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[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 their creative forum.

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 Mental Problems Out of the Dark

By DUANE NORIYUKI, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The medications have lifted her from the darkness and depths of

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 and

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 Paris.

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 room

where she swallowed the pills. Or does it go back even further?

One day as a child, she came home in her Brownie uniform, threw

herself down at the foot of a stairway leading to her tiny bedroom

and couldn't stop crying.

Episodes of depression, since diagnosed as bipolar disorder,

have been a constant shadow on her life. The other constant has

been art. "When I do this," she says, focusing on her sketch pad, "I

don't feel like I'm conquering my mental illness. I feel that I'm

trying to find the essence of something and put it down on paper."

Her pain and art always have been carefully divided. Set upon

a kitchen towel in front of her is a lemon, still green, plucked

from a tree behind her Pasadena apartment. She is drawn to that

which is of the Earth and finds peace in nature. That the lemon

does not speak to the confusion of her life makes it safe subject matter.

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 her

life--lost jobs, lost relationships, lost hope--is not evident in any of them.

"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 says.

"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 to

return to graduate school, but life got in the way. She attended

Syracuse University and the University of Minnesota but dropped

out. Finally two years ago, she enrolled at Cal State L.A. to earn

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 because

of the medication. Now I know what's going to happen, and I know

it's temporary. I feel it coming, and I allow myself to feel that

way, and I tell myself it's going to last a few hours or a day or

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, then

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 student

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 your

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 loud,

sometimes a whisper, sometimes only sounds. They came to him when

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 didn't

like that. They tried to torture me if I didn't stop sketching

them. I showed them to people and [the drawings] freaked them out,

which was not my intention."

When he stopped drawing the spirits, the voices loosened

their grip, he says. He has been institutionalized throughout his

life, and now treatment and medication have helped him deal with

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 struggles

and strengths of Latino people. He mostly does portraits now, some

painted on wood.

His love for natural beauty, for the spiritual side of

humanity, has led him to painting Native American leaders, taken

from old photographs, capturing strength, spirit and sadness.

Martinez, a Pasadena resident, describes art as his voice,

his essence.

"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 merit.

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 earn a

living painting, and she wonders about revealing more of herself

in her work.

She is infuriated by stigmas, racism, sexism, xenophobia,

homophobia and hopes to someday address such issues in her art.

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 ability to

cast light on shadow. She admires the elderly who have survived

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 answers.

"I can't sustain productive work and friendships and social

things that you need to do to climb," she says. "I can't function

that way. I can't be professional. That's the big word. I've

always wanted to be professional. Everything I studied for was to

gear me toward being professional in one form or another, and I

can't get there, and that's frustrating to me."

But there is satisfaction in art, seeing beauty in a lemon, finding one's self in bliss.

--------

Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, July 7, 1998

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   related Talent Development Resources pages:

mental health...[front page]

mental health : teen/young adult...

mental health perspectives...

mental health articles

change / coaching / self-help articles

article topics index

article authors / titles

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