MONTICELLO — Expression through painting provided a Twin Lakes High School junior an opportunity to share her work with the masses in northwest Indiana.

It also served as a personal escape from an illness that altered her ability to live life as a “normal” girl.

Akina Lindley, 16, was diagnosed three years ago with chronic Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that mimics the flu. According to the National Institutes of Health, it starts as a rash at the bite site and, as it spreads throughout the body, may cause fever, head and body aches, stiff neck and fatigue.

Lindley said she was unable to attend school and “do basic everyday things,” so she turned to art as a way to express who she is when words failed to do so.

“Lyme disease absorbed who I was for the two years it took to diagnose and treat,” she wrote in a brochure for the Napleton Gallery in Merrillville, where her work was on display for several weeks. “I felt like I had completely lost everything and no one really understood the invisible battle I was going through. Throughout my recovery, art was my escape.”

Painting, Lindley said, helped her through her treatments.

“I would stay up (until) 4 a.m. just because I couldn’t sleep until every thought and emotion was tangible,” she said. “I couldn’t make others understand what losing everything and being sick felt like through my idle words that no one could possibly relate to. Painting let me express what it was like in a way others could relate to.”

Even people battling other diseases and ailments saw something in her work.

“Someone once told me that one of my pieces reminded them of their battle with breast cancer,” Lindley said. “Even though we weren’t fighting the same battle, it spoke to her and she could relate it back to her own story.”

So how did Lindley’s art go from a personal expression of her feelings to a public showing?

“I was introduced to Akina through a mutual acquaintance and scheduled a meeting,” said Lori Saulters, who manages the Napleton Gallery lobby gallery in Merrillville. “When I met with Akina and saw her art, I was truly impressed by her skill — especially at her young age. She is a very talented artist.”

Napleton Gallery, she said, offers regional artists a chance to exhibit their work in different mediums. It is in a lobby of a building frequented by tenants and their clients.

“Many people simply stop to look at her work,” she said. “It has been commented on and appreciated by many.”

Lindley also has shown her work at shows in Indianapolis and a business in Logansport.

“These opportunities have helped me greatly connect with the art community and helped my appreciation for art grow,” she said. “I’ve worked hard on my paintings and try to put them out there for others.”

Putting her work “out there” for others also posed some challenges for Lindley.

“The thing about putting art out there is that it’s like putting a piece of you out for everyone to see and being vulnerable with complete strangers,” she said. “At first, this was hard for me, but after a few shows, I realized that people can relate to these pieces and they can sometimes create a personal interpretation that they see themselves in.”

Lindley said she believes her willingness and motivation is what earned her work recognition and an exhibit at the gallery.

“It’s not that I’m better or some amazing artist, I’m just not afraid of the rejection and criticism that you’re vulnerable to when you put a piece of yourself on display,” she said.

Saulters said Lindley is simply a talented young artist.

“I was very happy to exhibit her work in the Napleton Gallery,” she said

Lindley said she’s interested in computer security as a possible career. Earlier this year, she earned a national honorable mention for her computing aspirations, passed three MTA (Microsoft Technology Associate) certifications and is a member of several cyber security clubs.

She added that she hasn’t fully committed to it as a college major or career choice. Whatever she chooses, Lindley said art will always be a part of her life.

“I don’t see an end to my love for painting and it will continue to be a expressive hobby for me,” she said. “I love the idea of helping others through my art and that’s why I try to put it out there.”