Visualizing Absence

Hands 2, by Stas Guzar and Anne Zbitnew.  Cotton work gloves are lettered with phrases from health records that referred to patients, e.g., “confused,” “dreamy,” “refuses to work,” “harmless and simple.”

Hands 2, by Stas Guzar and Anne Zbitnew. Cotton work gloves are lettered with health records phrases referring to patients, e.g., “confused,” “dreamy,” “refuses to work,” “harmless and simple.”

Visualizing Absence remembers the Ojibway Anishinaabe people and patients at the Mimico Asylum/ Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, both groups who in past lived on the land now occupied by the Humber College Lakeshore Campus. The exhibit was produced by researcher and artist Anne Zbitnew, in collaboration with artists Ala Asadchaya, Alison Brenzil, Dave Clark, Stas Guzar, Susan Mentis, Lucy Pauker, and Hannah Zbitnew. Works include clothing, photographs, paintings, furniture, a typewriter, a book, audio video displays, pottery, canning jars, and weaving. Each work was created in response to stories of earlier inhabitants.

The opening on May 23, 2015 was very well-attended. Speeches began with a blessing from an Aboriginal elder, a profoundly helpful reminder that we live on land occupied for thousands of years by Aboriginal people and that our lives continue to depend on the land, water and living creatures provided by the Creator.

Ms. Zbitnew explained that the exhibit was intended to be diversely available, so to be seen, heard, and touched. Delightfully, the viewer is encouraged to handle several works, e.g., to feel the typewriter drumming, to put on the cotton work gloves, to flip through the book pages. One work honours the passenger pigeon, a bird that arrived in the spring in such great flocks that the Ojibway Anishinaabe named the location “omiimiikaa,”that is, “the place of the wild pigeon.” Now Mimico. Let us hope we avoid the fate of the passenger pigeon, now extinct. Note Aboriginal blessing.

Other works were created in response to patient records from 1890 to 1909. Despite concerns that most psychiatric history is told from the point of view of the medical profession, the artists located stories told in the words of individuals who lived as patients at what was likely then called the Mimico Asylum. In Charlotte by Anne Zbitnew, a typewriter holds a letter headed only “Mimico, May 27,” where Charlotte explains,

. . . I should never have allowed anything to worried [sic] me as it did on the farm. But from the time I went back after John was born, every little thing seemed to worry me and I never gained any strength. Fred thought I was lazy. I tried to work but when he would speak cross or swear, I would go to bed all night and cry. Then he would scold me the more for crying. At last one Sunday afternoon, he jumped up from his chair and said he was going to shoot John and himself. I stood in front of the sideboard and would not let him have his cartridges. He cursed me to Hell to get out of the way. I could not understand what ever had come over him and instead of me trying to forget and get back to work again, I just sat down and cried all the time. [Edited for grammar and spelling]

Charlotte, by Anne Zbetnew.

Charlotte, by Stas Guzar Anne Zbetnew.

The letter evokes vivid images. A woman who worries and cries, terrorized by a violent husband or suffering injuries or losses that she is unable to forget in order to get on with work on the farm. A husband relying on his wife’s work to keep the farm running and feed the family, but frustrated and desperate when his wife cannot work. Charlotte appeals to her mother to send news of her children whom she loves dearly.  Did her stay at the Mimico Asylum help?  We don’t know.

Hands 2 by Stas Guzar and Anne Zbitnew and several other works point out the patients’ physical labour and accomplishments in constructing buildings and tunnels, working the farm, cleaning rooms, cooking meals, and tending the institution’s grounds. Without pay other than, presumably, their room and board.

And what about the staff who also lived on this land and were responsible to care for Charlotte and other patients? Hands 2  and Words Not Labels by Susan Mentis note that patient records are replete with terms, e.g., “feeble-minded,” “moron,” “idiot,” that may have been originally had technical, medical meanings, but have migrated into every day language as disparaging epithets. Trace by Anne Zbitnew shows a rubbing of a location in the underground tunnels where shackles were mounted that were presumably used to restrain patients. Such artifacts indicate that Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was no better than other psychiatric facilities where institutional practices systematically disempowered and brutalized vulnerable, stigmatized and forgotten patients.  Perhaps the individual who “refuses to work” or the one described as “dreamy” were expressing resistance to such practices.

Nurse by Anne Zbitnew.

Nurse by Anne Zbitnew.

The beauty of the buildings and grounds  – still quite evident – bear witness to else, i.e., hopes that the lake shore site could serve therapeutic purposes (see Asylum by the Lake).  Asylum planners were likely motivated by the 1800s philosophy of moral treatment, which held that mentally disturbed individuals could best recover in a peaceful, natural setting where they provided with fresh air, good food, and exercise, were treated kindly and were offered meaningful activities.  Such care would be compatible with the aims of today’s recovery movement.  Unfortunately, institutional staff practices often contrasted starkly with such hopes.  In 1952, physician Dr. Ruth Koeppe Kajander was appalled by regimented, impoverished, and demeaning conditions imposed on patients.  Dr. Kajander obviously wanted something better, had “Great praise for the warmth, the common sense, integrity, professional knowledge and intelligence of Miss Lillian Oliver [the chief social worker],” and described Miss Oliver’s strenuous effort to assist a patient seeking discharge.  Remembering staff resistance to institutional practices helps to avoid the pull towards a cardboard Good Patient/Bad Staff story in Visualizing Absence.

Such reflections are, however, only possible because Visualizing Absence and its companion Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery Installation bring into our lives and hearts the otherwise forgotten people who lived in this location for many years.  These are stories that you’ll want to know and, as the artist Anne Zbitnew points out, you won’t be the same once you’ve heard them.


Visualizing Absence Exhibition: Memorializing Histories of the Former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, May 22-July 3, 2015.  At the L Space Gallery, Humber College, Lakeshore Campus, 19 Colonel Samuel Smith Park Drive, Toronto.  The L Space Gallery is open Monday to Friday, 10 am – 5pm.  Directions to the gallery are posted on the Visualizing Absence website.


Ongoing or upcoming:
1. Cemetery Installation and Performance.  The outdoor installation/performance took place on May 16, 2015.  The lilies remain in place until May 31, 2015.  The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery is located at the corner of Horner and Evans Avenue, about 2 km from Humber Lakeshore.  Directions to the cemetery are on the project website.

2.  Share Your Story! Lakeshore Grounds Community Storytelling
Sunday, June 7th, 2015, 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, L Space Gallery
To respect and present the dynamic history of the site and grow our community’s collective memory, we are inviting people to contribute their personal stories about their relationship to the Lakeshore Grounds. Come join our storytelling roundtable where you can share your story with other participants.

3. Dream Interpret Grow and other work done by Susan Schellenberg can be seen at Susan’s website.


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