There’s a small sunset in the corner of one of Ryan Day’s brightly coloured collages. Cars, trains and airplanes dominate the canvas, almost bursting out of its borders.
That might be because Day is intent on going somewhere now. He has plans to make a career out of art. The soft-spoken 34-year-old says joining Les Impatients, a collective of artists who live with mental-health issues, changed his life.
His work and that of other members of the collective is on display at the Wellington Centre in Verdun until Wednesday, May 3.
Day’s mother, Maria Trudel, has watched her son’s self-confidence grow in leaps and bounds over the last few years. Day’s father died recently; Trudel is convinced her son’s involvement with Les Impatients is the reason he’s been able to deal with the loss as well as he has.
“Art is the tragedy of life suspended,” says Les Impatients founder and president Lorraine Palardy, quoting philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
She says Les Impatients don’t offer art therapy in their workshops. “There’s no one saying you have to talk about your anxiety or deal with any issue here.” Palardy says art in and of itself is therapeutic.
Psychiatric patients and the art world have had a long relationship — one that could best be described as complicated.
In 1735, English artist William Hogarth ended his series The Rake’s Progress with a painting set in Bethlem Royal Hospital in London (better known as Bedlam). It’s likely Hogarth would have visited the asylum on a weekend afternoon or over the holidays, when he would have been charged a penny to see patients displayed in their chains for the public’s amusement.
Asylum tours were a popular pastime in the 18th century. As asylum images became a favourite subject for artists, the idea of the mad genius, which had been around since Plato, was revived. The Romantic movement of the early 1800s believed that those who were mentally ill were in an exalted state and therefore more creative.
Over the past few decades, studies have explored whether there is a connection between mental illness and creativity. It has been argued that a disproportionately high number of famous artists and writers have suffered from mental illness. But whether there is a direct link or whether periods of illness simply provide the impetus to create remains unknown.
Suzane Renaud is a psychiatrist who works at the Douglas hospital. She’s also an artist, and says the question doesn’t have an easy answer.
“I’m interested in personality disorders. And I tell people, for example, ‘You know, you’re a little neurotic.’ And they look at me. Then I say, ‘There are benefits to being neurotic. It makes you a good writer because you question yourself and you analyze things.’ ”
Renaud says we shouldn’t make so many distinctions between mental illness and mental health. She also says all you need in order to be an artist “is the capacity to self-observe and be sensitive to what you’re going through.”
A fascination with the art of psychiatric patients began in the mid-1800s. By 1900, major exhibits were held. Doctors wrote descriptions of patient art and categorized it according to the illnesses they thought it revealed.
Modern artists found inspiration in the art of untrained psychiatric patients, which they felt showed deeper levels of consciousness. They linked patient art together with the art of “primitives,” children and folk painters.
Jean Dubuffet, the founder of the Art Brut movement, began collecting patient art in 1929, during the height of its popularity. He saw it as a pure art that existed in a realm beyond culture and worked to have it accepted as an official part of the art world.
Palardy, who owned an art gallery before she started Les Impatients, also believes there is something special about art created by people who live with mental health issues. She says all the qualities she looks for in a work of art — emotion, reflection, questioning — can be found in it. She thinks it might be because “when you’ve experienced pain, it changes the way you see the world.”
AT A GLANCE
Les Impatients’ exhibit Parle-moi d’amour continues to Wednesday, May 3 at the Wellington Centre, 4932 Wellington St. in Verdun. For more information, call 514-842-1043 or visit impatients.ca.