Divinely artistic — and mad

By - Dec 3rd, 2009 11:57 am
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Barbara Strothman's "Christ," oil crayon on paper, 2007

Barbara Strothman’s “Christ,” oil crayon on paper, 2007

The very name of the exhibit at the Marian Gallery at Mount Mary College, Divinity and Madness, beckons eerie anticipation. Throw in penciled sketches of Jesus Christ, followed by shaky Crayola portraits that noticeably veer out of the lines and, you — like me — frankly might be a little creeped-out by the whole thing.

Blame it on my preconceived notions about the artists; I’m told that many are schizophrenic or live with other chronic mental illnesses, with little hope of returning back to this side of normalcy. So, to me, their art speaks volumes about where they are, their vantage point and their torments.

But that’s sort of the point here. This exhibit that runs through next Thursday showcases the vast creativity of patients at the Living Museum at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, NY. It’s a residential treatment facility that also houses an art studio and gallery for more than 5,000 people with severe mental illnesses. Co-founded and directed by psychologist Janos Marton, this one-of-a-kind facility encourages patients not to see themselves icily as insane but to expand their self-expression (and self esteem) via the creative arts.

John Tursi's "Please Lord," ink on paper, 2006

John Tursi’s “Please Lord,” ink on paper, 2006

The fact that some of the pieces are excessively bloody, sad or delirious looking is, well, to be expected.

“It should make you uncomfortable. [They’re] bending the rules … they’d be flattered,” says Dr. Bruce Moon, director of the graduate art therapy department, of my initial reaction. (Moon’s department is hosting the exhibit at the college.)

Although there are more than 4,000 pieces in the complete collection from the Living Museum, this exhibit includes only 48 works. Most look as if they’d be ready to install in any museum. Many employ bold swashes of colors, realistic and dreamy details and raw storytelling that is stark, funny and often eye-opening. Others look like first-grade scribbles done with pencil, markers or crayon. And, it appears that the artists/patients used whatever they could get their hands on to create art: paper, canvas, even rough pieces of cardboard to etch and paint.

There are more than a few disturbing ones, too, like the fully painted and decorated straight jacket (yes, Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest did come to mind); the crucifixion scene that shows Jesus with multiple stab wounds and blood gushing from everywhere; and the abstract Picasso-esque face of a guy with a bondage chain around his neck, a cross hanging from his ear and a coin-slot for a mouth.

Some pieces are funny, like the sprawling Last Supper spread of pop culture icons feasting on a bucket of KFC. Others are austere, such as the small portraits of saints and drawings of teachable moments. The largest piece, which spans more than 13 feet of wall space, is simply a rainbow slicing through  voluminous clouds. A few sculptures punctuate the gallery floor and walls, too, including a hanging, life-sized “Christ” figure made from twisted coat hangers.

Issa Ibrahim's "Blue Angel," acrylics and oil, 2002

Issa Ibrahim’s “Blue Angel,” acrylics and oil, 2002

According to Dr. Moon, when left to their own devices, the artists created images tied to religion, to God or to other ideas they held sacred. “In their artwork, we discover a mysterious connection with the presence of God, which seems to inspire a reference for healing,” he has said. So, it’s not surprising that the collection includes strong-bodied angels, sallow-faced Messiahs, lots of crosses and other religious figures and symbols that the patients-turned-artists identified with in some way.

Arthur James' "Moses Receives the Commandments," pencil and ink on paper, 1983.

Arthur James’ “Moses Receives the Commandments,” pencil and ink on paper, 1983

But the artwork isn’t simply therapy. In some cases, patients have found a degree of tangible commercial success. Some Creedmoor residents have been featured in exhibitions around the globe; others were the subjects of an HBO documentary, The Living Museum.

Honest, pious and innocently raw might best define their unique work here. “It’s about transforming someone’s identity,” Dr. Moon says of the nationally acclaimed exhibit. “It’s a real celebration of creativity and humanness.”

Divinity and Madness runs through Dec. 10 at Mount Mary College’s Marian Gallery in Caroline Hall, located at 2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway.


Divinity and Madness
Mount Mary College
Runs through Dec. 10
Marian Gallery (first floor)/Caroline Hall
2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway
Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Saturday/Sunday, 1-4  p.m.

Categories: Art

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