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Rare Finds in Her 'Museum'

Making a film about psychiatric patients as artists was an unforgettable experience for Academy Award winner Jessica Yu.


When filmmaker Jessica Yu told the New York cabby to drop her off at Creedmoor, his reaction was typical. "You'd better watch your back," he warned her. "Those crazy people are dangerous." In truth, Yu didn't quite know what to expect when she set out to see the Living Museum, a 20,000-square-foot art studio and exhibition space on the grounds of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens.

Yu wasn't afraid, but she did feel a bit wary: Would she arrive at the museum only to find a group of heavily sedated inmates sitting around a table, each attempting to draw the same flower or bowl of fruit? Yu's friend, producer and MTV executive Dawn Parouse, had stumbled upon the museum several years before while shooting a student film in an abandoned ward on the Creedmoor grounds. Parouse had never forgotten the place and hoped to produce a film about it with Yu as director.

From the outside, the Living Museum looked like the other institutional, slightly drab brick buildings on the Creedmoor complex. Yet when Yu passed through the museum's front entrance, she encountered a kaleidoscopic burst of color, energy, warmth and activity. The place was filled with people. The floors and walls were covered with paintings, sculpture, drawings, installations, even video pieces, each work completely different from the other. Few if any of the patients made art about their own illnesses. Instead, their work dealt with history and sociocultural issues, the search for spiritual enlightenment, celebrations of erotic bliss--and used as many different materials and approaches as there were individual artists.

"There was such a relaxed and magical feeling there," Yu remembers. "I had never been to a museum where there was a real feeling of anything goes, that any inch of space on the floor or ceiling [could be utilized]. This place really belongs to the artists, and they were taking it over in a very imaginative way." After talking with some of the museum's artists, Yu knew she wanted to make the film.

Showing Tuesday on HBO, Yu's "The Living Museum" follows six artists who work at the museum on a frequent or daily basis:

Issa Ibrahim, a handsome and thoughtful young painter and sculptor, explores the history of African Americans often through parody in a poignant yet humorous way. Eileen (no last name given) hears voices and screams constantly in the ward, but at the museum she is able to create complex allegorical drawings, which she sees as a form of prayer.

John Tursi is a charmingly irrepressible scene-stealer whose "sexual abstracts" and witty assemblage pieces express his own exuberantly adolescent sexual obsessions. ("If I can't do it, at least I can draw it," he explains in the film.)

Helen Sadowski once attended art school at the Philadelphia College of Art. Her rainbow-hued pastel lines are drawn with rulers on black paper and are inspired by Zen Buddhism's search for enlightenment and freedom from suffering.

John C. Mapp believes that he is a great Hollywood director. He storyboards autobiographical films about his experiences at Creedmoor, then videotapes the drawings along with voice-over narration. David Waldorf's haunting black crayon drawings capture the essence of Beethoven's music during the composer's deaf period.

There is no single path or epiphanous moment these artists all share; each experiences the creative journey differently. Their struggles with mental illness inform, but do not define, their artistic endeavors. As a result, "The Living Museum" is not a film about mental illness per se, but is about finding unexpected meaning, even beauty, in each artist's individual struggle.

"As a filmmaker I always try to remember the places of surprise," Yu says, "because if it surprises you, it's probably going to surprise the audience, and if you can try to re-create those unexpected moments, they can become the best parts of the film."

Patients' Maladies Are Downplayed

The Living Museum was started in the mid-1980s by an iconoclastic Polish actor and artist named Bolek Greczynski, and his friend, Janos Marton, an artist and a Columbia-trained psychologist who was at that time treating patients at Creedmoor. Over the years, the building that houses the museum has functioned as a dining hall, kitchen and storage warehouse; it was eventually turned over to Greczynski and Marton as a studio and exhibition space. After Greczynski's death several years ago, Marton took over the management of the museum.

The museum is in many ways a living organism, constantly growing and changing, its parameters defined by the artists who work within the space. For this reason, Marton thinks of the entire Living Museum as a work of conceptual art. In the film, he notes that "art is not just what is happening in the frame. Art is what is happening in your brain and in your life as a consequence of what's in front of you."

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