[Two articles on artists who have had psychiatric problems:
Art Museum of the Mind, and Into the Light]
Art Museum of the Mind
On location: Filmmaker Jessica Yu focuses on psychiatric patients and
By JOHN CLARK
NEW YORK--In a large, loft-like building on a mild,
wintry day, a group of artists are preparing their
work space for a show. Paintings and sculptures are
adjusted. Floors are scrubbed. Lights are strung. A
black and white photograph of each artist is hung
beside their respective studios, accompanied by a name
tag. Absent are the usual pretentious, sermonizing
artists' statements describing their work. The
art--playful, brooding, provocative--speaks for itself.
"It's all about sex," says John Tursi of his
couplings made out of tongue depressors, plastic water
bottles, yarn and paper bags. "I don't know why that is."
It's about a lot more than sex. Proving the point
is the presence of a documentary film crew headed by
filmmaker Jessica Yu, who won the best documentary
short Oscar in 1997 for "Breathing Lessons: The Life
and Work of Mark O'Brien." Today Yu is shooting
inserts of the artists' photographs and some of their
art. For nine months she has been following these
people around, interviewing them about their lives and
their work, gathering footage for a film that will
address issues of creativity and mental illness in
ways that a biopic of Vincent van Gogh never could.
Yu's subjects are not preening SoHo art stars.
They are patients at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in
Queens. Their 20,000-square-foot studio, called the
Living Museum, is a former kitchen/dining room on the
institution's dreary, high-security grounds.
Built in the 1920s on what was once farmland and
a rifle range, Creedmoor is famous--infamous,
really--as the end of the line for people who could
not afford private psychiatric care. Over the years it
has housed a largely geriatric population of patients
who didn't belong there (Alzheimer's and
postpartum-depression patients), as well as patients
who did (manic depressives, schizophrenics).
With budget cuts and the push toward
deinstitutionalization, Creedmoor is downsizing and
the population has dropped from around 7,000 to 575.
Of those left, some stay on the grounds while others
are outpatients who live in halfway houses or even
their own apartments. All at one time or another have
been a danger to themselves or someone else, or they
wouldn't be here.
Yu describes the local--indeed
universal--attitude toward places like Creedmoor and
its inhabitants this way: "Just today a cabdriver
(taking me there) was saying, 'I remember when I was
growing up, they'd say, "You'd better be good, or
we'll send you to Creedmoor. We get $50 if they take
you at Creedmoor." ' That's what his parents would
tell him when he was bad."
Dr. Janos Marton, the museum's frenetic,
practical-minded director, calls this attitude
"psychophobia. It's like racism or sexism. It's the
fear of the mentally ill. It's such a strong thing
because people project their own mishegas, mental
illness, into it. So whatever they fear in themselves
they like to project onto the mentally ill."
It's neither a joke nor an exaggeration to say
that it's difficult to separate the artists from the
visitors at the Living Museum. Is that guy stringing
lights a gaffer or a schizophrenic? Are such
distinctions relevant? According to Yu, such questions
are part of the point of the museum.
"You start to realize that you have to assume
that everyone is not a patient," Yu says. "And that's
also what the Living Museum is about, that it tries to
get you out of that traditional mind-set where you're
like, 'Oh, I'm at a psychiatric institution. I need to
make these differentiations.' They are not useful at all."
The patients' illnesses are not necessarily
explicit in their work. There are few, if any,
melancholy self-portraits or despairing views of
modern life. The only direct commentary on their
condition is upstairs, in a handful of collective
installations made years ago. There's the "TV Room," a
wall of TVs satirizing the mind-numbing TV watching on
the wards. There's the "Home Room," with painted
dishes, an ancient hi-fi, and other assorted household
artifacts, reflecting the patients' homesickness
(worsened by the fact that many are estranged from
their families). In another corner is "The Hospital,"
featuring an enormous waste basket full of crumpled,
bureaucratic Creedmoor memos and several crates of
matchbooks--an allusion to another time killer on the
wards, cigarette smoking.
"The only good thing about mental illness is that
you are blessed by artistic creativity," Marton says.
"Everything else is a horror. That is my message to
the world. I have two basic underlying attitudes. I
believe that everybody is an artist. In addition, I
believe that everybody who went through a psychotic
episode--at one point communicated with voices, was in
this sort of spiritual domain--and returned to tell
the story is potentially a great artist. And in a way
the museum is proof of that."
Because of the artists' access to those voices,
that domain, there are no boundaries, no rules. David
Waldorf explores his obsession with Beethoven's deaf
period with abstract pencil on paper landscapes. John
Tursi doesn't have just sex on his mind: The American
flag has a hold on him too--a baby carriage is
swaddled in the stars and stripes. Issa Ibrahim has
two spaces, one devoted to photo-realist takes on pop
culture (a lascivious Dorothy being ogled by the Tin
Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow; Superman drinking a
beer and watching television). The other is
wall-to-wall black iconography (Muhammad Ali, Martin
Luther King Jr., Richard Roundtree, the bloody glove
from O.J. Simpson's Rockingham estate). Helen Sadowski
is a trained artist who makes dizzying crisscrossed
pastel lines on black paper.
Although the museum accommodates as many as 40
artists, Yu is following only six of them. Her
project, which is financed by HBO and will be
broadcast sometime early next near, was brought to her
by producer Dawn Parouse, who had seen the museum
while working on a student film and was surprised that
no one had made a movie about it. She approached Yu
for the same reason that Marton and hospital officials
later said yes to the idea: "Breathing Lessons," Yu's
celebration of poet-journalist Mark O'Brien, who has
lived most of his life in an iron lung.
"I thought Jessica would be perfect for this
because under somebody else's guidance it could have
been a really depressing film," Parouse says. "She was
able to draw out the humanity and individuality of
someone in this situation and say, 'OK, here's a
person. He still wants the same things--he still wants
to have sex, he still wants to fall in love, has a
sense of humor. . . ."
Yu, who is 31 and married to writer Mark Salzman,
came to documentary filmmaking by accident. Raised in
Northern California, she graduated from Yale with no
idea what she wanted to do and only one real passion:
fencing. She began assisting on commercial shoots in
the Bay Area because the flexible hours allowed her to
attend pre-Olympic fencing competitions both here and
abroad. She didn't make the team. Falling back into
filmmaking and frustrated by handling frozen pasta
rather than a camera, she moved to L.A. and
immediately began doing real production work for a
company that made documentaries. She had found her niche.
"I saw more women and more minorities in all
aspects of (documentary) production," she says. "And
you can go farther in the production process on your
own sweat and blood than on the commercial side, where
just the amount of money and resources you need and
needing people to say yes to you. . . . In
documentary, it's not like anyone is saying yes or no.
It's like no one really cares what you're doing."
They didn't care until Yu made a short called
"Sour Death Balls," featuring the comic reactions of a
group of kids and adults to a particularly noxious
piece of candy. She shot it over a weekend with $50
worth of film. Although this put her on the festival
circuit, it was "Breathing Lessons" that put her on
the map--not only in Hollywood (she will possibly
remake it as a feature film) but on Madison Avenue as
well. Advertisers responded to her Oscar ceremony
elegance and poise by asking her to model, among other
things, Coach handbags.
"My feeble attempts to sell out while I can," Yu says.
These feeble attempts had unexpected fallout when
she came to Creedmoor, where, with a few exceptions,
many of the patients took awhile to warm up to the
camera (though not to the crafts services table).
"One day we came in to film one of the patients,"
Yu says. "He wasn't there, and Dr. Marton kept saying,
'Where is he? He's very excited to come today because
he knew you guys were coming.' We later found out that
he had picked up a magazine and found the Coach ad and
shown the picture and was telling everyone that this
lady was going to film him today. And they all thought
he was just being delusional. And they didn't let him
come. They said, 'You've got a dentist appointment.
You can't go over.' And he kept on saying, 'This lady
is going to interview me today.' "
This is funny, in a black comedy sort of way, and
also sad. As Yu points out, "It's sad that they would
think that someone who is actually in a magazine
wouldn't be interested in him."
But it's also interesting that someone in a
magazine would be interested in him. The Living Museum
would seem to be an extension of the film that won Yu
so much acclaim, in that the subjects are afflicted
with a devastating--and socially
unacceptable--disorder that they work through with their art.
"In a way it's a totally different film because
the people are so different," she says. "But in terms
of a thematic tie there is something about--I hate to
say the healing power of art because it sounds
corny--but I guess you could say maybe the validating
power of art. That's something that Mark O'Brien
certainly did and a lot of people in the Living Museum do."
In fact, according to Marton, this art is not
only validating, it is transforming. The museum is a
kind of paradise, a respite from the hopelessness of
the wards. One of the artists, Marton says, "is
completely psychotic, screams 24 hours a day on the
ward. That's why they sent her here in spite of the
fact that she's completely out of it. Usually if
somebody is psychotic they wouldn't let them out, but
she is so miserable on the ward and she makes people's
lives so miserable there that they would send her to
the moon. So they send her here, and she's a dream.
Her stuff is really beautiful, but she's in la-la land."
Marton will also be featured in Yu's film. With
degrees in psychology and art from Columbia University
and a sensibility shaped by what he insists are
Europe's more enlightened attitudes toward mental
illness (he was raised in Vienna), Marton founded the
museum in the mid-'80s along with artist Bolek
Greczynski. When Greczynski died, Marton, who was a
therapist on the wards, took over and expanded the
facilities. He is its only salaried employee. He says
he operates from what he calls the "King of Hearts"
metaphor, after Philippe de Broca's 1966 film in which
a town abandoned by its populace during World War I is
taken over by local mental patients. A "sane" British
soldier wanders in and is proclaimed king.
"The moral of that story," says Marton, "is
everybody on the outside is completely nuts and the
normal people are in the mental institution in that
town. This is a nonauthoritarian structure, meaning
that the patients run the place. The best definition
of mental illness is the inability to tolerate stress.
Rules and regulations put stress on people. I'm trying
to create a stress-free environment."
Ironically, the art show the following evening
puts stress on both Marton and his patients, although
many of the visitors are family members and hospital
personnel. For all the anxiety it produces, he
considers the show a necessary part of their
transformation from mental patient to artist. Yu and
her crew discretely record the artists' reactions. One
paces nervously. Another escapes the crowd by
listening to a patient playing and singing the blues
on a dilapidated piano. John Tursi--who, along with
Helen Sadowski, has exhibited work in Manhattan--seems
the most comfortable, expounding unself-consciously
about his work to anyone who will listen.
"This is me, my momma, a lesbian, my dog, and a
horse," Tursi says to three respectful women. "This is
a peep show. This is a man and woman making love."
Another artist points to his own psychedelic
scrollwork hanging near the entrance and says, "My mom
doesn't like my graffiti because it reminds her of
when I was doing all sorts of crazy stuff." He says
that when he was doing crazy stuff and vandalizing New
York City subway cars, his "tag" was AERO. Now that
he's an artist, it's INSANE. He can live with that.
- - -
Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1998
Into the Light
'Visions of the Mind' Brings the Work of Artists With a History of
Problems Out of the Dark
By DUANE NORIYUKI, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
The medications have lifted her from the darkness and depths
yesterday, when all, once again, seemed hopeless. Now at her
kitchen table, she sketches in quick strokes, the sharp, shiny
lead of her pencil barely sweeping the paper--classical music
lifelong uncertainty lingering in the background.
It's hard to identify a time and place at which the life of
this 52-year-old artist began to unravel. Perhaps it was
What more unlikely setting could there have been for her first
marriage--to an English professor and poet--to crumble?
Or maybe it was the apartment where she slung a rope over a
cupboard and tried to hang herself, or the college dormitory
where she swallowed the pills. Or does it go back even
One day as a child, she came home in her Brownie uniform,
herself down at the foot of a stairway leading to her tiny
and couldn't stop crying.
Episodes of depression, since diagnosed as bipolar disorder,
have been a constant shadow on her life. The other constant
been art. "When I do this," she says, focusing on her sketch
don't feel like I'm conquering my mental illness. I feel that
trying to find the essence of something and put it down on
Her pain and art always have been carefully divided. Set upon
a kitchen towel in front of her is a lemon, still green,
from a tree behind her Pasadena apartment. She is drawn to
which is of the Earth and finds peace in nature. That the
does not speak to the confusion of her life makes it safe
Lucy, who didn't want her real name used, is one of 10
artists whose work is featured in the exhibit "Visions of the
Mind" at the Rouge Galerie, 21 E. Holly St., Pasadena, today
through July 21. The artists are participants in a drop-in art
program at Pacific Clinics, a nonprofit behavioral health-care
provider with offices throughout the area.
Among her works in the show will be a painting of two yellow
apples, another of raspberries and plums, and a pen and ink
drawing of eggs. The destructive nature of bipolar disorder in
life--lost jobs, lost relationships, lost hope--is not evident
"These pieces do not show who I am or what my experiences
have been in life. That's not what comes easily for me," she
"This disorder has done a lot of damage in my life, and I've
learned not to tell people about it who have power over me."
After graduating with an art degree from St. Olaf College in
Minnesota, Lucy taught for two years in Africa. Her intent was
return to graduate school, but life got in the way. She
Syracuse University and the University of Minnesota but
out. Finally two years ago, she enrolled at Cal State L.A. to
her teaching certificate.
Her classroom work was fine, she says, but student teaching
turned disastrous. At times, she couldn't talk straight, think
straight. One day she referred to herself by the wrong name.
"It's a sinking feeling. It's like when you've plummeted down
under the sea and you have the bends. It doesn't last now
of the medication. Now I know what's going to happen, and I
it's temporary. I feel it coming, and I allow myself to feel
way, and I tell myself it's going to last a few hours or a day
three days, but it won't last forever."
Bipolar disorder often is likened to a roller coaster: rising
to boundless heights where anything seems possible, swirling,
free-falling sometimes to a place closer to death than life.
"At times I have felt so dead and so heavy that I didn't care
about anything," she says. "It is total deadness."
Her focus grows deeper as the outline of the lemon and
background towel begin to take shape. Since she stopped
teaching earlier this year, art has brought her peace and,
perhaps, a sense of direction. Recently, she has drawn
illustrations for medical publications.
"The whole idea of art is to lose yourself in it. That's when
it's really going well. It's like anything else. If you lose
self-awareness and become engrossed in whatever it is you're
doing, that's your bliss, right?"
Then as she continues to sketch, in a voice barely audible,
she adds, "Follow your bliss."
Guillermo Martinez, 45, has heard voices inside his head
since he was a child. They were male and female, sometimes
sometimes a whisper, sometimes only sounds. They came to him
he was 9 and eventually took control of his life.
"They told me to commit suicide," he says. He could feel the
spirits inside of him, pounding on his heart and rising in his
throat. He started pacing, then started drawing them. "They
like that. They tried to torture me if I didn't stop sketching
them. I showed them to people and [the drawings] freaked them
which was not my intention."
When he stopped drawing the spirits, the voices loosened
their grip, he says. He has been institutionalized throughout
life, and now treatment and medication have helped him deal
schizophrenia. Still, the voices return about once a week.
Martinez earned a degree in art from Pasadena City College,
where a mural he painted in 1982 still symbolizes the
and strengths of Latino people. He mostly does portraits now,
painted on wood.
His love for natural beauty, for the spiritual side of
humanity, has led him to painting Native American leaders,
from old photographs, capturing strength, spirit and sadness.
Martinez, a Pasadena resident, describes art as his voice,
"To understand me, you have to understand my art," he says.
Sylvain Copon understood. The owner of the Rouge Galerie says
the pieces included in the show stand on their own artistic
But in all art, he says, there is an inherent importance in
understanding the creators of the work.
"I make the same value with the people and the art," he says.
He was amazed by both when he visited Pacific Clinics in
March, finding the art beautiful and the artists' stories
compelling. He soon began organizing the show.
Most of the work will be for sale. For Lucy, it is part of
another evaluation of her life. She wonders whether she can
living painting, and she wonders about revealing more of
in her work.
She is infuriated by stigmas, racism, sexism, xenophobia,
homophobia and hopes to someday address such issues in her
In some ways, her life is more stable than ever. The
medications and counseling have helped her deal with her
condition. The best defense, she says, is laughter, the
cast light on shadow. She admires the elderly who have
the disorder before medical science helped ease its effects.
Seven years ago, she remarried, and her husband, who works in
merchandising, has never once told her, "Just snap out of it."
He understands that it's not so simple. Since she stopped
student teaching, Lucy has struggled with bouts of denial and
self-doubt. She looks into the future and sees no obvious
"I can't sustain productive work and friendships and social
things that you need to do to climb," she says. "I can't
that way. I can't be professional. That's the big word. I've
always wanted to be professional. Everything I studied for was
gear me toward being professional in one form or another, and
can't get there, and that's frustrating to me."
But there is satisfaction in art, seeing beauty in a lemon,
self in bliss.
Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, July 7, 1998
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