The paint-speckled tables may be loaded with every art supply imaginable, but the art studio at Camarillo State Hospital still doesn't seem equipped to teach the residents of Unit 25.
A bony and pockmarked man named Joe rocks idly in a chair, his lips silently fluttering. A pale classmate named Bob giggles continuously at an inner stream of amusement. And James, a strapping man with wild eyes, accuses his instructor of plotting to kill him.
"I'm getting bad vibes," he warns.
An hour into their weekly art class, however, these chronically disturbed patients are immersed in painting, drawing and sculpture, thanks to an art therapy program introduced two years ago at the hospital, home to 1,225 mentally ill and developmentally disabled men, women and children.
James puts the finishing touches on a delicate clay horse between whose legs curls a two-inch human figure. Bob giggles at the Impressionist desert scene that he has just drawn in pastels. And a stack of quickly rendered but expressive drawings lie in front of Joe.
'Lot of Feeling'
"There's a lot of feeling in your work," art therapist Jack Cheney tells Bob, surveying a brightly colored landscape in which a lake climbs over the horizon and into the air. "There are people with degrees in art who wish they had that power."
About 100 hospital residents who take 15 weekly classes from Cheney have been no less productive.
Their work has filled two weeklong art shows at the hospital and garnered ribbons at the Ventura County Fair. It has been exhibited in the lobby of the Santa Paula Theater Center, during a production of "The Hothouse," a Harold Pinter play about a mental institution.
And hospital officials plan sometime next month to open an art gallery where the works will be permanently displayed.
The gallery, which will be open to the public weekdays, will assemble hundreds of paintings, drawings and sculptures in the foyer and hallway of the hospital's Hagerty Building. Purchases can be arranged by calling Cheney at the hospital.
Hospital administrators hope the gallery, tentatively named Personal Images, will help form a positive impression of the Spanish-style hospital, on a verdant 370-acre campus four miles south of Camarillo.
"We've gone so far beyond the Nurse Ratched days," Cheney said, referring to the tyrannical nurse in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Ken Kesey's portrayal of life in a mental institution in the 1950s. "Things have really changed."
He said one hope is that the display of artwork will help build the self-esteem of the residents, who will receive the proceeds from sales.
"For all that's wrong with them," Cheney said, "there's an awful lot that is right. We want to focus on that."
People who have seen it are impressed with the art's expressiveness.
"It has such vitality and vigor, a real vibrancy that most painters don't have," said Jackie Wallace, an art teacher who has volunteered at the hospital.
The work often lacks the self-consciousness seen in amateur art, says John Nichols, an art gallery owner who helped with the Santa Paula exhibition.
"When you're professional, you've gone beyond technique," he explained. "You're just expressing the self. So it is with the work of the Camarillo people. It goes to the soul of the artist."
Consider the intricate pencil drawings of the Camarillo patient who has yet to recover from the psychotic episode that he experienced years ago in front of an Aztec temple in Mexico. The drawings depict stylized ancient Indian warriors and Spanish conquistadors in dance-like movements.
Or the ceramic self-portrait of the patient who fried his brain on drugs. Vacant-eyed beneath bright pink glaze, the bust rises into an exploding mushroom cloud.
Or the figurines over which James, a schizophrenic, labored in a recent class. He explained that they depict a night when he slept between the legs of five white stallions on the grounds of the San Buenaventura Mission.
"This is not the sort of stuff being sold in the supermarket parking lot," said Tom Considine, a supervisor at the hospital. "It grabs you."
The artwork is also reasonably priced. The hospital's patients usually set the prices for their works in the $5-to-$15 range. At the last show, about 200 works were sold for about $1,200.
The program's success has been traced to Cheney, 38. A boyish father of five who helped support his family for 14 years as a professional sculptor, he came to the hospital two years ago while completing a graduate degree in art therapy at Cal State Los Angeles.
At the time, a daylong version of the art show had been going on for two years but no formal art therapy program had been established because hospital officials were unable to find anyone up to the task.