Guard your hearts, tender people. And you tough ones may want to crack open those aortas. The current exhibit at U-M’s Rackham Hall, Responding to Chaos: Art as action, engagement, and revelation, may flood them with sympathy. It’ll also rivet your eyes and massage your minds.

Before you go, be prepared for Big Heartache subject matter: Alzheimer’s, panic attacks, homelessness, strokes, death, and, worse for artists, wrestling with art itself. As Art–with a capital A–and as visual translations of humans grappling with hard stuff, the exhibit succeeds, brilliantly and cleverly.

I worried beforehand that seeing the show would be like gawking at a highway accident or sneaking into someone’s email account. Rest assured, it’s not. It’s more of a testament to working in and through pain, far more in the Rogerian line of “what is most personal is most universal.”

But even the call for submissions was unusually personal. Exhibit organizer Deborah Greer of River Gallery in Chelsea asked for works that answered the question, “How did the artistic process assist you [during a time of chaos]?”

The answer in some pieces names the trouble itself. Soft pastels in Felicia Macheske’s “Tornado” show a thick, menacing slice of cloud pierced by a funnel. Bill Jackson’s “Panic Attack,” a sepia-toned photo of tightly packed squared wood, felt exactly like its title. In “Alzheimers Dementia,” Vickie Michalak renders one full-colored red rose, the symbol for love, which fades into white blankness, then crumbles into grayness at the bottom.

In other pieces, the trouble isn’t obvious. And since I was lucky enough to see the show before the wall tags and artists’ statements were up, I felt free to wonder. What do the cut-off, bloodied modeled hands mean in “Detour,” a startling mixed-media piece by Diane Marie Kramer? On Cathryn Amidei’s gorgeous handwoven and embroidered work is a woman under water. It’s titled “Emancipator.” Why? Is it drowning that frees her? The water’s buoyancy? The muffled quiet that cuts out the world’s cacophony?

Or take Bern Merlo’s painting, “Sweetest Day.” Two black circles are centered on a huge glowing canvas–one open, one closed and twisted away–surrounded by opposite colors of gold and blue. Is this estrangement? An angry, despairing experience on a love holiday? Or an artist struggling through her process?

The artists’ statements answer those questions. They’re up now. Truthfully, I didn’t want to read them. I loved the wondering and, despite the statements, I’m keeping my own interpretations.

A couple entries were a punch in the gut. The red ink in Ellen Wilt’s “Underneath.” The eyes in Marcia Polenberg’s “Homeless Man.” And don’t miss Michele Waalkes’ very sly and wry “Cross Section of Irony.”

You have until May 5 to haul on over to Rackham’s fourth-floor hallways to see the full show. It’s also available online at