Art exhibit tells Forgotten Stories
By Dominique Taylor
The silent stories of the patients who lived, worked and died at the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital have found a voice through art.
Visualizing Absence is a collaborative art-based research project led by co-curators Tara Mazurk and artist Anne Zbitnew, and is the newest exhibition at Humber College’s L-Space Gallery. It explores the diverse and complex history of the land that Humber College Lakeshore campus now occupies.
Zbitnew is a photography and visual literacy professor at Humber College. Her inspiration for the project came in the guise of an old 2010 Humber College poster advertising an upcoming Halloween pub night called “Asylum by the Lake.” It featured an old photograph of a woman restrained in a straight jacket and had a horrifying effect.
“I remember thinking (about the pub night)… ‘You just can’t do that,’ ” said Zbitnew.
So for her Masters thesis for York University, she decided to create something that would pay tribute to the patients who had dug the tunnels, built the buildings and had suffered through experimental treatments such as insulin therapy, electroshock treatments and abusive language at the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
But telling stories about the people who lived there was no easy task.
“There are very few records and stories told from the patient perspective,” said Zbitnew. “How do you remember someone you don’t know? How do you remember a person you’ve never met before?”
Soon it blossomed into a large collaborative effort to include postgraduate students from the Arts Administration and Cultural Program and independent artists from the community.
“I knew I could produce art around these stories but I wanted to include other people, because there is great value in so many more voices,” said Zbitnew
For her first piece, “Rest,” she made a film. She deconstructed the offending Halloween poster, removed the words that objectified the young woman, and put a kitten in her lap to harp music
The piece is now in the gallery and is accompanied by a second film “End,” a layered narrative of words and excerpts taken from patient charts at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, which Zbitnew found in the Archives of Ontario.
The effect on visitors is sobering. Arielshadela Irwanti, fourth year Journalism student at Humber Lakeshore, said the overlapping sounds and words in “End” felt like she was “getting too much.”
“Maybe that’s the way this person felt when they were in psychiatric hospital … everyone told them to do something – like “do this and do that,” but it’s like there are a lot of voices in your head and you don’t know which one you have to listen to,” said Irwanti.
There are many pieces to explore in various mediums, including tracings, photography, textiles and ceramics. All have a story, and rely upon the visitor to use their imagination to fill in the gaps to understand the full meaning of the piece.
“I’m trying not to cry,” said Anika Durisova, fourth year Journalism student at Humber Lakeshore. She said all of the works in the exhibition made her feel sad and disturbed, especially the copy of a letter written to her family about missing her children.
“People didn’t really know how to classify depression, it’s really sad how in history we treated mental illnesses,” said Durisova.
Besides the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, two other themes emerge from the exhibition. One is Aboriginal land, and the other is the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon.
“This place has a very long history, probably not acknowledged yet,” said Ala Asadchaya, postgraduate student in the Humber Arts Administration and Cultural Program. “It important to reconnect to the history that happened here before the European civilization took over.”
Asadchaya created her own artwork called “Compostion” as a visual response to the natural environment, the Aboriginals and fate of the Passenger pigeons who lived in the area. It’s to demonstrate the importance of balance in both nature and human relationships.
Using only birch bark, twigs and hand pressed wool felt, she created a flock of sitting and flying birds attached to a round linen canvas and made an accompanying book using the same materials to chronicle the fate of the species.
“It’s hard to believe there were so many (birds) to be able to completely cover the sky, and how fast this species was destroyed just in 100 years, because of unwise consumption of natural resources,” said Asadchaya.
“The fate of the Passenger pigeon reminds us of the fate of the people who are marginalized and couldn’t protect themselves, just like the Aboriginals, and the institutionalized,” she added.
One of the greatest achievements in the project was getting the community involved, said Tara Mazurk, curator for Humber’s Art gallery and collection, and planner for the Lakeshore
Grounds Interpretive Centre set to open in 2016.
They were able to work with three different calligraphy guilds, Among Friends Community Mental Health Program in Etobicoke, and different researchers at York University. They wanted to ensure civic engagement and “an authentic voice,” also important to the development of the new Interpretive Centre, said Mazurk.
The calligraphy guilds assisted in the art installation, Prayergrams, by Susan Mentis, located outside the gallery. Each prayergram is tied to a tree and holds the stenciled silhouette of a Passenger pigeon and the name of one of 1,511patients buried in mostly unmarked graves at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.
The exhibition will run until July 3 as part of Toronto’s Cultural Hot Spot Initiative.
- Anne Zbitnew – Artist and co-curator Anne Zbitnew for Visualizing Absence stands in front of her photography work “Mimico,” dedicated to the extinct Passenger Pigeon.
- Hurtfulwords – The piece “Words not Labels” by Susan Mentis is inspired by the words taken from the personal medical records used to label the people who lived, worked and died at the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
- LetterfromGrace – The piece “Grace” by Lucy Pauker is three cotton nightgowns deconstructed and re-embroidered with parts of a letter from Grace, 19, who was institutionalized and experimented on with insulin shock therapy at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.
- Prayergrams – “Prayergrams” are tied to trees outside the L-Space Gallery at Humber College Lakeshore. This installation by Susan Mentis was assisted by members of three calligraphy guilds in the community, and is dedicated to the 1,511 patients of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital who are mostly buried in unmarked graves.
- Hands2 – “Hands 2,” by Stas Guzar and Anne Zbitnew is a case of white work gloves marked with words to describe the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital patients and explain reasons for institutionalization. It represents the hands of the patients who built the buildings and dug the tunnels and farmed the land.
6) Composition2 – “Composition,” by Ala Asadchaya, is about balance in nature and the extinct Passenger Pigeon, and made of felt and natural materials.