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As an adult, I was first introduced to making art while I was at a three-day psychiatric hospitalization at UCLA MPI. The art making was electric, in part because I was in such a fragile yet intense state of mind. I was very impressionable, and it left a deep mark on my psyche. From that point on, I could not stop making art. Something drew me, like an insect pulled to the campfire, the getting and using of art supplies and the endless stare at a blank white page or canvas. The raw materials seemed to stare back, saying, “What?” and “Who do you think you are anyway?” There is an unmistakable art culture that springs up wherever two or more artists create art together, and this culture was a strong magnet pulling me to art. There is simply no other medicine that can heal the way that art can heal.
Over the years I have been in a variety of settings where art was being made. Some of my deepest work was created during my seven-month stay at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. For three months, I was in the hospital section, a place called the Seven Thousand Floor. Housed in my own cell, I had a lot of time to think about art. I also had to be very creative finding supplies. I used toothpaste and empty juice cartons to make an instillation piece on the wall of my one-man cell. I found a pencil which I sharpened with my fingernails and teeth, then used it to write and draw on the walls. Using my fingernails, I chipped away at the paint on the wall of my cell until patterns appeared. This art kept the torment of my madness at bay.
Later, when I got a job of cleaning other cells on the Seven Thousand Floor, I found that many of my fellow inmates collected and arranged things much in the same way that I did. Perhaps art kept the wolves in their minds at bay as well. There was a man who played a drumbeat with his hands and a plastic comb against the steel slab that was his bed. The loud, deep and complex beats he made resonated like a storm. I enjoyed listening, as I stared at the roof or the square wire mesh window on the door of my cell.
What can art really do for people struggling with serious mental health issues? This is a very fair question to ask and one that can be easily answered. For me, the answer is simple: everything. Art can calm, it can give meaning, it can be an outlet for unstable thoughts, it can be a source of entertainment, it can provide a place to belong. If I were asked to prove how art helps in an objective, scientific manner, I would have a much harder time. But the anecdotal evidence is astounding. Every mental health center I have ever been a part of had at least one art group, or at least “arts and crafts.” These groups were often the most popular groups in the centers. They were also among the most fun groups.
I’m not sure what I could prove about art or how I would go about proving it, but art heals. We might also consider the number of famous artists who struggled with mental health issues as evidence that there is a deep connection between mental health and art. I have also been a part of art groups in a university setting, an inpatient psychiatric setting, and a community setting, as well as in my own studio. When I think of my life, of the years of active schizophrenia, of the tragedy and wreckage of my life, when I think of what could really begin to heal this, the wound of isolation, the wound of loneliness, the wound of depersonalization, the wound of a disjointed community, the wound of boredom, the wound of instability, the wound of depression, I can only think of one thing: art.
Tristan Scremin was born in Rosario, Argentina and emigrated to the US along with his family as a young child. He spent his formative years in Albuquerque NM and has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1991. Tristan believes that a true understanding of one’s own story is a key to understanding the world.