While serving as a volunteer in a leading mental hospital I was horrified to see patients being routinely injected by Thorazine as they continued to stare into oblivion. I saw no signs of rehabilitation being offered to these unfortunate individuals who spent most of their time in isolation. I felt frustrated and disillusioned with the profession and the institution.
Combating the temptation to abandon my volunteer work, I stayed. The other volunteers and employees invited me to join them in the coffee room for idle conversation and snack food, however, I preferred to spend as much of my time interacting with the patients.
There was no such field as art therapy back then, so I didn’t have any resources or tools to guide me. Somehow I invented ways to gain the trust of several patients. I encouraged them to speak, write and draw about their pain and suffering. I listened and observed as they shared shocking images and stories about drug addiction, sexual abuse, poverty, prostitution, violence, and crime.
We were an interesting mixed group coming from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Yet, we all bonded through the art of conversation and drawing.
My desire to help people within the confined limitations of the mental health field as it existed then no longer interested me. So, I decided to pursue the field of fine art, arts writing, curating, and helping artists as a career consultant and coach. And, as they say, the rest is history.
As I reflect back on that time of my life as a volunteer in the mental hospital I realize how fortunate I was that the patients gave me permission to enter the private corridors of their mental state — demons and all. They provided an enormous amount of valuable education that no academic course could ever offer to me.
I also learned firsthand how creative self-expression has the potential to help those inflicted with mental illness. There are ways to communicate through art that transcend barriers and limitations and go straight to the heart of the matter.
Times have changed and I’m delighted to learn about many different art programs that serve people who are suffering from mental illness.
Fountain House Gallery Represents Artists with Mental Illness
Several years ago, while working on one of the editions of my book The Complete Guide to New York Art Galleries I discovered Fountain House Gallery, a not-for-profit art venue that represents artists with mental illness. It is the first of its kind and contributes to the well-being of this city’s diverse and vibrant art community. Located at 702 Ninth Avenue and 48th Street, in New York, NY, Fountain Gallery sells original artworks by a range of emerging and established, trained and self-taught artists.
In this gallery artists are encouraged to pursue their creative visions without judgment or the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Its vast network of artists, curators, and cultural institutions is a testament to the growth and credibility of the organization.
Founded in 1948, Fountain House has grown to become a global leader for mental health recovery programs in more than 340 locations in 32 countries. Fountain House/Clubhouse International was the recipient of the 2014 Conrad N. Hilton Prize, the world’s largest and most prestigious humanitarian prize.
For more information visit The Fountain Gallery’s website
Helpful Online Resource
The Creativity and Mental Health Resource Guide is available online on the Sunshine Behavioral Health website. It covers such topics as: Creativities Relation to Mental Illness and Substance Abuse; Famous Creatives Who Have Struggled; Discussion about Art Therapy; and Hotlines and Support Groups.
You will find the guide on the Sunshine Behavioral Health website