Time Out New York: The Living Museum

September 2003

Mind Over Matters
The Living Museum at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital transforms patients into artists

By Laura Barcella

It’s not easy to get to the Living Museum. But once you do, expect to be changed. Buried in the farthest reaches of Queens Village, a 30-minute bus ride from the Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike stop on the E and F trains, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center is home to what director Dr. Janos Marton deems “the most exciting art in the city.” Every day, dozens of people who live with mental illness of varying diagnoses and degree enter Creedmoor’s Building 75 with a shared purpose: making art. Some live on the grounds as inpatients; most are outpatients. They have little in common except for their illnesses and their art. And here, unlike in the outside world, it’s only the art that matters.

“What I hope for—and what happens—is that they wake up in the morning and their main identity is no longer that of a Creedmoor mental patient, but that of a singer, poet, painter, sculptor,” explains Dr. Marton. “That’s the idea: turning patients into ‘crazy artists,’ using the disadvantage of mental illness to our advantage.”

Lisa Kalomeris, a volunteer who has assisted at the museum for seven years, expands on Marton’s claim. “The minute we walk through the door, we’re all in this together,” she says. And stepping through those doors is an experience akin to entering Alice’s Wonderland. The 40,000-square-foot, two-story building, once a cafeteria, is now a studio/gallery. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, with art of every conceivable shape, size and hue. Mannequins perch in brightly colored masks. Poems are carefully inscribed on walls. Words and images blanket boxes, tables and chairs.

A Creedmoor resident and self-described “well-selling” painter named Issa Ibrahim, 38, weaves through the museum’s organized chaos with the patient familiarity of a tour guide. He points out his enormous murals chronicling the civil rights movement; in one corner, hooded Ku Klux Klan figures lurk ominously a few feet from a sadly triumphant Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. on an opposite wall.

Across the building, surrounded by brushes and finished works, Paula Brooks, 24, crouches over her latest artwork. An inpatient who has been artistic “since [she] was little,” Brooks became engrossed in re-creating comic strips when she started out at the museum. Now she focuses on large-scale portraiture. “1 love the experience of putting things on paper,” she says. She sold “Everlasting Love,” a dreamy acrylic-on-paper panorama, for $3,500 after it was exhibited in the Queens Museum of Art two years ago. “It was exciting,” she recalls. “I didn’t know people were into art like that—that they would look at it and be amazed, like I was.”

In Mesmer’s Room (dedicated to Freud’s forerunner, German hypnosis pioneer Franz Anton Mesmer), ankle-deep volcanic ash coats the floor and white chairs form a triangle beneath three long copper rods. Ibrahim calls this the meditative “chill-out” room; Dr. Marton, who conceptualized the installation, considers the ash and copper used within it “alchemical, magical materials” based on Mesmer’s theories of magnetism and energy. Dr. Marton, the museum’s sole staff member, cofounded the Living Museum in 1983 with a friend from Columbia University’s School of Visual Arts, Polish activist-artist BolekGreczynski. At the time of the program’s inception, Creedmoor {which is the largest of five state psychiatric facilities) housed 3,500 live-in patients; today, the center boards about 450 and mainly serves those living “off-campus.”

More than 500 patient-artists have participated in the program since it began; there are currently about 100 involved. To Marton, who took on the role of director after Greczynski’s death in the mid-’90s, the museum has never been about traditional therapy. Greczynski’s motto was “use your vulnerabilities as a weapon,” and this remains the center’s guiding principle. “The distinction between therapists and patients is not healthy. It creates hierarchies,” Marton says. He would rather promote ideas of “nonauthoritarian healing,” working in a comfortable, low-stress environment to coax out the creativity he believes is innate in those affected by mental illness. He doesn’t hide his conviction that “every mentally ill person has the capacity to be a great artist.”

And his main goal is encouraging patients to transform the internal gloom of “illness” into something beautiful, whether the rest of us get it or not. “I challenge you to find more interesting art in Manhattan than what you’ll find here,” he says, passion lit behind his eyes. “This kind of intensity, seriousness—life-and-death issues—is what makes lasting art.”