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myrellen's coat

Many years ago, in a former life, I managed a hot tub place in a small town in Northern California.  For you kids out there who don't remember what life was like before AIDS, "hot tub places" were the US version of public bathhouses.  Not places where everyone bathed together but places where the public could rent a private room with a hot tub, sauna, and shower for an hour or so.  Yeah, it was about like you'd think (given that this was California in the years before "Just Say No"), although my place was affiliated with a dojo and dance studio and most of our weekday clients were serious athletes and dancers.  Weekends were another matter entirely...

Anyways, that's neither here nor there.  For a long time while I worked there a guy used to come in nearly every day in the early afternoon.  This was usually a very quiet time for us and I'd normally only have only a couple of tubs open while I cleaned, chemicaled, and otherwise tended to the other tubs.  He'd buy a single bottle of Apple-Apple juice and sit on the bench by the front door in the sun (I usually kept the door open) and he'd drink his juice and write in a pad he carried around with him.  He rarely said much and he was pretty obviously homeless or close to it and my boss really didn't like him hanging around but he didn't bother me and so I left him alone.  I kind of liked the company and he always left when it started getting busy.

One day before he left he walked up to me and handed me a folded piece of paper from his book.  "Uh oh,"  I thought, "it's gonna get weird..."  He left and I opened up the paper.  Something like this is what I saw:

This is called word salad (or schizophasia or sometimes dysgraphia) and it's symptomatic of a serious thought disorder.    My friend's writing was less paranoid but made no more sense.  It didn't seem to be directed to me but he clearly wanted me to have it.  I was still a teenager; this was probably my first brush with serious mental illness. Still, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I didn't really count this as "getting weird."  In an odd way it made me feel closer to the guy, more like we were really friends.  So we kept on that way; he came in and drank his juice and wrote and I cleaned tubs and signed laundry receipts.  I never showed the paper to anyone at work or told them about it and everyone pretty much just left him alone.  Later, I studied psychology through multiple degrees and ran into this sort of thing a lot more, and of course during my own travels through the mental health landscape it was a not infrequent occurrence.   Maybe because of my friend, or maybe because it's such a wide flung window into a world I feel part of in some small way, I've always been drawn to it.  Apparently these days so is everyone else.

I don't know when these desperate outer manifestations of inner demons became "art" but they did.  It was probably about the time David Byrne discovered Howard Finster. Of course, it's not called a symptom or even "art by crazy  people".  It's called "visionary art", or "folk art", or "outsider art."   Back in the day most of these people came to the outside world's attention when their psychiatrist wrote a book or an article about their strange obsessions but nowadays things have changed.  There are museums devoted to this stuff and serious art galleries now sell it for real money.  There are about a billion books on it, art schools teach it, it is collected by major art  institutions (including the Smithsonian), and considerable effort is expended to place these people squarely in some definable art tradition or other. 

But it seems to me they miss the point.

It's not that I don't think these things are art.  They are.  And I'm glad the artists are getting their due, even if most of the time it's posthumously.  It's just that all this other baggage people want to attach to them comes at the irrational far too rationally.  Honestly.  They can talk all they want about "where post modernism intersects schizophrenia" but essentially these are mentally ill people doing something that the not-mentally-ill will NEVER understand, no matter how many words they fling at it.  It really isn't describable.  It just is.  Regardless of the medium, mostly it's defined by its sheer obsessiveness.  It is common for these artists to produce work on a scale that boggles the (healthy) mind.  Rodia's massive and delicate towers, Finster's acres of garden and stacks of paintings, Darger's tens of thousands of pages of writing and several hundred illustrations, Willis' howling and profane songs--the masses of these things defy description.  Even the small things, the papers covered with writing, the little carved totems, the stuff built out of matchsticks and bottle caps and covered with tinfoil, even these things overwhelm the capacity to explain with words. 

I don't know why anyone thinks any of this has to be explained. 

At the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore they have a coat in their permanent collection.  I used to go there every once in a while just to look at it but they've taken it off display to protect it.  The coat is covered with embroidered words and pictures.  And when I say covered I mean covered.  Every available inch of the fabric is stitched with something.  The coat was made by a woman named Myrellen, who was committed to a mental hospital in Tennessee back in the 1940s.  She used to save threads and lint and scraps of fabric while she worked in the hospital laundry and she used these bits and pieces to sew the illustrated story of her life onto her coat.  It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  But you know what?  Visionary artist she may have been, but Myrellen was also sick.  In the 1950s they gave her thorazine and electroshock and she stopped sewing forever.  She didn't even remember sewing her wonderful coat and claimed it wasn't hers. 

The AVAM used to be full of stuff like this and it some respects it still is.  But in the 15 years since it opened the "visionary art" world has changed.  The first time I went there the place was full of framed bits of word salad and embroidered fantasia and carved devils and enigmatic icons.  Walking through it was like touring the day room of a particularly interesting psych ward.  Now most of that stuff is off exhibit in favor of framed postcard secrets (although this collective howl is a pretty good public art project), and "outsider art" by people who went to art school and have agents, and most of their space is taken up with curated exhibitions with art by people you've heard of.  This is great; some of the art is very good.  But it's not the same thing and it's obvious.  It's like when adults try to draw like children do.  Some of them can do it very well and their whimsy and expressiveness are indeed very child-like.  But it's not the same.

Let me tell you something.  When I was in the hospital last  year I started writing nearly every waking minute.  The hospital loved it because I was "journaling" and that counts as therapy.  Mostly I wrote about D and about my fellow patients and about meaningless stuff.   At some point I started making cartoons but I can't remember anymore why.  Maybe they were just shorthand for all the words inside me, all the conversations I needed to have with him and couldn't.  Whatever, the important thing is that I could not stop.  I drew nearly all the time.  I made cartoons for art therapy.  I illustrated the therapy groups. I added pages and pages of stick figures to my journals.  It got worse when I got home.  The few I posted here were a sliver off the tip of the iceberg.  Through all the days of starving I made cartoons, dozens of them a day.  If I couldn't do anything else, not bathe or eat or get out of bed, I still made cartoons.   I bought oil pastels and a giant sketchbook so I could work in larger format but I didn't like that and went back to sitting hunched over a notebook scribbling in pencil.  I'd wake up in the middle of the night and draw.  I made a stick figure history of my entire life. I drew out entire conversations over pages and pages.  It was like this for months.  And then it left me.  It faded away gradually but it left.  It was the the only time in my whole life I felt like I've always thought real artists feel--a burning, inescapable, need that drives the pencil across the page, that spills out in torrents, that speaks in ways words can't.  It's past creativity, past formal training, past skill.  it was just raw...something  (emotion?  pain?  fury?)  I lost it and I wish it would come back but I don't know where it went.  I still sometimes draw cartoons but it's different.  It's coming from a different place.  It's not the same. 

I still have all those drawings.  They are jammed in drawers upstairs.  Maybe someday someone will find them and I'll be the next inexplicable visionary art fad and D will get rich off it.  Like everything else I own they are his when I go.


I don't know what happened to my apple juice loving friend.  AIDS killed hot-tubbing, I moved away to college, and I never saw him again.  I knew his name once but I've forgotten it, which makes me sad because I'm likely the only person on earth who remembers him.  I kept his gift for years and may still have it, tucked into a box or folder somewhere.  Perhaps it got tossed by accident during one of the times I had to purge stuff to make room for D's crap.   I've never forgotten him though.  I think about him a lot. 


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Feb. 20th, 2012 10:12 pm (UTC)
Myrellen's coat
I just saw this coat in an exhibit at the Gregg Museum at NC State; it's on loan from the Visionary Art Museum. I agree, it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Joyce Newman
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )