Americans used mental health services at about half the rate of whites in the past year, and Asian Americans at about one-third the rate.

Provided by Wayne Young, Senior Vice President of Behavioral Health at JPS