MILWAUKEE — A coat hanger sculpture of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a painting of the Last Supper with Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. partaking in the meal with Jesus, and an intricate map of Jesus’ “40 Days in the Desert,” drawn with pastels and pencils. These unusual pieces of art are only three of the 48 selected works on display for Mount Mary College’s “Divinity and Madness” exhibit, running through Dec. 10.
“Divinity and Madness” features 18 artists’ works from the Living Museum at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, the largest of five state psychiatric institutions located in Queens, New York. The first of its kind in the United States, the Living Museum is a program dedicated to the production and collection of art by adults with chronic mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder.
According to Janos Marton, co-founder and museum director for 25 years, the museum encourages freedom of expression in a safe and nurturing atmosphere, in which the stigmatized self-view of “mental patient” is transformed into “artist.”
“It is a space dedicated to art, basically,” Marton explained. “The basic idea was that people with mental illness are particularly creative. Creativity is almost a symptom of mental illness.”
In 1983, Creedmoor housed about 1,350 patients. Marton invited Bolek Greczynski, a Polish artist known for his work in political art and experimental theater, to join the hospital staff. Together, the two guided the transformation of an abandoned, deteriorating building on the campus known as Building 75 that housed the main kitchen for Creedmoor patients. It was a huge project that would unknowingly yield amazing results, according to Marton.
Forty thousand square feet of the former hospital kitchen and dining halls were transformed into art studios and exhibition galleries, where clients of the institution utilized their time to create art.
“Ultimately, the Living Museum transforms people; the ultimate goal is healing,” Marton said. “If you have mental illness and you get hospitalized, all your identities are wiped out, if you are a mental patient. The worst part of it is not the stigma that comes from the outside world, which is bad enough, but the internalized identity. What we do is we train mentally ill patients into crazy artists,” he laughed gently.
|What: “Divinity and Madness” exhibit will run until Dec. 10
Where: Mount Mary’s Marian Gallery, 2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway, Milwaukee
When: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
For more information visit the Web site or call (414) 258-4810
The Living Museum has gained much attention, including a critically acclaimed HBO documentary “Living Museum” in 1999, directed by Jessica Yu.
Alexandra Plettenberg, curator for the Living Museum who specializes in spirituality and religion, discovered a peculiar trend in the work being created by the patients: religious themes.
“We think it’s part of their great gift that they are able to relate to their religious beliefs in a very authentic and unobstructed way, on a very personal level,” Plettenberg explained about the patients. “And you see in the images that are here, there is no convention that is followed in terms of religious images or religious imagery or iconography. They really follow their own inner visions and powerful feelings when they create their works.”
“Deeply religious people usually ask questions,” Marton explained. “They ask questions of themselves, ask questions about the presence of God, questioning their beliefs, and most of the artists here don’t do that.
“That kind of natural belief is incredibly refreshing. The extreme is that a relative person talks to God; that’s what prayer is. But what happens if God appears and talks to you?” The utter belief of God in the works of patients comes across strongly and authentically, he added.
“You don’t see fear in these pictures. You see almost a very powerful, direct love and identification – relation – to the god (they choose). They feel comforted, they feel a real connection. It’s not an imagination; it’s on a real human level, and that’s the amazing thing.”
Bruce L. Moon, chairman of the art therapy department at Mount Mary College and director of the graduate art therapy program, knew this exhibit would interweave nicely with the college program, where creative integration of artistic, academic and clinical education are staples for art therapy.
Moon visited the Living Museum during the mid-1990s when he accompanied a group of art therapy graduate students to Creedmoor. He was impressed by the simplicity yet masterful art that covered the walls, but it was more than 10 years later when he and Marton discussed bringing parts of the museum to Mount Mary.
Two years after the two first broached the subject, Plettenberg chose and gathered the religious-themed artwork and “Divinity and Madness” made its appearance in Milwaukee.
“This is the best example of the kind of work that is happening at the Museum in Queens, (New York),” Moon explained. “I think it’s the best example of the kind of art therapy that we’re trying to teach here. That makes us very different than any other therapy program in the United States. We think we’re one of the strongest – if not the strongest – art-based therapy programs in the country, and that this is a wonderful example of the kind of work that we hope our students are going to be doing in the future,” he added.
“Divinity and Madness” is the first traveling exhibit from the Living Museum.
“People really are transformed,” said Plettenberg about those who view the artwork. “They are transformed. I don’t know what happens when they leave, but when they see the (pieces) they are deeply touched and deeply transformed because I think that people who see this kind of art, they feel touched at the core because there is a truth in it that you cannot deny. It doesn’t relate to the intellect, it somehow relates to an impression that you receive from the art work.”
Moon hopes visitors to Mount Mary College will have the same experiences. Among those invited are patients from a facility in Sheboygan, many of whom suffer from the same chronic mental illnesses as do the featured artists.
“One of the things that I’m really hoping for and that they walk away from is a celebration of the excellence of this artwork, that doesn’t sugarcoat and try to make it be something else. These are people of their own kind who are clearly having success as artists. That by itself is a transformative event.”