Exhibit by Perkins patients displays haunting images

May 20, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Hidden away on a bulletin board behind the pay phones in the county office building is a hauntingly surreal art exhibit.

At first glance, it looks like the work of children. A close inspection reveals something quite different. The artists are prisoners at the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center for the criminally insane in Jessup.

What the exhibit offers is an inside look at mental illness -- unsigned pictures stunning in their simplicity -- some in pencil, some in crayon.

A drawing titled "The stygma (sic) of mental illness shouldn't make you feel right at home" shows place settings at a dining room table surrounded by empty chairs and a stool. All the place settings except the one with the stool are the same -- wine goblets at each plate surrounded by a five-piece setting of silverware.

At the table's center is a floral arrangement with a ribbon saying, "Welcome Home." Below the floral arrangement is a place setting with only a cup, a plate and a spoon.

Perkins is a maximum-security prison hospital. The six to eight people in each of the therapy groups, under the direction of art therapist Mary Jo Kehne, often have committed serious crimes -- murder, rape, arson.

Before joining one of her groups, patients will have been at the hospital for about four weeks.

"We don't accept patients [into the groups] who are physically aggressive," she said.

She has been at Perkins for about four years. Her first art therapy groups were at the Maryland Penitentiary. Perkins, in contrast to the state prison, "definitely feels like a hospital," Kehne says.

"The work is fascinating, definitely appealing," she says. "One of the benefits is getting to work with patients long-term. Art therapy is a gradual thing" -- a way of making conscious some unconscious things; a way of turning thoughts, feelings and emotions into a tangible product.

"Art work can be a safe place to experience change," she says. Her goal is to provide support and self-understanding so her patients are no longer dangerous to themselves or to others.

"There is a thin line between sickness and being well," reads the title of one of her patient's pictures in the county art exhibit. The picture shows a man split in half from head to toe.

On the right, he is dressed in a tie, coat and trousers and is carrying a briefcase. On the left, his muscular, battle-scared body is naked except for a gladiator's skirt. In his left hand is a dagger dripping blood. At his feet is a severed head, also dripping blood.

L Most of the time, Kehne's patients draw whatever they want.

"The art process is getting patients turned on to their own images," she says.

She occasionally suggests something if they appear stuck. This time it was she who was stuck.

"The art show [to commemorate May as Mental Health Month] was sprung on us in 24 hours," she says.

Most of the work came from 10 patients. One drawing shows two characters who look like clowns. The shorter clown looks devilishly happy unleashing a menacing genie with huge teeth. The menacing genie looks like it is about to gobble up the larger clown.

Two of the drawings suggest loneliness and solitude. One shows a man sitting atop a high pole at what might be a beach.

The pole is so high, all that can be seen are birds that look like sea gulls. There is no ground, only the pole.

The other is of a tree dotted with snow in winter. The top of the tree is missing -- struck by lightning. Branches, while leafless, still seem to indicate vitality. They turn upward expectantly, expressively.

The exhibit will continue for the rest of the month.

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