“Transformations: Seeking Clarity Through Art” at Maimonides Medical Center
By Carl Blumenthal
Starts Rather than Stops the Show
“Transformations: Seeking Clarity Through Art” is an exhibit of works by 26 mental health consumers participating in art therapy at Maimonides Medical Center. It’s on display from June 2016 to May 2018 in the Marvin H. Lipkowitz Gallery on the second floor of the Community Mental Health Center, 920 48th Street in Brooklyn.
Creative arts or expressive therapies (art, writing, dance, music, drama, etc.) enable those of us living with mental illness to heal when talk therapy and medication aren’t enough. Research suggests creation and appreciation of the arts stimulate neural pathways essential to psychological well-being.
At the opening on May 12, the staff of the Psychiatry Department, and the Division of Therapeutic Activities, in particular, eloquently praised the artists, who returned the favor. However, the paintings speak as loud, if not louder, than the words in each artist’s statement.
Arts therapists once helped psychiatrists interpret patients’ illnesses. For this exhibit’s catalog the staff writes, “Within art therapy groups, clients demonstrate a willingness to take risks. They discover images that they find personally important and explore the art materials which they feel are best suited to express them….The artwork serves to “transform” personal process, and growth towards healing and recovery.” So the meaning of the product doesn’t count the way it used to.
As a former inpatient and current outpatient at Maimonides, I was surprised by the tranquility expressed in these works, as if the anguish of mental illness had been banished from portraits of people, animals, and flowers as well as urban and natural landscapes. Miriam Gilbert, a psychiatric nurse, explained, “The black [gloomy] paintings aren’t hung because they no longer are needed [for healing].” What better definition of transformations!
Muriel Fenner writes in the catalog of “Reflections”: “I chose to sketch this portrait because when I look at her I see self-worth, relaxation, and peace in her eyes. These are things that I strive for every day.” Three and a half years ago she had never painted anything. While she now takes classes at Kingsborough Community College and other schools, Muriel said, “I still cross my fingers every time [hoping] the painting will come out.”
Eugene Himmelstein’s “Sabbath Candles Over Jerusalem” resemble flowery spires reaching toward heaven. Although he’s never been to the Holy City, his imagining is representative of the dreams and memories showcased here. Eugene told me “art is a form of self-renewal” as is the weekly lighting of candles meant to welcome the Day of Rest.
More than the usual group show, this one demonstrates an unusual camaraderie among the participants that also evokes hope and joy in observers. Even the pieces which appear to be exceptions to this rule demonstrate their creators are dealing well with stress.
In “Slavery of the Human [mind],” Enriqueta Figeuroa attires a slave with fine jewelry and clothing. Rosa Herreria’s “The Oven is Fixed” shows what was once broken between family members is mending. Esther Kamhi’s “The Mountain Top” is an uneven but colorful climb. Steven Koenisberg enlivens drab buildings with graffiti in “New York the Abstract City.” The “Wolf” of Lilliya Sinchyugova looks more like a cartoon character than a predator. And Debra Tillman transforms “Five Tarts” (ladies of the night) into extraordinary musicians.
Assuming the artists were at least initially untrained, they have naturally discovered styles which suit their individual needs. That elements of impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, pop art, etc. appear in their paintings doesn’t mean that they are copying from a textbook. Yet clearly these folks inspire each other.
In “Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meaning of Madness,” Gail Hornstein describes Heidelberg University’s Prinzhorn collection of creative works by European asylum inmates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Hornstein believes this “outsider” or spontaneous art told stories of unspeakable distress before expressive therapies became disciplines in the 1920s to 1940s. A seamstress, Agnes Richter stitched mesmerizing but indecipherable messages in her exquisite jacket, as if she desired but feared discovery. Hornstein declares such messages emblematic of the turmoil people felt within themselves and inside the mental hospitals where many were committed for life.
Why is this context important? Maimonides’ arts therapists now encourage and “celebrate the incredible strength, resilience and tenacity of all our artists…” Thus my peers are part of a long tradition from which they also depart in many ways.
Free to participate in art therapy when and how they please, their visual and verbal contributions are statements of continuing recovery, whereas the mentally ill more than a century ago were largely considered hopeless.
But today’s consumers share with earlier practitioners of “art brut” (raw art) a taste for complexity because neither mental illness nor the human condition is a simple matter. For someone like me who can barely draw a stick figure, their devotion to detail is more than realistic; it’s fabulous.
Therefore I highly recommend you witness these “Transformations.” “Seeking Clarity Through Art” is actually a mystery which, like Agnes’s jacket, is better seen than concealed.