When filmmaker Jessica Yu told the New York cabby to drop her off at Creedmoor, his reaction was typical. "You'd better watch your back," he warned her. "Those crazy people are dangerous." In truth, Yu didn't quite know what to expect when she set out to see the Living Museum, a 20,000-square-foot art studio and exhibition space on the grounds of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens.
Yu wasn't afraid, but she did feel a bit wary: Would she arrive at the museum only to find a group of heavily sedated inmates sitting around a table, each attempting to draw the same flower or bowl of fruit? Yu's friend, producer and MTV executive Dawn Parouse, had stumbled upon the museum several years before while shooting a student film in an abandoned ward on the Creedmoor grounds. Parouse had never forgotten the place and hoped to produce a film about it with Yu as director.
From the outside, the Living Museum looked like the other institutional, slightly drab brick buildings on the Creedmoor complex. Yet when Yu passed through the museum's front entrance, she encountered a kaleidoscopic burst of color, energy, warmth and activity. The place was filled with people. The floors and walls were covered with paintings, sculpture, drawings, installations, even video pieces, each work completely different from the other. Few if any of the patients made art about their own illnesses. Instead, their work dealt with history and sociocultural issues, the search for spiritual enlightenment, celebrations of erotic bliss--and used as many different materials and approaches as there were individual artists.
"There was such a relaxed and magical feeling there," Yu remembers. "I had never been to a museum where there was a real feeling of anything goes, that any inch of space on the floor or ceiling [could be utilized]. This place really belongs to the artists, and they were taking it over in a very imaginative way." After talking with some of the museum's artists, Yu knew she wanted to make the film.
Showing Tuesday on HBO, Yu's "The Living Museum" follows six artists who work at the museum on a frequent or daily basis:
Issa Ibrahim, a handsome and thoughtful young painter and sculptor, explores the history of African Americans often through parody in a poignant yet humorous way. Eileen (no last name given) hears voices and screams constantly in the ward, but at the museum she is able to create complex allegorical drawings, which she sees as a form of prayer.
John Tursi is a charmingly irrepressible scene-stealer whose "sexual abstracts" and witty assemblage pieces express his own exuberantly adolescent sexual obsessions. ("If I can't do it, at least I can draw it," he explains in the film.)
Helen Sadowski once attended art school at the Philadelphia College of Art. Her rainbow-hued pastel lines are drawn with rulers on black paper and are inspired by Zen Buddhism's search for enlightenment and freedom from suffering.
John C. Mapp believes that he is a great Hollywood director. He storyboards autobiographical films about his experiences at Creedmoor, then videotapes the drawings along with voice-over narration. David Waldorf's haunting black crayon drawings capture the essence of Beethoven's music during the composer's deaf period.
There is no single path or epiphanous moment these artists all share; each experiences the creative journey differently. Their struggles with mental illness inform, but do not define, their artistic endeavors. As a result, "The Living Museum" is not a film about mental illness per se, but is about finding unexpected meaning, even beauty, in each artist's individual struggle.
"As a filmmaker I always try to remember the places of surprise," Yu says, "because if it surprises you, it's probably going to surprise the audience, and if you can try to re-create those unexpected moments, they can become the best parts of the film."
Patients' Maladies Are Downplayed
The Living Museum was started in the mid-1980s by an iconoclastic Polish actor and artist named Bolek Greczynski, and his friend, Janos Marton, an artist and a Columbia-trained psychologist who was at that time treating patients at Creedmoor. Over the years, the building that houses the museum has functioned as a dining hall, kitchen and storage warehouse; it was eventually turned over to Greczynski and Marton as a studio and exhibition space. After Greczynski's death several years ago, Marton took over the management of the museum.
The museum is in many ways a living organism, constantly growing and changing, its parameters defined by the artists who work within the space. For this reason, Marton thinks of the entire Living Museum as a work of conceptual art. In the film, he notes that "art is not just what is happening in the frame. Art is what is happening in your brain and in your life as a consequence of what's in front of you."
Marton downplays the clinical diagnoses of patients working at the Living Museum, preferring instead to focus on the ways in which mental illness can open an inner pathway to art. As a result of working at the Living Museum, many patients undergo a shift in identity from that of psychiatric inmate to working artist. Although this identity shift will not abolish those forms of prejudice that Marton terms "psychophobia," it can help turn negative labeling to patients' advantage--what Marton describes as "transferring a vulnerability into a weapon" for making art.
Difficulties of a Small Production
During the course of filming "The Living Museum," Yu won the Academy Award for best documentary short for her 1997 film "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," a profile of a poet-journalist who is paralyzed by polio and has been confined to an iron lung for more than 40 years. Already deeply immersed in this project, Yu found winning the Oscar had relatively little effect on her professional life.
"Unfortunately, the big money bag that I was hoping would just drop on my doorstep hasn't appeared yet," she says with a laugh. "But as far as feeling any additional pressure [as a result of winning the award], I think every filmmaker puts so much pressure on themselves already. The work you're doing really determines how stressed out you are."
The yearlong shoot at Creedmoor presented Yu and Parouse with unique challenges.
"We tried to keep the production as small as possible," Parouse says, "because you don't want to disrupt the artists and you want to preserve the environment as it really exists. We tried to hide in little areas, but the patients know you're there and seek you out."
The unpredictable nature of mental illness was another X factor. "We knew the artists were going to have good days and bad days, they're going to have times where they are not available to you because mentally they're not in great shape. There are days where you just have to roll with it."
Parouse recalls that, eventually, "Jessica and I joked that we were starting to feel a lot more comfortable at the Living Museum than we did anywhere else in our lives." But they both knew that the boundary lines between the artist-patients and the crew members who lived "outside" could never be completely erased.
"I think, out of everyone, I felt that I could have the most negative effect on Helen [Sadowski]," Parouse says. "She is a very talented artist and a very bright woman. I think she could look at us and say, 'If my life wasn't like this, it could have been something like that.' Sometimes I could tell that she was thinking, 'You're going home after this, you'll go on to your next project.' She was one person for whom I always felt my presence could be painful."
The Creedmoor artists' honesty and lack of pretension about their art led Yu to examine the creative process in a different way. "What struck me the most was this feeling of camaraderie, the fact that anyone who's working at something creative faces certain universal struggles," Yu says.
"I think independent filmmakers love to get together and whine, and there's a little bit of a feeling like, does anyone care about what we do? I was thinking about Helen Sadowski saying that she no longer has ambitions for her work--she just does it. In a way, people could say that's kind of a sad statement, but I think it's so powerful, because that should be your overriding impulse. You just do it, not because you're going to impress people, or because you think it's what people want you do."
Yu Shared Preview Tapes With Her Subjects
After months and months of documenting the Creedmoor artists' creative process, Yu finally reached the point at which her work was on display for them. She mailed off preview tapes and waited nervously for the artists' reactions. "I heard back that everyone was pleased. It's a tricky thing, because you're not making the film to please them. At the same time, if you like and respect people, you want to present something that's honest and that they will agree is honest. When they said they liked it, I felt that I could relax." Earlier this year, the film screened at Sundance, where it was well received by audiences.
It is Yu's hope that "The Living Museum" helps those who see it to understand that, for the individual artists profiled, the trauma of mental illness has also opened up a window into creativity. "These artists are working in a place that a lot of other artists struggle to get to--but that's not to say that creativity is an acceptable trade-off for mental illness, because of course it's not. It's a very terrible thing to go through.
"In this country we tend to think that for anyone who has a disability or mental illness the ultimate goal is to become a productive member of society, to 'get better.' People with serious mental illnesses by and large are not going to get better, so is it possible to see other value in it?"
For Yu, "The Living Museum" is not about the "healing power of art" as much as it is about people who have found some form of peace amid their daily struggle with mental illness. "The theme of my last couple of films has been people who invent their own world, because they don't like the one they've been given," Yu says. "In a way, there are fewer physical adventures that you can have nowadays, journeys where you're exploring unexplored territory. These are people who have created their own territory, [despite the fact that] they are very limited in terms of their physical freedom. But in their imaginations, they're unlimited."
* "The Living Museum" will be shown Tuesday at 8 p.m. on HBO.