An art asylum within an asylum

Photo:Nathan Erlich
Posing in his studio, John Tursi holds up the sleeve of a straight jacket that he painted.
By Nathan Erlich
September 23, 2009

When Dr. Janos Marton and his friend Bolek Greczynski, an actor and artist, first stumbled upon Building Number 75 of Creedmoor Psychiatric Institute in Queens 26 years ago, it was a has-been of a kitchen treated by the institution’s administration as a 40,000-square-foot storage garage, and by the local rodents as a breeding ground.   But to  Marton and Greczynski, the decaying space was a nest for the creative potential of Creedmoor’s mentally ill.
Together, through hard labor and patience, the two men breathed new life into the dying structure, renaming it the Living Museum. What was once a dusty, discarded, and decrepit building ridden with peeling white paint is now an art studio, art museum, workspace, center, laboratory or whatever name one could imagine ascribing to a massive building exploding at the seams with paintings, sculptures and artists at work. Since the mid-1980s, the former Building 75 is where Creedmoor’s mentally ill patients could exchange their diagnostic labels for a smock and celebrate themselves as individual artists. They follow Greczynski’s motto: “Turn your vulnerability into a weapon.”
Besides offering expression and catharsis to the Creedmore patients, the Living Museum attests to the ongoing interest in psychiatric and artistic circles about the link between creativity and the mentally ill. The topic was first broached in the 1920's by psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn in his book “The Artistry of the Mentally Ill.” Sigmund Freud's work on the unconscious heightened interest in the art created by psychiatric patients in European medical centers such as the Royal Bethlem Hospital in Kent, England, and the Landers Institute for the Mentally Ill in Gugging, Austria, which was directed by psychiatrist Leo Navratil. Attending Navratil’s lectures as an impressionable high school student in Vienna,  Marton went on to earn both a Ph.D. and an M.A. in fine arts at Columbia University. Following his graduation from Columbia in 1980,  Marton became a psychologist at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Institute and invited his Columbia classmate Greczynski to join him in realizing his vision of an art asylum within an asylum. ( Watch a slideshow of images from the Living Museum.)
From the outside, Building 75 is just another one of Creedmoor’s brick and beige factory-like structures, but once inside the doors, all sense of being on the grounds of a mental institution is lost. The walls, support beams, and ducts of the massive main room that once serviced the kitchen appear to grow paintings and mounted sculptures like leaves of ivy. Old cooking equipment, tree stumps, and found trash have become decorative sculptures; the walls are lined with vibrant murals, dynamic abstracts and twisted portraiture.
Marton, who took over as director of the Living Museum when Greczynski died of cancer in 1995 can often be found hovering among the artists, applauding new pieces or introducing outside mental health clinicians and interns to the museum. He sees no need to establish rules. “I am more of a curator than a therapist,” Marton said. Finished pieces are completed for the sake of completion, not for the sake of a sale. An expansive studio occupied by inventive minds with little in the world but an abundance of time and materials, and with little concern for acclaim or monetary success, is just what captivated French artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1950s. 
Dubuffet, a proponent for impulsive and pure works of human expression, celebrated the artist-patient fusion that was taking shape in Europe during the postwar period and set out to begin a new genre of raw “outsider art,” which he coined “Art Brut.” The Art Brut label gets ascribed to the pieces and artists that emerge from the Living Museum because they are, for the most part, self-taught, and their work is largely unknown to places like the MOMA. The outside art genre has, in the past, carried a stigma in “insider art” circles, believing that the work of these fringe, and often unschooled artists, is somehow less sophisticated.
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker disagrees with this assessment of outsider art. In a January 2007 article about the acclaimed outside artist Martin Ramirez, Schjeldahl wrote, “Outside what? Ramírez worked cogently from within his memory, imagination, and talent.” All of Martin Ramirez’s artwork came out of the 32 years he spent as an inpatient in various California mental institutions. Schjeldahl proclaimed Ramirez “my favorite outsider artist,” and “one of my favorite artists, period.”
“If you have a condition,” Valerie Smith, former curator of the Queens Museum of Art, says, “and you are forced to work on it, read on it, come to grips, live, and survive, and make art, then you will inevitably tap into something…there are these secrets of the mind that are being unlocked and expressed [at the Living Museum], which is so valuable.”
Dr. Paul Rosenfield, chief of the Schizophrenia Research Unit and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, explained that treatment for mental illness focuses on patient limitations. “But,” he said “what Dr. Marton has set up reengages patients and empowers them to be independent people and go express themselves artistically.”  Marton said he believes that extreme creativity is a symptom of mental illness because “it permits easier access to the a-historic, non-decorative, spiritual domain where God talks to you.”
“We’re all just artists first,” says 44-year-old Issa Ibrahim, who 15 years ago was remanded to Creedmoor by the Queens court system and was only released as an outpatient this past June. Throughout his years on the ward, the Living Museum represented hope. “Whenever it got real bad on the ward,” Ibrahim said, “I always had a project I was working on, or else I’d want to die.” He expressed this pain more poignantly on a canvas that hangs just outside his studio, which features himself on an examination table with his chest cut open revealing an empty red space. Before being properly medicated, “I did some real, raw, freewheeling art,” Ibrahim said. For a self-portrait that he titled “Man in a Box” Ibrahim dipped his entire body in white paint and then threw himself down on black paper. A more stable Ibrahim has continued to create original work, which has been shown in galleries all over the country, such as his piece Oh My, which slips a number of sexual jokes into a scene from The Wizard of Oz.
One of the Living Museum's current artists, John Tursi, has spoken of a paranormal book that appears in his mind, whose pages are filled with vivid and detailed images that show him what to draw. Walking into either of Tursi’s two studio spaces one is confronted with an eruption of color. Lining the walls from top to bottom is a series of works of cartoon-like people, teddy bears and jolly creatures in one big happy orgy. “I just do my art work,” Tursi said, “I’m not going to be a patient, I’m John.”
According to Marton, Tursi has undergone a major transformation in his time at the Living Museum. When he first arrived at Creedmoor, Tursi was suffering from schizophrenia and lived on the ward. Marton said that Tursi would often sit in a corner and rock back and forth. Now after painting and sculpting every day, eight hours a day, for ten years, he is a functional artist who lives by himself and commutes to Creedmoor and the Living Museum as an outpatient. Tursi has had showings at the Queens Museum of Art and the Dabora Arts Gallery in Brooklyn, among other venues, and traveled the country on the film festival circuit with Jessica Yu’s 1998 documentary The Living Museum.
Tursi’s talent earned him a newfound respect from his family members, who recently chipped in to purchase him a co-op apartment. At the end of a long day of painting, Tursi heads home to work on a half-horse/half-man sculpture that he is creating out of used hangers a laundry mat has given him. Thanks to Bolek,  Marton, and a supportive Creedmoor Institute that has been funding the Museum for 25 years, John Tursi is a full-time artist.    

Marton hopes that other mental institutions will create their own art asylums both for the sake of healing patients, and healing the arts, an industry that he believes is in a crisis. “Modern art is about branding, not art,” Marton said. “There are roles for celebrities in society, not for artists.” Marton believes the creation of art asylums within the confines of a mental institution makes practical sense; it  heals the sick, cultivates artists and works of art, employs artists who can act as curators, and  costs local governments  next to nothing. Due to deinstitutionalization, there is no shortage of vacant spaces on the campuses of mental institutions begging to be used, just as Building 75 once was. "If art has the power to change the world," Marton said, "then [the concept of the Living Museum] could be a great impetus."


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