Camarillo Hospital Gallery Displays the Art of Healing : Therapy: Pieces by mentally ill and disabled patients are now on permanent exhibit next to the state facility's studio.


Scary faces peered from the black and purple swirls that Kerry S. painted on her first canvasses. A young woman struggling to control the multiple personalities competing for her mind, Kerry expressed her anguish and confusion in art.

Today, her work is an explosion of pastels, pale greens blending into luminous yellows and oranges, dolphins leaping from a bright blue sea.

Kerry looks at these pieces, hanging in a new art gallery at Camarillo State Hospital, and sees the progress she has made in five years of therapy.

Visitors to the gallery, who pay $75 to $150 for Kerry's pastels, see something more--luminance and calm, an undeniable joy.

Art buyers are snapping up the work that Kerry and other artists have created in the hospital's studio for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

The first of its kind in California, the gallery sold half the artwork it displayed on opening night in April. Directors then sent another 30 pieces to a special exhibit in Sacramento, where all but six have sold.

"The work that's done here could compete with any amateur artist," says Leslie Hara, co-director of the hospital's art therapy program. "You don't look at them saying, 'A mentally ill person must have done that.' "

In fact, the hospital's artists have competed successfully in art shows, winning scores of ribbons at the Ventura County Fair. And art sales twice a year draw hundreds from the community, who buy paintings for as little as $1.

Now the program directors have gone a step further and set up a permanent gallery next to the hospital art studio. The studio's students painted the walls. A residents benefit fund bought pedestals for pottery. And the art frames pay for themselves with each piece sold.

But at the Art Equals Life gallery, selling artwork is just a sideline.

Far more important, therapists say, is the self-esteem the artists gain from seeing their work framed and displayed. The display, they say, can enhance the value of using art as therapy. And they appreciate the message the art conveys to the world outside.

Through visits from school and civic groups, the gallery's directors hope to demonstrate the productivity and talent of people whom society often shuns.

"There's a tremendous stigma that we have to just get rid of," says Jack Cheney, director of the hospital's art therapy program. "Our prejudices have held us all bondage for centuries."

In some ways, the mentally ill have always had a place in the art world. Every art history student knows the story of Vincent van Gogh, who painted some of his finest pieces in the asylum at St. Remy.

Countless other mental-hospital patients have influenced the themes and style of modern art, a trend explored in a 1992 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Often, the tormented minds of the mentally ill summon images that others have repressed, making their art intriguing not only to mainstream artists but to casual buyers, says Stan Passy, a Santa Barbara psychologist.

"When they create these art projects, all of the sudden we have a chance to notice things that are unnoticed in society," Passy says. "I call it the return of the repressed, the return of the buried."

Passy uses art to elicit deeper feelings from clients in his ordinary practice and from students he teaches at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, therapist Elda Unger uses art to reach abused children. "It just opens up a way of communicating, sometimes without words," says Unger, who is president of the Southern California Art Therapy Assn.

Camarillo State Hospital started its program in 1987 as another mode of therapy for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

"There's really a major shift from the old couch approach to psychotherapy," says Cheney, who started the Camarillo program. "It's much more giving the power back to the patients to make those creative choices in their lives."

Many of the clients have been in and out of verbal counseling and have learned how to hide their feelings. "They can't hide in art," Cheney says.

About 200 of the hospital's residents dabble with paint or clay in the art studio at least once a week. Some leave with a great sense of pride in what they have accomplished, says Hara, who worked as an artist before joining the hospital staff.

"They see what they can create," she says. "It gives them other options to feel good about themselves."

Other artists, such as Jane H., use the studio as a release from their illness. A schizophrenic, Jane says painting and playing the piano quiet the voices in her head.

Her canvasses hang on one wall of the gallery, large abstract scenes with colorful shapes and lines. "This one is Cubist," says Jane, who says she received formal art training. She spent years selling art on the streets of Pasadena, but never received the kind of notice she has at Camarillo.

Across the gallery hang pastels by Kerry S., who like many artists there use only her last initial.

In Kerry's artwork, the sun always shines. Rainbows stretch across the canvas. Shades of pastels rise skyward in a joyous profusion of color.

"That type of joy couldn't have come quite so profoundly out of a place that didn't have conflict," Cheney says.

When she first came to the hospital, Kerry exhibited the classic signs of severe retardation and cerebral palsy. Suddenly one day, another personality emerged and it became clear that her true problem was multiple personality disorder, Cheney wrote in an article about Kerry.

Her first day in the art studio, Kerry appeared prim and rigid, anxious about starting a drawing, Cheney recounted. "I don't know what to do," she cried at the time. "Isn't someone going to help me?"

Another day she arrived giggling like a child and thrusting her hands into cans of red and yellow paint.

Her early art reflected the torment of childhood neglect. She drew pictures of dark, forbidding castles and forests filled with dead trees and eerie faces. She also drew pictures of horrifying childhood experiences.

Her work in the art studio helped bring out many of the memories Kerry had repressed for years. That, in turn, helped her integrate her many personalities, Cheney says.

Today, Kerry has practically become a student-teacher in the art studio, spending hours each day helping others work with clay or paint. Hospital administrators have commissioned her to do pieces to match their conference rooms. And she is preparing to leave the hospital.

"It's so different now than it used to be," says Kerry, 39, gazing at her pastels hanging in the gallery. "There's lighter, brighter colors. I guess I'm getting better."


The Art Equals Life Gallery at Camarillo State Hospital will be open from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. daily. The studio holds its semi-annual art sale beginning at noon June 25. For information, call (805) 484-3661 and ask for the art studio.

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