Thursday was a really special day that I had been trying to arrange for a while, but with persistence and after a call out on twitter, bingo – the arrangements were made for me to visit the Living Museum.
Directed by the brilliant Dr Janos Marton, the Living Museum is part of Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre, which takes some getting to from Manhattan! First you take a train into Queens, almost to the end of the line, and after a 45 minute bus ride and several kind strangers later, I arrive at the vast, sprawling Creedmoor site with huge buildings as far as the eye can see.
Once home to more than 7,000 in-patients, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Centre now has 1,600 in-patient beds alongside day patients. Others attend on a less frequent, long-term appointment basis, as well as receiving support in the satellite clinic across New York. Notable patients treated at Creedmoor include Lou Reed and jazz pianist Bud Powell. Legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, who had been institutionalised for many years while suffering from Huntington’s disease, was transferred to Creedmoor in June 1966 and died there in October 1967.
After witnessing the commercial side of the Outsider Art world at the Fair in Manhattan, I was anticipating to experience the antidote to that, but as soon as I enter the Museum an artist make a beeline for me and offers me her painting for $20. Everyone laughs and she’s half joking, but only half.
I couldn’t have had a warmer welcome into a place that Dr Marton describes as ‘a spot in paradise’ and I have to say it’s hard to disagree with him.
Run by Dr Marton and a group of dedicated volunteers, patients at Creedmoor are able to use the space from 10am -12pm and 2pm – 4pm Monday to Thursday. All the art materials are provided and the space is a safe space where artists, both trained and self-taught, are free to create and express themselves as they wish.
Walking in, Dr Marton’s desk is in an open space… no door or walls, and people are free to approach him with questions or queries and they frequently do. On his desk is a sprawling collection of cheerful pictures and papers. Opposite is a paper star with pencils and pastel chalks in bowls for artists to use as they wish. One artist is sitting at a table reading one of the many books that are free to use. This room leads to the main ground floor space, with smaller, studio spaces leading from it.
It’s not long before I find myself sitting at a table with three artists who are keen to show me their work and share their stories. The work is brilliant! One artist is known as The Bic Man because he creates intricate designs using just black Bic pens. Drew, as he prefers to be called, had what he calls ‘a regular job’ as a boiler maker, until his depression overwhelmed him and he started to attend Creedmoor. We talk about the importance of his artwork and the space he works in, and he describes feeling exhausted when he leaves after a day at The Living Museum. He compares it to the heavy, lack of motivation he experiences with his depression, “it’s like being up to your neck in mud. When I leave here after a good day I feel exhausted, but it’s the right type of exhausted.’
Nyla works in oils and acrylics and shows me her floral painting. The standard of work is impressive to say the least. Trained at art school, Nyla uses the main room space as much as she can, and there’s real commercial interest in her work.
We drink tea together and the artists and Dr Marton are keen to hear more about Winston Churchill as an artist and quick-as-you-like Churchill’s watercolours are searched for on a smartphone. The artists like his style and think he would have loved it here.
Dr Marton gives me a tour of the upper floor, and as we walk and talk, the word ‘family’ comes up more than once, and I think that’s it. The atmosphere here is one of respect, dignity and creativity – some of the best traits of a family.
The Garden Room, with Billie Holliday’s image among the undergrowth; the Battle Ground, which is a series of whole room installations, and the sewing room where an artist sits embroidering, all bring a feeling of calm creativity, as well as endless possibilities.
I wonder how this space can be replicated in the UK? Would our health and safety rules prohibit the scissors and the pencils and the embroidery needles? Would the relative freedom that the artists enjoy be smothered in paperwork or a need to fill out satisfaction surveys, or would this approach have possibilities and find a home?
All of the artists I have spoken to have talked about the importance of this space in their recovery, but it’s not always plain sailing for some. One of the most impressive spaces in the Living Museum belongs to an artist whose circumstances has meant that he has returned to Creedmoor as an in-patient, which prevents him from using the creative space at the moment. Unlike other spaces, his work isn’t packed away to make space for another artist. Instead, it’s left exactly as it was the last time he painted there, awaiting his return.