If you could invite five guests to dinner - anyone, from any time period - who would they be?

This party-game question was a creative spark for Gail Harbeck when she painted "Woman with Still Life." Harbeck suggests that the woman on the cover of this month's magazine is pondering the arrival of her guests.

"She's excited, perhaps a little nervous, yet thoughtful. She wonders 'Will they like my food? What will we talk about?' She's a reflection of my own personality," Harbeck says, although the painting is not a self-portrait. "I can't do something without me leaking into it," she says.

Beyond therapy

Harbeck has expressed herself creatively through drawing, painting and mixed-media artwork since childhood, but art became central to her in her late 30s. She has struggled with mental illness her whole life and, when she became disabled and could no longer work at her job, she turned to art "as a palliative," she says.

It soon became clear that she had a passion for art beyond the therapeutic. In 2004, she began to pursue art as a way to supplement her disability income.

Harbeck credits Interact - a licensed day program for adults with a wide spectrum of disabilities to explore performing and visual arts - as a major influence on her artistic path. "I was surrounded by artists. I learned so much from both the staff and other artists," she says.

Her paintings are complex and colorful. "My work comes from my struggle to understand personal as well as world issues," Harbeck says.

"Creating art gives me a connection to life that my illness often thwarts. Art provides me with focus, engagement, understanding, reflection and expression," she writes in her artist's statement.

For example, she says, "With my depression, if I'm doing a self-portrait, it will speak to the chaos that is inside my head, and yet it may show a calm exterior." Her drawings, she says, are calmer with a spiritual feel. She often uses imagery and symbolism to depict connections between people, animals and nature.

In a mixed-media series, called "Fragmented Emotions," Harbeck speaks to challenges with mental illness when multiple feelings simultaneously arise.

"I think that is true for everyone, so many emotions at once," she says. For the series she painted several self-portraits on paper, then cut them up and arranged them in a new piece. "It surprised the heck out of me. It was just beautiful," she says.

'Express what's in your heart'

In addition to creating art, Harbeck teaches art classes and workshops in the Artability program at People Incorporated, an organization that provides services to adults with mental illness.

She focuses on an expressive point of view with her students. "Skills are important, but I really think that expression is key," she says. She tells her students there are no boxes to think outside of - because there just aren't any boxes.

Harbeck calls herself an "outsider artist," one who has learned about art outside of the conventional fine arts instruction. "Outsider artists break the rules," she says. Outsider artwork is often edgy, sometimes more primitive - "it's born from a self, a person without formal instruction. No boxes!"

A new venture

Harbeck serves on the board of directors of the Community Involvement Programs, an organization that supports people with disabilities. Through her work with various mental-health organizations, she sees other concerns that need to be met for people with disabilities. This has lead her to develop an organization called Human Adventures, which will focus on integrating life strategies, visual arts, nature exploration, and a sense of spirituality or personal belief systems.

"Combining these things would be a wonderful way to help folks recover or initiate their dignity, to restore or establish their hope, to understand how they are unique and to learn how to celebrate that," Harbeck says. "Just learning that you have options is huge for some people, especially in the mental-health system."

Human Adventures is in the early stages of development, as Harbeck gathers advisors to serve on her board of directors.

It's art and connecting with other people that are Harbeck's passions and what she calls the "birth sparks" of her new organization's development. "It's people that make me want to live," she says. "In my heart of hearts, no matter how depressed I get - even though I still can get suicidal - I know now that I want to survive. I want to live."

FFI: www.mnartists.org/gailharbeck