Dr. Janos Marton believes that extreme creativity is a symptom of mental illness. While this theory may raise eyebrows, one visit to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Living Museum may be enough to convince even the most skeptical.
The walls of the museum are adorned with cartoons, abstract art and portraits of the celebrated Marton, enshrined in his own corner. There is not one inch of the 40,000-square-foot former dining hall that is not bursting at the seams with original work. Ovens are used to store drawings, soup cauldrons have mannequin legs sticking out of them and strait jackets, symbols of the formerly inhumane conditions of asylum life, hang decorated from any space that remains.
The sheer variety and volume of work housed inside the museum is impressive, as is the ease with which a newcomer to the museum’s workspace picks up a brush and paints a realistic oil painting. Even more remarkable, the place doesn’t offer any formal classes. Clients simply enter and produce often amazing work.
While this abundance of creativity may seem surprising to those who have only encountered people with psychological disorders on subway platforms or in movies, the link between mental illness (specifically schizophrenia) and artistic genius has been long documented. In his 1891 book, “The Man of Genius,” Cesare Lombroso noted the ability of madness to “transform into painters persons who have never been accustomed to handle a brush.” And centuries before Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his ear in 1888 and handed it to a prostitute, the philosopher Plato wrote about creative insanity.
Still, it was not until 1907 that art made by the mentally ill was evaluated from an aesthetic rather than a clinical point of view by psychiatrist Paul Meunier in Paris. At around that same time, what would later be one of the largest collections of art by the mentally ill, the Prinzhorn Collection, started in Germany. Prior to Meunier and the Prinzhorn Collection, all art was read for symptoms of mental illness. If an artist was sick, so too were his drawings.
Today, art made by people who are mentally ill is not explicitly pathologized, though it is often relegated to a separate category in the art world. What was once called “psychotic art” or “art brut” is now labeled “outsider art,” a term which may be applied to any artist without formal training.
“To me outsider art is any art made outside Manhattan,” quipped Marton, sitting inside the museum behind his desk strewn with papers, art pieces and a Sigmund Freud bobblehead. “Art is art. To push people into these ghettos has its pluses and its minuses.”
Indeed many of the client-artists at the Living Museum would never have had the chance to be part of a facility as renowned had they remained outside the mental health system. Journalists and educators as well as artists and clinicians come from all over the world to explore the awe-inspiring studio.
John Tursi, who is considered an artistic “genius” by Marton, and has been written up in The New York Times, had no real exposure in the art world before entering the museum as a patient at Creedmoor. Today he makes works that sell for several thousand dollars each.
Even Issa Ibrahim, who came to the museum in 1993 with some formal training, recognizes that the facility has brought him many opportunities. In addition to having his own enormous studio space, which he has decorated with a mural marking significant events in black history, he has been included in numerous art shows.
Though he seems mentally ‘well’ today, Ibrahim says he is simply “well medicated.”
“Once you know my story, there is an outsider quality to it,” he said. Ibrahim was sent to Creedmoor under court order. During a drug-induced haze, Ibrahim said, he committed a terrible crime many years ago and pleaded insanity. He was sent to Creedmoor at age 24 and has been there in some fashion ever since.
“As long as I know it was an accident, not a willful act, that I didn’t mean to hurt her, to take her life away, then I can face the day. Maybe find a reason not to take my own life, no matter how painful it is to continue living with the burden of being a killer … and of my own mother … “ Ibrahim writes in his memoir, “Autopsy of the Damned,” penned from within Creedmoor.
The art adorning the walls of his studio represents years of incarceration. Particularly haunting is a figure wrapped in an American flag, hanging with a noose around its neck. In another painting, Ibrahim depicts himself with a gaping cut down the center of his chest, showing the empty cavity, as if his heart were removed.
As mental illness is intensely personal, so too is much of the art at the Living Museum. “Most mentally ill people are trying to figure out their own mental and emotional politics,” said Ibrahim, whose own work is more nationally political than that of his colleagues. Ibrahim is inspired by Norman Rockwell. He likes super heroes and has painted President Obama, the first lady and Vice President Biden as Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, respectively. In another piece, he has framed a glove with the phrase: “if it does not fit, you must acquit” printed below it, documenting the OJ Simpson Trial. Another piece uses shattered records as part of a depiction of Michael Jackson.
Still, one does not have to look hard to find the intensely personal art Ibrahim speaks of. A painted piece upon giant white sheets of paper reads: “i STARTED WiTH ONE “WHY?” AND ENDED UP WITH TEN“WHYS?” i WRITE THEREFORE i AM That place where faith and sorrow meet.” A perfect summary of the trajectory of mental illness and the pain of circular thinking, painted in green and blue and hung with brown packing tape.
Some pieces seem obsessive and others seem random. A skeleton in a plastic case covered with dead flowers and labeled “Susan Sarandon” is comical in its absurdity, as is the oven labeled “John Steinbeck.” However for the most part, the art is astoundingly skilled and at times, clever. A chair labeled “Godot” sits empty, waiting, while another chair is sarcastically labeled “Marcel Duchamp,” as if the long-dead surrealist artist had simply left the room for a moment.
Marton considers some of the artists within the Living Museum to be “geniuses,” regardless of their mental health status, and regardless of his status as a doctor, some patients consider Marton to be ‘crazy.’ “Dr. Marton is the most delusional of all,” said Tursi, recalling Marton’s elaborate plans for the future of the museum.
For Marton, the Living Museum is not just a feather in the cap of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, “it is the solution to the mental health system … It’s like apple pie, what’s not to like?” And it’s true; the Living Museum appears as a single rose grown out of the rubble of an archaic mental health system. However, it was only due to Creedmoor’s dilapidation and decay that Marton and his late colleague Bolek Greczynski were able to obtain the empty building needed to open the artist space in 1983. What is “not to like” exists all around it, in the form of a largely vacant facility originally formed by New York State’s Commission for Lunacy in 1912.
Though Creedmoor is now a ghost town, before the introduction of psychiatric medications in the 1960s, it was full and housed 7,000 patients. The hospital and its grounds span many acres in Queens Village and include more than 50 buildings, many of them empty or underused. Graffiti covered edifices surrounded by chain link fences and locked with padlocks stand, reminders of the days when state funded mental institutions were as big as prisons are today.
As mental health treatment trends move toward community integration, Creedmoor only houses several hundred, all described by the center as “individuals with illnesses that have become so severe that they are unable to function in the community.”
In the dictionary, the word “asylum” is defined as “any secure retreat.” Perhaps one’s bedroom or a favorite restaurant, or maybe a cliched bar, like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. For people with mental illness it is hard to build and maintain connections, even with ones immediate surroundings.For the mentally ill, even today, “asylum” is all too often delivered in the form of locked rooms and medication. The Living Museum offers an alternative.
Marton drives us to lunch in his truck and Tursi says he is the sanest one in it. He currently lives in his own apartment, though he continues to maintain his studio in the Living Museum. “Being a patient gave me great compassion for the mentally ill,” he says. Tursi loves animals and claims to have “one bird with four birds inside of it.” He wants to start a new mental health facility called “Blessed Mary’s” with better food and living spaces, named after his mother, Mary, so that every time people say the name, his mother will be blessed. “I am going to put a lot of love into my Blessed Mary’s,” he says. Tursi is allowed to speak freely with Marton, and there are no repercussions. He is never told that he is crazy. When asked how Marton manages some of Tursi’s seemingly delusional statements of grandeur, Marton says, “He thinks he’s the greatest artist on Earth, and I agree with him.”