The Healing Arts

Mentally ill artists derive therapeutic benefits from their work.

All About My Mother.
"Living on Broken Glass," by Andrea Rader, mixed media.
"Living on Broken Glass," by Andrea Rader, mixed media.
For many, the most distinctive thing about Vincent Van Gogh's art is that its creator spent time in sanatoriums and cut off his ear. Those people are missing out on what makes Van Gogh's art great. Similarly, the artists in Recovery, a new Cleveland State exhibit, have something valuable to offer besides their struggles with mental illness.

Curator Robert Thurmer likens the exhibit to an archeological expedition. One can look at this work, says Thurmer, as one would look at the bones and shells of a buried ancient city. Whether they are pleasing to the eye is beside the point. What is important is that these artifacts served their original owners, and that, now, we are being given a privileged glimpse into a foreign way of life.

This is a nuanced way of approaching the issue of therapeutic art. It admits that "the primary message here is perhaps not entirely an aesthetic one," but at the same time, it stresses that art that helps certain individuals to surmount formidable obstacles is relevant to everyone. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman has eloquently described how the process of making one of his films was a liberating experience: "Persona is a creation that saved its creator. Before making it I was ill, having twice had pneumonia and antibiotic poisoning. I lost my balance for three months. I remember sitting in my hospital bed, looking directly in front of me at a black spot -- because if I turned my head at all, the whole room began to spin. I thought to myself that I would never create anything more; I was completely empty, almost dead." An idea for expressing his condition in a kind of visual poem was not only the beginning of a film, but also an event on which recovery hinged.

So, too, with the art in this exhibit. Although Bergman didn't suffer from mental illness, the theme of the creation saving the creator is everywhere evident in this exhibit. CSU alumnus Andrea Rader suffers from what a gallery statement calls "disassociative identity disorder -- formerly multiple personality disorder" that was precipitated by "prolonged sexual abuse during childhood," and she has made art an integral part of her ongoing recovery process. "Living on Broken Glass" consists of shards of glass that have been painted and arranged on a canvas. The color scheme is dominated by dark reds and pinks. Toward the center, there are sections that consist of ground glass and small jagged fragments, while at the extremities there are large chunks that protrude from the canvas surface. Like all of the other captions, the one provided for this work seems to be an attempt at self-analysis: "Every day is agonizing. Jagged edges. High highs, low lows. Struggle to be and know who I am."

Thurmer is to be commended for allowing the artist to speak for herself; any intrusion on this kind of self-dialogue would have been presumptuous. Still, one would like to know how this commentary came about. Did Rader make these comments to herself after finishing the piece, or did a therapist ask her to interpret her own work? The question is probably not so interesting to the artist, but it's information like this that the mental health professional viewing the exhibit will want to know. After all, when verbal responses are not an essential requirement of the art process, spontaneous verbalizations are that much more valuable.

These works, for all their self-referencing, nevertheless have a kinship with art of the past. One of Rader's works looks like a grotesque take on a sculpture of a fertility goddess known today as the Venus of Willendorf. An ancient object of a full-breasted, full-hipped woman endowed by the artist with ritualistic power is transformed by Rader into a misshapen specimen with a gaping hole in the chest area. It looks like a faceless blob shaped from black clay and painted with filaments of black, red, white, and green. Rader's caption confirms the impression of self-loathing: "Low/No self-esteem, defective, not all there, grotesque looking, paranoid/Self-conscious." If the Venus of Willendorf is woman as a sort of monumental feminine symbol, Rader's work suggests what a ravaged self-esteem might look like from the inside.

This distorted fertility object also raises the more general question of therapeutic art's position in the development of 20th-century art. The mid-century French artist Jean Dubuffet put it this way: "Every work of art should in the highest degree lift one out of context, provoking surprise and shock." For Dubuffet and others, this meant returning to their distant past and a close study of works by children, self-taught artists, and the mentally ill. If, according to this line of thinking, one wanted to lift people out of context, one had to reject rational means of expression in favor of art that was spontaneous and even psychotic. The interesting thing about Rader's visceral work is that, primitive technique aside, she has been able to convey, with striking clarity and economy, feelings about herself and her environment. A piece such as the abstract painting constructed from jagged glass conveys expressive ideas about fragmentation, and the dissonant reds and deep pinks confirm that it's not a pleasant experience. The caption adds still more, but even without it, one could intuitively guess that this is work that deals with personal pain. Whatever else one might say about art like this, it has a go-for-broke quality that inspires respect.

The key achievement of work like this is that, by conveying private thoughts (in the form of art), it encourages viewers to respect and value their own capacity to deal with problems. In addition to Rader's art, a portion of the exhibit is devoted to work by members of PLAN (Planned Life Assistance Network of Northeast Ohio), an organization that seeks "to empower people with mental illness to express themselves, to reflect on experiences, and to enrich the way others view and understand mental illness, stigma, and recovery."

This part of the exhibit is also worth seeing, as it dovetails nicely with Rader's work and adds to her sense of inner-directed exploration an outwardly directed activist component. Pieces such as Nathan Wisneski's "Untitled," which shows what looks to be a house enclosed in a cracking egg, speak eloquently of the difficulties of living with illness, but, as in Rader's work, there is a sense of exhilaration conveyed by the swift drawing and the unobtrusive yet knowing manipulation of muted yellows, browns, and oranges. The subject matter conveys doubt, but the desire to communicate is palpable. That goes for the exhibit as a whole.

It's not advisable to search this exhibit for evidence that its creators have completely recovered from their mental illnesses. If anything, it suggests that recovery is an ongoing process, and that more work will follow.

Exhibits like this are always instructive, though, because they call attention to the notion that artistic activity, on some level, is always concerned about taking the disparate fragments of life and attempting to give them order. When we praise Van Gogh, it is not because he suffered from mental illness; we are celebrating that artist's ability to order his impressions of life and then to create paintings in which each artistic decision seems so logical and right that we cannot imagine them being any other way. By somehow summoning personal resources vast enough to overcome the most disabling elements of his illness, he could fully use his talent in spite of being ill.

Modern medicine has posited the notion that there is no such thing as perfect health, only greater or lesser ability to function within a given environment. Nowhere is this idea more true than in the realm of artistic creativity.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at [email protected].

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