The concept of art therapy—both art in and of itself being therapeutic as a “natural” activity, and art as a part of prescribed therapy—always made sense to me.
In high school, our American History teacher wanted us to pick a topic to study about Mississippi. The parameters of the project were vague, so I told her I wanted to study the history of the state’s mental health. She looked shocked, in a good way. “That’s a great idea,” she said. “But what specifically are you going to cover about it?” I didn’t really know, so later I got in the car and drove to the state mental institution, Whitfield.
My memory of this project is hazy. I must have called someone beforehand to arrange a “tour” (god, that sounds awful); surely I didn’t just drive up to the place and say, “Hey, I just want to have a look around.” I vaguely remember speaking to a man on the phone. Anyway, as I drove onto the campus, the pathway of trees looked instantly familiar. I turned down the music. “Holy shit. I’ve been here before,” I said out loud. This wasn’t just déjà vu—I knew (“knew”) I had been to this very place before in my living, breathing, life. It was the trees that made me remember. I think they were Live Oaks, but that could be something I’m projecting onto the memory to make it prettier, more tolerable. It had occurred to me: this was where we would go visit my grandfather every week. I almost had to pull over, just to process what I remembered of those visits. I had blocked all of it for years, but suddenly I was flooded: the smell, the way it made me afraid of old people, how it always seemed off and inhumane somehow. The cacophony of their voices. I had thought all that time we were just going to a “normal” nursing home. (It makes so much sense now, how the elderly almost always make me cry.)
There is a museum at Whitfield. It is dedicated to showing older methods of psychiatric treatment. I do not recall who was showing me around the museum; I think I remember that the person was male. We were in a room with strange pulleys and buckets. Water therapy was a common method of treating a variety of “illnesses”—I put it in quotes because not wanting to have sex with your husband was considered a condition that required treatment at one point. There were, of course, actual psychiatric conditions being treated with water. People were hosed down, wrapped tightly in wet towels, dunked, etc. It was believed that the feeling of almost drowning would make you “snap out” of melancholia, that after being confronted so immediately with your own demise, you’d be able to live a happier life. There is a kernel of truth to that, and the treatment was given in good faith, but it’s strange to think that it was an actual form of torture (see also: waterboarding). The person giving me the tour told me about a condition called psychogenic polydipsia, in which the patient obsessively drinks fluids and will drink it from anywhere, such as a toilet or a lake. Patients often die from consuming toxic levels of water. Apparently there was a patient on the premises who had this condition and required 24-hour monitoring.
I mentioned art therapy because here is a part of the “tour” that I remember so vividly: a woman took me into some giant room filled with artwork. It was all over the tables, all over the walls. She told me that making art was the best outlet for the patients, that during the process of drawing or painting, they were more at peace with themselves, more likely to stay calm. She took me to the edge of one of the tables and pointed out two specific pieces of art. “Ok, we’re going to play a game,” she said. “Try to guess if the artist is male or female, and how old they are.” One piece was this incredibly detailed, realistic pencil drawing of a girl on a horse. “Female, maybe 35?” The other was a very cartoonish, childlike drawing of a face, in very bold colors. “Male? 50?” “No. They were drawn by the same person,” she said. She told me that the term “multiple personality disorder” is thrown around as if it is a common condition. “It is actually pretty rare,” she said. The two pieces had different signatures.
We are less eager to sip wine and critique “outsider art,” and that speaks volumes to me. Imagine some asshole at a private event at MoMA telling you his opinion about pieces of artwork created by people experiencing actual psychosis.
Anyway, art therapy. I figured out that this is why I really love to photograph. Forget the bullshit self-actualization, the MFA, the networking, the galleries and museums you’ll never be in. For me it is a way of processing grief, the madness that comes with missing the people I have lost and the people I am going to lose. It is a way of being simultaneously connected and disconnected, of being in the world and outside it, and not either extreme. Too much of one or the other is too scary for me. I think it is for most people. (Right?)