Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Artist's Evolution Part I

I started making art in a psychiatric institution.  The ward was locked and I lived there for two years.  I had my brother and sister drive me to this hospital when I was nineteen.  I rather thought it was like a hotel where you could check in and check out.  But once they had me, they didn't want to let me go.

When I arrived I could not read.  As the year before I had been reading Emmanuel Kant and Henry James, some of the most difficult philosophical and literary text ever devised, not reading really bothered me.  I had to have something to do to pass the time. Since  I was new to the hospital my mental state was unknown to the staff.   So movement and privileges were severely restricted.  I asked my mother to bring me two things.  Artist's plastic modeling clay and the largest box of Crayola crayons she could find.  I wanted as many colors as I could get.

What I fashioned from the modeling clay wasn't much.  It was one shape, then destroyed in my fist, and another new shape.  I don't think I take naturally to sculpture.  But the crayons were my joy.  I didn't draw with them at first.  I suppose my mind was too destroyed at that point for drawing.  What I did was make crayon rows.  I simply arranged the sticks of color.  An orange crayon next to a blue crayon next to a green crayon next to a red crayon.  Each crayon tight touching the next.  My premise was that in a line of fifty colors there are some harmonies of sequence that work better than others.  It is rather subtle to say that a melody is arranged of deep notes, loud notes, and quite notes when you are considering strict linear contrasts of pure pigment - but that is indeed art.  The compositions I arrange today on my sheets of paper using oil pastel pull the eye in circular and diagonal movement.  I am in no way an abstract painter today.  But when my mind was stripped bare and hardly functional, my artistic talent could only be in terms of fundamental color interplay.  And pretty much, if I must be honest, my biggest challenge in my contemporary work is in terms of color interplay.  You do not know the oodles of time, really countless, that I have complained to my husband "This work is a disaster.  The colors are all wrong."  I love color more than I love chocolate.

My crayon rows were done while I was sitting on the floor under a table.  In our main common room there was a table next to the window that held potted plants.  While underneath, people didn't bother me.  It felt safe.  And at the time, I didn't wish to walk.  I preferred to crawl from room to room.  All that crawling wore out the fabric in my pants and made my knees red.  Sitting under tables was cool too because people would come and have interesting conversations and not even know you were present.  I enjoyed listening to secrets and gossip.

As I started to recover I tried to read.  I had my mother bring in all my children's books she had kept as mementos.  The patients were my audience.  I remember reading "The Little Engine That Could" about a train climbing a mountain to a man who had both wrists heavily bandaged from a suicide attempt.  We sat on the floor together, backs against the wall, shoulder to shoulder to look at the pictures in the book.  I remember him being very happy but a bit bewildered having this story read to him.  And every night, before bed, I read one new Chinese fairy tale from my illustrated Chinese fairy tale book to my roommate.  This made her grow very fond of me.

Then I started drawing with the crayons.  And a morning ritual developed.  I wake early, so this was done while most everyone was still asleep. I would go to the end of the hallway where there was a large window and sit on the floor in front of it.  Usually it was still dark outside. I did five scribble drawing.  They were done very fast with no conscious guidance.  Too slow and I would be "thinking".  I didn't want to "think" while I scribbled.  What fascinated me was that no two drawings looked the same.  Day after day my scribble trove grew, and never ever did I repeat myself.  I viewed the scribbles as a direct product of my unconscious mind.  For if I was not consciously guiding the scribbling hand, what was?  And why should the product of the unconscious mind be endlessly original?  Then, like with the reading of children's books I started pulling other patients into my service.  I would show a patient my scribble trove.  Next it was explained that I was collecting scribbles, and I wanted to see their personality in a scribble.  What the patients who participated did was illuminating.  I realized that there were indeed new ways, with new people, of scribbling.  Each person had their own scribble style.

The patient who was most ill was non-verbal.  Even if you could force him to talk, (rather, I didn't force, I sweet talked) - what came out was a classical word salad.  Words grouped together that had no attachment to one another.  There was intelligence in his eyes, total awareness, and I can only assume that he knew it was impossible for him to communicate verbally.  Probably he was exasperated or embarrassed with his disability so he preferred silence.   To me his scribble effort was the most frightening.  It was just a tiny grouping of a few lines in the center of the paper.  This he gave me after a lot of my coaching to try, just try.  My scribbling was expansive and energetic and covered the whole paper.  Next to me was impoverished and limited.  I tested him again and again to see if he could improve.  Nope.  If ever a scribble could look hopeless, his did.

After the children's books, I moved on to short magazine articles.  It would take an entire year of healing before I could read my first book.  That book was "Rock Star", a torrid love affair by Daniel Steel.

Eventually it became clear to staff that I was odd but totally harmless and they let me use scissors.  I cut colored construction paper.  There was a bulletin board that the doctors said I could have to decorate.  I remember doing a monster scene that was reminiscent of Miro abstraction, but with eyes and mouths.  I wanted then to go bigger.  I stared decorating the wall next to my bed.  Just put rolled tape on the back of the cut out paper and it will stick to the wall.  Never did I think I was making art.  I was just making.  For the fun of it.  To escape the violence, the hopelessness, and the tedium of the hospital.  Mental escape while you are a physical prisoner.  Staff eventually said that my wall in my bedroom had so much paper on it that it was a fire hazard and I had to reduce it to a third of its size.  In tears, I destroyed it all.  It had been a popular landmark, patients standing in the doorway to look because no one was allowed to go into someone else's bedroom. What did it mean? they would ask me.  Nothing, I said, it meant nothing.

As my skills in reading improved, I tried to write short one page stories.  And I started drawing in proper.  I had not drawn since kindergarten.  I would make a small monster in pencil, and then when the lines were corrected and I got I wanted, I went over the pencil with a ball point pen.  A patient looked at a collection of about fifteen small drawings of absurd little impossibilities (for none of my drawings could have ever existed in nature)  and said it looked like something he saw in a book.  A book of what?  A book on an artist.

It took everything out of me to create a sentence or to sketch a tiny two inches by three inches monster.  There was no creative flow.  I know now, as a mature artist, what it is like to be in creative flow.  But in the hospital, my concentration would not permit the linking together of moments in my mind.  In every sentence I wrote I remember struggling over the order of words.  I wrote and re-wrote sentences.  Linking sentences to form a paragraph was the hardest because the thoughts jumped abruptly from one sentence to another.  Like my shattered mind, my paragraphs also were shattered.  But I had time to edit endlessly.

Letters to friends and family were written on brown paper bags ripped up into an uneven shards.  Pencil is just visible on paper bags, readable, but with some eye strain.  My Uncle apparently was very alarmed at receiving his paper bag shard in the mail. I doubt it was alarm over what I said, it was the oddity of the physical manuscript.

When my sister came to visit me during her spring break from college she brought her college boyfriend.  He was an English major and wanted to be a professional writer.  I shyly let him read two one page stories.  One story was about a beast named Misery and the other story was about a tiny thimble sized King who God smites.  Obviously I was just echoing my current condition in life.   

My sister said her boyfriend claimed, after reading my stories, that he might as well give up writing.  My sister said he really was in turmoil.  Maybe he was a bit jealous of me?  Why did my writing make him despair?  Perhaps he felt that a woman in a psychiatric institution should not produce writing that was superior to his own.  No doubt he considered himself quite sane.  And someone whose sanity was in doubt should not get away with producing evidence of superior talent.   

This fellow's reaction to my writing was the first time ever I considered the idea that madness can produce brilliance.  Not everyone's madness.  But yes, it is so, in the case of the rare few.   I love, love the work of the Victorian painter Richard Dadd after he went mad.  Before, he was only so so.  Before he was romantic and a technical virtuoso.  But after the breakdown he went places no sane mind would venture.  They say that artists in the artworld haven't been inspired by Dadd that same way that musicians and writers have.  I think sane minds loath to break rules of reality.  Our eyes are constantly giving us visual reminders of what reality is.  Questioning the sanity and rules of the eyes is hard to do.  I know in this era of modern art all the abstractions seem to point to the artist's mantra that reality doesn't have to impinge in artistic creation in the least.  But the best painters, in my taste, make a poem out of reality.  They make reality rhyme.  They make reality into a song, into a taste.  But they hang onto something essential and then add the spiritual.  Dadd's spiritual was demonic.  I don't mean this to mean evil.  I mean it as the opposite of law and order.  My art too is demonic.  A very early oil pastel drawing was once shown to an immigrant baker of bagels.  He called it "devil's crap".  I don't think he knew much about art. But he was keen to his senses. 


  1. Hi Karen. Thanks so much for writing. I always have and always will enjoy the way you write about your life experiences. I felt as if I were there with you in the hospital underneath the table working on the floor trying from time to time to engage the other people there to interact with you. Small beginnings for you as an artist have led you to into two dimensional worlds in your present work. You had the instinct for it, for the colors, the lines, the images and the words. And you still do. I hope you continue to write in this blog. I think it is also valuable work.

  2. Your writing is incredibly poignant.


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