Student artist uses paintings to create conversation about mental illness

Michaela Griego uses her art to cope with her mental illness and help others understand the complexity of mental health issues

At one point in her life, Michaela Griego woke up every morning wishing that she hadn’t. 

As both of her feet hit the floor, the devastating feeling of facing another day hit her. With a black cup of coffee in hand, Griego would brace for a 45 minute bus ride to school. 

But in the early Arizona winter mornings, Griego found hope in the fateful timing of getting to watch the sunrise every day. And in in the warm colors of a new day’s beginning, everything was okay for a minute. 

Griego, a junior painting major, has found a similar light by expressing the complexities of mental illness through her art, as she has dealt with depression since she was 13, and still battles several mental disorders to this day. 

She began using art cathartically in middle school and is now pursuing it not only as a professional career, but also as a way to help others. 

ASU junior painting major Michaela Griego works on one of her paintings in the art building on the Tempe campus on Friday, March 23, 2018.

“Growing up, my art started as a way to cope with things, and it developed into something where I want to help others understand what people are going through. And that’s where my art is going now,” Griego said. 

Griego’s experience with both borderline personality disorder and bipolar II disorder has inspired her latest project: a series focusing on the symptoms of mental illness. 

“BPD is a very misunderstood disorder, as most of them are,” Griego said. “Since I decided to use my experiences to help others understand mental health symptoms better, I decided to start with BPD symptoms, since that’s what I experience the most.”

Some of Griego’s beginning works depict the feelings of emptiness and dissociation. 

“This series focuses on four of the symptoms that I experience the most,” Griego said. “But I am planning on focusing on all of them and then working on how others are affected by other illnesses.”

Relying on her artistic talents, Griego faces the challenge of applying abstract concepts to visual mediums. 

ASU junior painting major Michaela Griego poses for a photo with her paintings in the art building on the Tempe campus on Friday, March 23, 2018.

"The hardest thing is how you express imagery by turning something in your head into something visual," Cam DeCaussin, an ASU faculty associate and Griego's professor in Painting III, said. "She’s figured out different ways of doing it through different mediums, by incorporating painting and embroidery, complimenting two very different aspects of thoughts."

Opening up about her battle with mental illness has fueled Griego’s art and impacted the lives of those close to her. 

"Her paintings are moving — they reach out and grab the viewer and offer a sense of understanding that’s only attainable by Michaela’s artwork," Kyra De La Torre, Griego's roommate and junior psychology and English literature major, said. "They make me feel less alone."

A selfless personality and drive to help others has allowed Griego's work to reflect the humanitarian motivation behind it.

"Michaela's always there for the people around her, always willing to help, to listen and to connect," De La Torre said. "She’d give away pieces of herself until there was nothing left if it meant making someone else whole again, and that shows in her work."

To expand her message, Griego is hoping to use “the power of social media” to display her work. Most of her art can be viewed on her online portfolio website that she designed herself. 

With many finished products behind her and many masterpieces yet to come, Griego has one piece she considers her favorite. 

“My favorite project I’ve done is a weaving project I did about the sunrise,” Griego said. 

The project is in commemoration of the few minutes of hope she used to experience on the bus every day. 

“I remember being on the bus and thinking, ‘Wow, I guess things are okay in this moment,’” Griego said. “It may not be okay overall, but in this one particular moment, I am okay.”

Check out Michaela's artwork at 

Reach the reporter at or follow on @nicolemludden Twitter.

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