The first thing you saw as you descended the stairs to Wanda’s Mystery Basement was Jeffrey Harkin’s latest work of art. It was hung halfway up the stairway, where you had to duck, thus bow to his creation. The most memorable piece was an electric crazy cat looking you dead in the eye and exposing your raw screeching inner-self that tore away any doubt you were an utter failure in life. There was life after failure. Much life!
The biggest mistake we all made was to not collect Jeffry’s art and have a show. My friend was a real schizophrenic who was in and out of mental hospitals most of his life. At an early age he was a scientific wizard. At ten years of age he broke into a PG&E box and got zapped with 50,000 volts. His heart stopped. A doctor neighbor revived him.
When Nancy Hamren, the famous Prankster, visited the Harkins house on Skyline, Jeffrey lured her into his room where there was a chemistry set, and gadgets galore. Here was the future light being that Timothy Leary promised the world. Instead, we got the White Rabbit, Jeffreys handle for his ham radio, he breaking in on all frequencies, he screaming obscenities at those who tried to ignore him, block him out. Specially equipped cars roamed the Oakland Hills trying to get bead on the White Rabbit.
All three of Wanda’s sons are sort of artists. One went to CCAC and did a couple of paintings and a few sculptures. James on the other hand went hog-wild he rendering as many as five watercolors a day. Not able to read a ruler, he folded his watercolor paper four times, then cut along that fold. This was Jame’s ‘linoleum Tile’ period that ripped every splash artist that ever lived. James would overwhelm the art world with quantity, verses, quality, because he believed if you’ve seen one Jackson Pollack, you’ve seen them all.
Everytime anyone entered the front door, James was on them like a big dog, he soon lining up his latest masterpieces on the piano. We would be watching television. We were a captive audience. We gave our critique, and off he stomped, he thundering down the basement stairs, causing us to look at each other and wonder;
“Is he going for his gun? Have we really pissed him off this time!”
In one of the bedroom closets, James stored about four boxes. They were addressed to famous art galleries, MOMA, the Whitney, ect. ect. There must have been a thousand little watercolors all the same size. I suggested to James he find an empty warehouse wall, set up a camera, and film himself pasting his linoleum squares on thee side of it. I was no longer his El Friendo after that. These boxes were only to be opened – after Jimbo died – because only after death do artists become famous. What a genius to deduce this!
You see, James had read a thousand biogrpaphies about artists. He saw a pattern unfold, being, many artists were not recognized in their lifetime -especially by family members and fellow artists. Quite often, just after death, a family member will toss great masterpieces to be in the ash can, never believing that MOMA would die to get their hands on more of these, they having to make do with one or two survivors overlooked in the ‘Purge of the Jealous Ones’. James believed he had moved to the front of the line, his artwork already packed and ready to go, while the work of his peers is being mishandled, even given away to Goodwill.
When one entered Wanda’s green door, there James would be, sprawled out on the floor like a beached whale, he surrounded by art books, he pouring over them as the T.V. cast a strobe light on The Master. Beside him, in a open box, was his snub-nosed S&W the lid lying next to it. The first thing you wanted to do was close the front door and turn on the heat, but, this was Jame’s ‘Hot Period’. He was always hot, and if you went for the door, you saw his chubby hand go for the box and move it closer to him, because, everyone was an intruder in these hot times.
Perhaps they would return, the wood thieves? The Hoods in the woods?
What the wizard of this Master Plan did not realize, that if he would put his gun away, they would return. Sencing Jimbo is no longer packing a peice, the home invasion would be on. Of course James would not reveal where the real family jewels are stashed, packed and ready to go – the moment of his demise!
“Fame awaits me! Take me! I’m all your’s!”
James is living in Portland dying a slow death due to home-cooked brownies. What became of his boxes, is not known.
* * *
One time when drunk, I asked Jeffrey to give me the exact dose of spychotrophic drugs he took. He had me hold out my hand as he put about seven pills in my palm.
“Here’s looking at you kid!”
The next thing I know I am waking on Wanda’s couch having to take a giant pee. But, I can not move a muscle. My bladder about to burst, I discover I can not move my lips as Wanda says good morning, and is off to work. Eight hours later, I hear a key put in the lock, and
“Oh! Are you still here, Greg?”
And, what do you mean by that Mrs. Cleaver of the Altered States?
Two hours later I am able to crawl off the couch, and up the stairs to the bathroom. The White Rabbit had taken me on the longest trip of my life. I musty have peed for half an hour.
Above are cats rendered by artists who suffer from schizophrenia.
Aloïse, a major figure of art brut, also known as outsider or raw art, produced all her phantasmagoric drawings during her long internment for schizophrenia. Had the Swiss artist been medicated, she might not have produced anything at all.
On the occasion of two key exhibitions dedicated to Aloïse this summer in Lausanne, the question of whether her creativity would have survived modern medication has surfaced.
Antipsychotic drugs and antidepressants relieve the distress of innumerable individuals, but they can also switch off creative drive.
The debate has taken on new relevance since the publication of a scientific study that establishes a correlation between schizophrenics and highly creative individuals. Low levels of dopamine receptors allow more uncommon associations to take place in their brains.
Antipsychotics regulate the dopamine, thereby reducing the ability to make unexpected (creative) connections.
Interned for schizophrenia at the age of 32, Aloïse for the next 46 years exorcised her torment by dreaming up a world of her own that she transcribed in notebooks and drew on sheets of paper.
“It is unlikely that Aloïse would be institutionalised today,” Pascale Marini, curator of the exhibition taking place at the Collection de l’Art brut told swissinfo.ch. She would have been medicated instead and therefore deprived of the protected environment that ultimately allowed her art to flourish.
Aloïse had begun to draw almost immediately after her internment in 1918, at first secretly on bits of salvaged papers, where she also consigned her unruly thoughts. She was gradually supplied with the colouring pencils and large sheets of paper that would allow her to make her hallmark drawings.
“She created a world for herself in which she was the demiurge, the total artisan. It was a perfect retreat,” Marini explained. By showcasing this world in the exhibition, the purpose is not to illustrate Aloise’s schizophrenia, she added, but to show the role of creativity in allowing people like her to deal with their torment.
Aloise herself qualified creativity as “miraculous”, “the only source of perpetual ecstasy.”
Jean Dubuffet, the French painter behind the concept of art brut, had been following her work for almost 20 years and often visited her in Switzerland. Upon her death in 1964, he expressed the opinion that her art had cured her (see sidebar).
It was Jacqueline Porret-Forel, a young general practitioner interested by Aloïse who had introduced her work to Dubuffet. He immediately recognised the singularity of her mental vision, an observation that was to inspire him when he later identified other art brut creators.
Porret-Forel was to become Aloïse’s window to the outside world from their meeting in 1941 onwards and may even have acted as a catalyst to her explosive creativity over the next ten years.
“She could feel my interest in her,” Porret-Forel told swissinfo.ch.
Living through drawings
Spearheading Aloise’s recognition, including as far as Japan, where several Aloïse exhibitions have already taken place, Porret-Forel is also the author of the recently online-published catalogue raisonné. After all these years, at the age of 96, her enthusiasm for Aloïse remains as fresh as ever: “She keeps me going,” she observed with a smile.
“She wanted more than anything else to be incarnated in her drawings. It was a way for her to exist, to regain possession of the body from which she felt detached,” Porret-Forel recalled. “She was never happier than when the flower or animal that she had just drawn represented her.”
She too is convinced that Aloïse would have led a very different life had she been administered the antipsychotics that had been available from the 1950s onwards. “Antipsychotics completely transform inner worlds,” she said.
Aloïse would have drawn differently, if she would have drawn at all, elaborated Porret-Forel, although, as a doctor, she believes that there is little justification to deprive anguished individuals of relief through medication.
This opinion is not necessarily shared by all. Edvard Munch, painter of the “Scream” famously said “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep that suffering.”
The case of Aloïse is however somewhat different, Porrt-Forel suggested, because she believes, as Dubuffet did, that her exceptional gift helped heal her.
Not art therapy
On the other hand, she thinks it wise to set right a number of misconceptions: “Contrary to popular belief, there are no more artists amongst the mentally disturbed than there are in the population at large,” she said, nor are art brut creators only to be found amongst the mentally unstable.
“What I have observed over the years, including by studying the writings of Jean Dubuffet, is that art brut is made by individuals who have a mental – not visual – vision of the world.” These can include mediums.
They lay their mental images on whichever support is at hand. This one-way process is entirely different from that of traditional artists who work back and forth between what they see and what they have created. In this respect, art brut is not to be confused with art therapy either.
Asked whether modern medication would not sound the knell of art brut, she answered that because it is not a movement, but a concept: “There will always be people with personal mental visions that differ from ours.”
Michèle Laird, swissinfo.ch
On the occasion of the online publication of a catalogue raisonné of Aloïse’s oeuvre, compiled by the Aloïse Foundation, two Aloïse, The Solar Ricochet exhibitions are being jointly presented by the Collection de l’Art Brut (until October 28, 2012) and the Cantonal Fine Arts Museum of Lausanne (until end August 2012).
Due to the exuberant symbolism of her large-scale drawings, Aloïse is considered one of the three major figures of art brut, along with Swiss compatriot Adolf Wölfli and American Henry Darger.
Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964) was born in Lausanne. She dreamt of becoming an opera singer, but was sent off to Germany as a children’s governess, where she worked in Potsdam, at the court of Emperor William II. Upon returning to Switzerland in 1913, she began her anti-military ranting and adopted delusional behaviour. She was interned for schizophrenia in 1918 and remained interned for the rest of her life.
Aloise drew with coloured pencils, reinforcing the contours of the drawings with graphite pencils. She used geranium petals to add rich reds hues and frequently added toothpaste to her drawings. Towards the end of the 1950s, she switched to wax crayons when her eyesight began to decline.
There are 834 known drawings by Aloïse containing 2,000 compositions. Many of the works are two-sided and 20 are on large rolls of paper. The exhibitions in Lausanne showcase about 300 works, including sketchbooks.
Her drawings depict exotic flowers and animals and often include illustrious figures such as Napoleon, the pope, Abraham Lincoln, the empress Elizabeth or Lucretia Borgia, or heroines of opera (Tosca, La Traviata, Manon Lescaut, Mary Stuart, Ann Boleyn).
Jean Dubuffet and Aloïse
“I am convinced that she was perfectly lucid and that she simply retreated into the ingenious cocoon that she had made for herself… Schizophrenic? No, surely not. She was perfectly in control. The careful orchestration of her pictures, their assurance, their virtuosity do not fit the image that they might have been made by … a madwoman.”
Letter from Jean Dubuffet to Jacqueline Porret-Forel, April 11, 1964, following the death of Aloïse.
Schizophrenia and dopamine
A study by the Swedish Karolinska Institute, published in March 2010, has established a correlation between the action of dopamine in individuals capable of divergent thinking, i.e. considered to be creative, and schizophrenics.
Schizophrenics and highly creative individuals have been found to have fewer dopamine receptors, particularly of a subtype D2. Their absence of filtering contributes to a higher flow of information.
A higher flow of information excites the cerebral cortex, leading to an increased ability to make novel connections and uncommon associations.
“Typical” antipsychotics (also known as neuroleptics) have been used to treat schizophrenia since the 1950s by blocking the effects of dopamine. Second generation “atypical” antipsychotics, with fewer side effects, were introduced in the 1990s.