In a large, loft-like building on a mild, wintry day, a group of artists are preparing their work space for a show. Paintings and sculptures are adjusted. Floors are scrubbed. Lights are strung. A black and white photograph of each artist is hung beside their respective studios, accompanied by a name tag. Absent are the usual pretentious, sermonizing artists’ statements describing their work. The art--playful, brooding, provocative--speaks for itself.
“It’s all about sex,” says John Tursi of his couplings made out of tongue depressors, plastic water bottles, yarn and paper bags. “I don’t know why that is.”
It’s about a lot more than sex. Proving the point is the presence of a documentary film crew headed by filmmaker Jessica Yu, who won the best documentary short Oscar in 1997 for “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Today Yu is shooting inserts of the artists’ photographs and some of their art. For nine months she has been following these people around, interviewing them about their lives and their work, gathering footage for a film that will address issues of creativity and mental illness in ways that a biopic of Vincent van Gogh never could.
Yu’s subjects are not preening SoHo art stars. They are patients at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. Their 20,000-square-foot studio, called the Living Museum, is a former kitchen/dining room on the institution’s dreary, high-security grounds.
Built in the 1920s on what was once farmland and a rifle range, Creedmoor is famous--infamous, really--as the end of the line for people who could not afford private psychiatric care. Over the years it has housed a largely geriatric population of patients who didn’t belong there (Alzheimer’s and postpartum-depression patients), as well as patients who did (manic depressives, schizophrenics).
With budget cuts and the push toward deinstitutionalization, Creedmoor is downsizing and the population has dropped from around 7,000 to 575. Of those left, some stay on the grounds while others are outpatients who live in halfway houses or even their own apartments. All at one time or another have been a danger to themselves or someone else, or they wouldn’t be here.
Yu describes the local--indeed universal--attitude toward places like Creedmoor and its inhabitants this way: “Just today a cabdriver (taking me there) was saying, ‘I remember when I was growing up, they’d say, “You’d better be good, or we’ll send you to Creedmoor. We get $50 if they take you at Creedmoor.” ’ That’s what his parents would tell him when he was bad.”
Dr. Janos Marton, the museum’s frenetic, practical-minded director, calls this attitude “psychophobia. It’s like racism or sexism. It’s the fear of the mentally ill. It’s such a strong thing because people project their own mishegas, mental illness, into it. So whatever they fear in themselves they like to project onto the mentally ill.”
It’s neither a joke nor an exaggeration to say that it’s difficult to separate the artists from the visitors at the Living Museum. Is that guy stringing lights a gaffer or a schizophrenic? Are such distinctions relevant? According to Yu, such questions are part of the point of the museum.
“You start to realize that you have to assume that everyone is not a patient,” Yu says. “And that’s also what the Living Museum is about, that it tries to get you out of that traditional mind-set where you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m at a psychiatric institution. I need to make these differentiations.’ They are not useful at all.”
The patients’ illnesses are not necessarily explicit in their work. There are few, if any, melancholy self-portraits or despairing views of modern life. The only direct commentary on their condition is upstairs, in a handful of collective installations made years ago. There’s the “TV Room,” a wall of TVs satirizing the mind-numbing TV watching on the wards. There’s the “Home Room,” with painted dishes, an ancient hi-fi, and other assorted household artifacts, reflecting the patients’ homesickness (worsened by the fact that many are estranged from their families). In another corner is “The Hospital,” featuring an enormous waste basket full of crumpled, bureaucratic Creedmoor memos and several crates of matchbooks--an allusion to another time killer on the wards, cigarette smoking.
“The only good thing about mental illness is that you are blessed by artistic creativity,” Marton says. “Everything else is a horror. That is my message to the world. I have two basic underlying attitudes. I believe that everybody is an artist. In addition, I believe that everybody who went through a psychotic episode--at one point communicated with voices, was in this sort of spiritual domain--and returned to tell the story is potentially a great artist. And in a way the museum is proof of that.”
Because of the artists’ access to those voices, that domain, there are no boundaries, no rules. David Waldorf explores his obsession with Beethoven’s deaf period with abstract pencil on paper landscapes. John Tursi doesn’t have just sex on his mind: The American flag has a hold on him too--a baby carriage is swaddled in the stars and stripes. Issa Ibrahim has two spaces, one devoted to photo-realist takes on pop culture (a lascivious Dorothy being ogled by the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow; Superman drinking a beer and watching television). The other is wall-to-wall black iconography (Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Roundtree, the bloody glove from O.J. Simpson’s Rockingham estate). Helen Sadowski is a trained artist who makes dizzying crisscrossed pastel lines on black paper.
Although the museum accommodates as many as 40 artists, Yu is following only six of them. Her project, which is financed by HBO and will be broadcast sometime early next near, was brought to her by producer Dawn Parouse, who had seen the museum while working on a student film and was surprised that no one had made a movie about it. She approached Yu for the same reason that Marton and hospital officials later said yes to the idea: “Breathing Lessons,” Yu’s celebration of poet-journalist Mark O’Brien, who has lived most of his life in an iron lung.
“I thought Jessica would be perfect for this because under somebody else’s guidance it could have been a really depressing film,” Parouse says. “She was able to draw out the humanity and individuality of someone in this situation and say, ‘OK, here’s a person. He still wants the same things--he still wants to have sex, he still wants to fall in love, has a sense of humor. . . .”
Yu, who is 31 and married to writer Mark Salzman, came to documentary filmmaking by accident. Raised in Northern California, she graduated from Yale with no idea what she wanted to do and only one real passion: fencing. She began assisting on commercial shoots in the Bay Area because the flexible hours allowed her to attend pre-Olympic fencing competitions both here and abroad. She didn’t make the team. Falling back into filmmaking and frustrated by handling frozen pasta rather than a camera, she moved to L.A. and immediately began doing real production work for a company that made documentaries. She had found her niche.
“I saw more women and more minorities in all aspects of (documentary) production,” she says. “And you can go farther in the production process on your own sweat and blood than on the commercial side, where just the amount of money and resources you need and needing people to say yes to you. . . . In documentary, it’s not like anyone is saying yes or no. It’s like no one really cares what you’re doing.”
They didn’t care until Yu made a short called “Sour Death Balls,” featuring the comic reactions of a group of kids and adults to a particularly noxious piece of candy. She shot it over a weekend with $50 worth of film. Although this put her on the festival circuit, it was “Breathing Lessons” that put her on the map--not only in Hollywood (she will possibly remake it as a feature film) but on Madison Avenue as well. Advertisers responded to her Oscar ceremony elegance and poise by asking her to model, among other things, Coach handbags.
“My feeble attempts to sell out while I can,” Yu says.
These feeble attempts had unexpected fallout when she came to Creedmoor, where, with a few exceptions, many of the patients took awhile to warm up to the camera (though not to the crafts services table).
“One day we came in to film one of the patients,” Yu says. “He wasn’t there, and Dr. Marton kept saying, ‘Where is he? He’s very excited to come today because he knew you guys were coming.’ We later found out that he had picked up a magazine and found the Coach ad and shown the picture and was telling everyone that this lady was going to film him today. And they all thought he was just being delusional. And they didn’t let him come. They said, ‘You’ve got a dentist appointment. You can’t go over.’ And he kept on saying, ‘This lady is going to interview me today.’ ”
This is funny, in a black comedy sort of way, and also sad. As Yu points out, “It’s sad that they would think that someone who is actually in a magazine wouldn’t be interested in him.”
But it’s also interesting that someone in a magazine would be interested in him. The Living Museum would seem to be an extension of the film that won Yu so much acclaim, in that the subjects are afflicted with a devastating--and socially unacceptable--disorder that they work through with their art.
“In a way it’s a totally different film because the people are so different,” she says. “But in terms of a thematic tie there is something about--I hate to say the healing power of art because it sounds corny--but I guess you could say maybe the validating power of art. That’s something that Mark O’Brien certainly did and a lot of people in the Living Museum do.”
In fact, according to Marton, this art is not only validating, it is transforming. The museum is a kind of paradise, a respite from the hopelessness of the wards. One of the artists, Marton says, “is completely psychotic, screams 24 hours a day on the ward. That’s why they sent her here in spite of the fact that she’s completely out of it. Usually if somebody is psychotic they wouldn’t let them out, but she is so miserable on the ward and she makes people’s lives so miserable there that they would send her to the moon. So they send her here, and she’s a dream. Her stuff is really beautiful, but she’s in la-la land.”
Marton will also be featured in Yu’s film. With degrees in psychology and art from Columbia University and a sensibility shaped by what he insists are Europe’s more enlightened attitudes toward mental illness (he was raised in Vienna), Marton founded the museum in the mid-'80s along with artist Bolek Greczynski. When Greczynski died, Marton, who was a therapist on the wards, took over and expanded the facilities. He is its only salaried employee. He says he operates from what he calls the “King of Hearts” metaphor, after Philippe de Broca’s 1966 film in which a town abandoned by its populace during World War I is taken over by local mental patients. A “sane” British soldier wanders in and is proclaimed king.
“The moral of that story,” says Marton, “is everybody on the outside is completely nuts and the normal people are in the mental institution in that town. This is a nonauthoritarian structure, meaning that the patients run the place. The best definition of mental illness is the inability to tolerate stress. Rules and regulations put stress on people. I’m trying to create a stress-free environment.”
Ironically, the art show the following evening puts stress on both Marton and his patients, although many of the visitors are family members and hospital personnel. For all the anxiety it produces, he considers the show a necessary part of their transformation from mental patient to artist. Yu and her crew discretely record the artists’ reactions. One paces nervously. Another escapes the crowd by listening to a patient playing and singing the blues on a dilapidated piano. John Tursi--who, along with Helen Sadowski, has exhibited work in Manhattan--seems the most comfortable, expounding unself-consciously about his work to anyone who will listen.
“This is me, my momma, a lesbian, my dog, and a horse,” Tursi says to three respectful women. “This is a peep show. This is a man and woman making love.”
Another artist points to his own psychedelic scrollwork hanging near the entrance and says, “My mom doesn’t like my graffiti because it reminds her of when I was doing all sorts of crazy stuff.” He says that when he was doing crazy stuff and vandalizing New York City subway cars, his “tag” was AERO. Now that he’s an artist, it’s INSANE. He can live with that.