The Shedding Skins paintings show dream images, a nun riding a pinto through the desert, a ghostly Beethoven contemplating a small vibrant green tree, a fragile, though armoured Joan of Arc astride her powerful horse,. The text tells a story of mental illness and healing.
This exhibit by artist Susan Schellenberg, is on permanent display at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Susan trained and worked as a public health nurse until she became a wife, homemaker, and mother. In 1969, after the birth of her fourth child and while caring for her ill mother, she experienced a psychotic break and was hospitalized at the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in Toronto. Ten years later, at a point of despair, she sought medical help to discontinue anti-psychotic medication, resolved to heal, and decided to keep a painted record of her dreams as she healed. Remember that I have been writing and giving presentations with Susan for some years, so am not a disinterested observer of her work.
Susan defines herself as an artist, so her decision to exhibit in a hospital is interesting. She was moved by the writings of art critic Suzi Galick to practice socially engaged art where art is created and displayed not as a gallery experience or for commercial purposes, but as a means to contribute to greater interconnectedness and community wholeness. With this in mind, Susan arranged to place her paintings and story of mental illness and healing at the heart of a major psychiatric teaching hospital where they are seen daily by individuals who are deeply affected and involved with mental illness as patients, family or professional staff.
Mental illness, treatment, and recovery are often highly distressing and shielded from public view. Susan’s work is a public window on vital, but ordinarily private experiences, and an opportunity to talk about medical model mental health care versus a healing or recovery-oriented approach. When Susan first experienced intense distress, she received medical model care. She saw an expert doctor who asked about symptoms, observed, then diagnosed one of the mental illnesses listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, currently, the DSM-IV. Susan was encouraged to return to normal by following the doctor’s orders, for example, take your meds. The medical model approach highlights symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. The emphasis is on disease and cure, or at least symptom relief. The process of receiving care and achieving a cure is considered private.
When feeling worse after some years of medical model care, Susan wanted to feel better, and so began a process of recovery and healing. She explains that recovery and healing occur step-by-step. The emphasis is on having a good life. Along the way, individuals often renew hope and commitment, redefine self, take control, engage in meaningful activities, exercise citizenship, and engage in supportive relationships with others. Professionals may be involved, but many other activities and supports are important to recovery and healing. Professionals who work in a recovery and healing model will highlight the individual’s life aspirations, abilities, accomplishments, and possibilities. Some healing work is done in private, but healing always takes place in relationship with others, so is always, to some degree, also a public process. For Susan, painting was important. As she explains in Committed to the Sane Asylum, the public process of exhibiting later became important in her healing.
Susan tells how she was helped by medical model care in an immediate crisis, but used a recovery and healing approach to establish a good life. Her work documents the recovery and healing response to mental illness.
Production: Shedding Skins, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Clarke site, 250 College Street (College and Spadina), Toronto. The exhibit is in the hallway outside of the auditorium at the back (north end) of the main floor. Shedding Skins and other work done by Susan can be seen at her website.
Now on or upcoming: Transformation by Fire, February 7-April 8, 2013, 111 Queen’s Park, Gardiner Museum, Toronto.