I love how these soothing geometric forms float back and forth to create a calm, colorful landscape. The blue-green orb bobbing in the center looks right back at the viewer and pleads, “I’m happy here. Please leave me be.” This lovely work was painted by a British woman named Margaret P. under highly unusual circumstances. The serenity of it is shocking considering the artist was a mental patient in 1967 at Netherne, a British long-stay mental hospital. She probably suffered from schizophrenia or another mental disorder, and definitely lived an isolated existence without many friends or personal possessions. A compassionate and underpaid artist named Edward Adamson was the man who first put a brush in her hand.
Adamson was to become a pioneer in the field of Art Therapy during his time at Netherne, and his journey began as a conscientious objector to WWII. He worked as a medical orderly and liked to entertain the bored and immobilized soldiers with lectures about art. He continued to lecture to tuberculosis patients after the war ended, eventually speaking at Netherne hospital in 1946. Impressed by his rapport with patients, hospital director Dr. Eric Cunningham Dax recruited him to assist in an experiment with a progressive new type of therapy.
After two years of facilitating strictly scheduled painting sessions with patients, Adamson was hired as a full-time artist in residence and given studio space for his own practice on the grounds. By then the experiment had ended but the benefits to patients were obvious so he was given the autonomy to make a radical change. He created an open studio on the grounds and allowed patients to come and make work any time they wanted. Residents of Netherne had almost no control over their time, making an open studio equipped with art supplies a novel gift.
He dedicated his life to helping patients make art. He worked his whole career on a fixed stipend of just £1000 per year, or less than $20,000 per year in today’s dollarsi. What made his interactions with patients unique was the care he took to avoid intervening in the creative process or analyzing the work (unless he saw evidence that a patient might be dangerous to him or herself). He did so because he believed that art-making was valuable in itself and was not just a form of occupational therapy or recreation. By withholding his analysis he freed the patients to express their thoughts and emotions, and in doing so begin to heal their invisible wounds.
His approach also represented a shift towards a more humanistic view of mental illness; rather than “treating” patients with drugs, electric shocks or lobotomies (therapies still widely used at the beginning of his career!), he encouraged them to express themselves. This attitude elevated him to a unique status among patients. He wasn’t a doctor or a peer, but in his words, an “artist facilitating art-making”.
“There were for Edward no patients. I think that is why so many lost people in his care found their way back to themselves.”
-Rebecca Hoffberger, Founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, 2011
The contrast between his relationship with patients and that of the doctors was strikingly obvious in the way patients depicted them. The following is thought to be a portrait of Adamson made by a patient who made dramatic improvements during his time in the studio:
The painting is in cool neutral colors and evokes dignity and wisdom. The point of view implies that the artist was physically on the same level with his subject while painting.
In contrast to this respectful homage, patients frequently illustrated their complex and often fraught relationship with their doctors. Adamson described this dynamic in his 1984 book, Art as Healing:
“When a person is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the doctor becomes the most important figure in his [sic] life – the arbiter of treatment, and the means of eventual release…. While some see their doctor as a kindly, parental figure, nursing them back to health, he [sic] is frequently seen as a heartless brute, impervious to personal suffering.”
This painting, titled “The Sadist in the White Coat” has a very different tone. Here the theme of power and subordination is clear and disturbing. Rather than a portrait we see a caricature of a cruel, dominating figure who tortures his belittled patient.
When comparing these two images it becomes clear where patients placed their trust. Adamson was a benevolent figure in a bleak institution that more resembled a prison than a hospitalii In his presence the patients gained an advocate, an outlet for expression, and the dignity and pride that comes with creative work. With these benefits it’s not surprising that many made dramatic comebacks.
One of his most famous patients, Rolanda Polonska, famously wrote “Art was my salvation” years after her departure from Netherne. Polonska was a schizophrenic Italian sculptor who had a successful early career as an artist before she was institutionalized. When Adamson met her she had already spent two decades at the hospital, completing her daily task of mopping the floors. After years under his gentle guidance she returned to sculpting and created her most famous series of works, Figures of the Cross. She was eventually released from the hospital and lived out her days as a nun. She’s also the subject of a 1971 documentary that I unfortunately can’t seem to find in any library or online.
Edward Adamson collected artwork made by his patients for his entire 30 year career, and eventually amassed more than 100,000 pieces. Selected works were exhibited in a gallery at the hospital and the remaining collection still travels to international galleries today. The works are an important contribution to the genre of outsider art, or art made by untrained artists without the commercial art world in mind. More importantly they are a bridge between isolated people suffering from mental illness and the general public.
What’s most exciting to me about the works is that they have served an altruistic purpose twice in their existence. Patient’s lives were enriched (or even saved!) while making the art that, once exhibited outside the hospital, served as a humanizing symbol of those with mental health issues. The creators and the consumers of these works were on opposite sides of an institutional system, and yet the art was valuable to both. Mental illness can be such a thorny, uncomfortable reality to face, and these works remind us that it’s sufferers are humans too.
Want to learn more about this gentle pioneer of art therapy? Here are some resources I used for this post:
i“US Inflation Calculator.” Inflation Calculator. Coinnews Media Group, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.
iiO’Flynn, David. “Art as Healing: Edward Adamson.” Art as Healing: Edward Adamson. RawVision Art, 2011. Web. 06 Sept. 2013.