There's more behind the neatly framed, science fiction drawings of the late Mitch Tulgetske than initially meets the eye.
His family members, who arranged to have his art hung posthumously at the Besser Museum, are hoping to bring a greater awareness to the plight of the mentally ill.
From the time he could grasp a pencil, Tulgetske liked to draw, remembers older sister Carrie Collins of Alpena. As her brother grew older, she said, science fiction art became his means of expression and he spent hours completing detailed drawings of fanciful creatures.
Collins also remembers her brother as happy, funny and kind-hearted. But those positive attributes changed when Tulgetske turned 34 and began to hear voices and experience hallucinations, she said.
"He was very suspicious of others and began to think people, and the government in particular, were watching him," Collins said. "He would see things on his computer screen and tell us songs on the radio were sending him messages. We were really frightened and had no idea where to turn for help."
From that point forward, her brother spent years trying to cope with his mental illness. Eventually, he was arrested for threats made on the Internet and was sent to Lansing where a state forensic psychologist diagnosed him as having paranoia schizophrenia. Tulgetske spent a year in jail and was given minimal treatment, said Collins, adding that at the end of his sentence he was released to family. Since he experienced a reaction to his meds, her brother was released only with a prescription for sleeping pills.
That wasn't the last time he was to end up in jail. Desperate to get help for him but with hands tied because of current mental health regulations, Collins said the family had him arrested a second time.
"He had a psychotic break in September 2011," Collins said. "The only way to get treatment was to have him arrested again. We had to tell police he was a danger to himself and to others."
Following this second arrest, she said Tulgetske was hospitalized for two weeks, then released and put on a cocktail of drugs that left him virtually catatonic.
"He went from no treatment to over-treatment," Collins said. "What needs more work is the medication for those with mental illness. It's atrocious. It's debilitating. A cure would be great, but in the meantime, it's almost like the medication is worse than the disease.
Ultimately, at the age of 41, Tulgetske chose to end his life on March 2, 2013. Their mother, with whom he had lived for most of his adult life, had died from lung cancer exactly a week before.
After his death, Collins assembled all of the drawings, as well as a few wood sculptures, that her brother had created over the years. Some of the less graphic pieces she was familiar with, while others she was surprised to find afterwards among his belongings. Many of the drawings, she said, provided indicators of her brother's mental state.
"If you look closely at his art, it gives signs of his fears. His preoccupation with suicide and the delusions he had to deal with daily," she said.
Many of the pencil drawings show fine, intricate details. Agreeing to showcase Tulgetske's work at the Besser Museum was not a difficult decision for the museum staff, said Exhibits and Facilities Manager Randy Shultz.
"The detail and his artistic ability is amazing," Shultz said. "We belong to the community, and we think it's pretty important for the community to be exposed to this. To use this exhibit as an awareness, then he didn't do it in vain. I think it's a heck of a memorial."
Shultz said if even one person is impacted and leaves the museum with a greater understanding of those with mental illness, then the exhibit will have been worth it. He, too, is surprised by the telling details found in some of Tulgetske's work.
"His work is amazing. You don't see any eraser marks, but when you look at it closely, there are so many warning signs and indicators," Shultz said. "The family wasn't exposed to those particular pieces of his art until it was too late. Carrie's concern was maybe some of it was too graphic, but sometimes you need that shock and awe to make people realize that this happens every day."
The exhibit will remain on display through Oct. 26 only.