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Painted Brain | The Legacy Of Mental Health In Art
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • October 4, 2014

The Legacy of Mental Health in Art

The experience of attending the California Memorial Project’s Remembrance Day Ceremony on September 15th as a member of the Painted Brain was a deeply emotional one. The remembrance was in honor of the many thousands who lived and died in California’s state institutions for people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities. For nearly a century they were buried in unmarked mass grave sites. The anonymous numbered bricks, once used as markers for the graves of individuals who disappeared from society, was both a shocking and sobering sight. I was immediately reminded of the tangible relics of other massive generational horrors, the grim black and white photographs, maps and inventory lists which affix such atrocities as the Holocaust or the Cherokee Trail of Tears into our historical consciousness. It also brought to mind the artists whose work is informed by such historical trauma.

Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes “historical trauma” as the reaction to massive generational group trauma, such as the U.S. government’s genocidal campaigns carried out against the Lakota people in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. These psychic injuries are cumulative, and reverberate over lifespans and across generations. A handful of courageous artists grapple with these painful legacies in their work in a way that’s cathartic, affecting and informative. Steven Spielberg may have helped to invent the blockbuster, but his magnum opus, Schindler’s List is sure to be his real legacy.

The Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall has become a fitting homage to the soldiers who shouldered the burden of an unpopular war for an ambivalent public.

In a very contemporary example, and one that’s local to Painted Brain headquarters here in Downtown L.A., artist Gary Baseman is currently crowd-funding an innovative documentary about his parents’ experience during the Holocaust. Combining animation and other story-telling techniques, he traces their history from the Ukraine to the Fairfax District of Los Angeles where Baseman’s mother, Naomi has worked at the historical landmark, Canter’s Deli for more than 35 years.

The dark history of mental illness is one which merits attention, and its often sinister legacy warrants artistic interpretation in order to increase our shared understanding.

Painted Brain’s own Tristan Scremin shared a drum performance at the memorial ceremony, using an instrument whose music he described as “interesting, soothing and haunting at the same time,” ably demonstrating how transformative art can shed vital illumination on even such a dark chapter of history.

As I wondered aloud whether there are other examples of things like this, Painted Brain’s director, Dave Leon informed me of similar artistic expression of amends at a hospital in Oregon.

Like the California institutions involved in the Memorial Project, Oregon State Hospital paid belated respects to the thousands of men, women and children whose existence, as well as their physical remains, were all but erased from view. Unlike California’s unmarked graves, Oregon State Hospital had to contend with sixty years worth of cremated remains stored in corroded copper canisters until their discovery in 2004. In July of this year, the project to provide a suitable memorial space was completed. New, thoughtfully-designed vessels now hold the ashes of the dead. The empty and corroded copper canisters, made eerily beautiful by years of oxidation, are on displayed in for the public. By examining old medical records, an attempt is being made to restore the unclaimed remains to their rightful families.

This project, like Tristan’s drum performance, is exactly the kind of transformative art our world requires to dismantle the stigma that continues to surround mental health problems.

Jules is an MSW intern at Painted Brain using social media to expand the Painted Brain community of artists and allies. She hopes to extend the reach of our mission using artistic expression to reduce the stigma of mental illness. 

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