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Tag Archives: art therapy

Teaching art in prison

In 1977 Chris Dyson was playing guitar with Paul Kelly in High Rise Bombers. However instead or pursuing music Dyson went on studying painting at Victorian College of the Arts and later Masters from Monash University. Dyson studied at the VCA 82-84 and then taught there until 1998. In the early 80s Chris Dyson saw an exhibition of aboriginal prison art at the VCA gallery school. He remembers a painting titled; “The park across the road from the bank I robbed.” A few years later Dyson was teaching art at Pentridge.

Pentridge Prison

Pentridge Prison, Coburg

In 1986 Dyson gave art classes at the psych unit, G Division. Dyson felt that what he was doing was art therapy than art classes. That it was a chance for the prisoners to take pride in something. A chance for the prisoners to think about something else. A chance for them to talk about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about. Maybe that’s why the guards hated it so much.

Many of the prisoners were so heavily medicated they were like zombies for most of the month. Dyson regarded most of the prisoners in G Division as people who couldn’t deal with the outside world. They painted dicks or marijuana leaves in acrylics. No oil paint was allowed due to fears from the guards at what other uses the prisoners could make of them. There was no music therapy after Gary Web David swallowed the metal guitar strings.

He wasn’t there for long somewhere between a year and eighteen months on shitty pay. He felt intimidated; the memo about the body search option, the missing art materials and general harassment from the guards. One day they wouldn’t let him go in with his cigarette and a prisoner ends up giving him a White Ox cigarette. Then the guards question him about what he is going to give the prisoner in return for the cigarette. He considered teaching jobs elsewhere in the Pentridge and later in other private prisons but corruption and lack of support from the guards weighed against that.

Dyson felt that the guards were worse than the prisoners. He only remembers seeing the guards body building with the gym equipment, never the prisoners who were all over weight from the stogy prison food and the side effects of psychiatric medication.

Using his old connections Dyson did get Paul Kelly to perform at Pentridge. He remembers the afternoon as a great performance followed by a BBQ.

This is some of my research for a chapter on prison art for my book about art and crime. The book is planned to be published later in the year, so I have been working on that and neglecting this blog. I don’t think that much this will end up in the book except as background because that chapter is taking a different direction, so I thought that it would make a good blog post.

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Cunningham Dax Collection – New & Improved

Even in the beautiful new building viewing the Cunningham Dax Collection is not an enjoyable experience. It is an emotionally unsettling experience but enjoyment is not the purpose of the exhibition. There is an educational purpose to this collection; this is not just another art gallery.

The collection is named after its founder Dr Eric Cunningham Dax who in 1946 pioneered the place of art therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment. I’d been to the Cunningham Dax Collection before in 2010 when it was still located in some old buildings in the hard to find location in the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Royal Park Campus (see my previous post about the old location).

Now Cunningham Dax Collection has a new location at the Department of Neuroscience on Melbourne University’s main campus. The new building still has the same basic facilities as in the old one, reception, the gallery space, the education resource centre, multimedia gallery, but this time it has been purpose built and beautifully designed. There is a spectacular 6-story light well in the middle of the gallery making the experience of viewing the exhibition as comfortable as possible.

The current exhibitions are “Selected works from the collection” and “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits from the collection.” The selected work from the collection shows the range of art therapy from diagnostic to disaster relief. There are examples of the “draw a picture of a tree” section of the Diagnostic Drawing Series (DDS) or the House-tree-person test (HTP) along with moving works from the Holocaust collection.

I found “Hide & Seek: Self Portraits” a difficult experience – I didn’t want to look it for long. It is difficult to know what to think when viewing the art of the mentally ill in a gallery. Often this art is such a private experience or clinical experience. And this raises the question of the ability of the mentally ill to fully consent to exhibiting their art. Most of the artists on exhibited are referred to as “artist name withheld”; including the artist who drew their complaints about the conditions in 1963 Larundel clearly wanted to communicate about the “Larunhole cell” and the “dinner (revolting)”. And, Richard McLean, who trained Victorian College of the Arts and worked professionally as a graphic designer certainly wants his art exhibited to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness.

Those suffering from grief and trauma often want to communicate about their experience and they can do it clearly, even if they have no arts training. Sharing traumatic experiences, like the Tsunami Collection by Sri Lanka children, is a meaningful experience for both the artist and the viewer. You can easily see it from their point of view but this is more difficult with the mentally ill.

The art from the Cunningham Dax Collection makes me think that there is clear difference between art therapy for grief and art therapy for mental illness. The broad application of art therapy for grief, trauma, to mental illness makes it appear like a panacea. However much I love art I am suspicious of claims of panaceas. Perhaps we need to think of art as a tonic, a boost, a refresher, as in something that lifts the spirits or makes somebody feel better generally, rather than a therapy. We should all regularly do art and it will make us feel better.

In a recent systematic review of art therapy J. Leckey notes: “Although participation in creative arts is believed to have mental health and social benefits for individuals, the evidence base is weak and a major factor seems to be the lack of clarity of the concepts (well-being, mental illness/ health and creative arts), as how can something be measured if you are not clear on what it is that is being measured.” (J. Leckey “The therapeutic effectiveness of creative activities on mental well-being: a systematic review of the literature” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 2011, n.18 p.508)

“This review highlights the need for further research into the effects of creative arts and to clearly identify what is meant by mental well-being in a more systematic and structured way.” So there is still a purpose for the research carried out at the Dax Centre.


Cunningham Dax Collection

There are several galleries devoted to the work of outsider artists, most notably the Art Brut Gallery in Switzerland and Melbourne’s Cunningham Dax Collection. I hadn’t been to the Cunningham Dax Collection before but it is one of the few galleries that are open in the first week of 2010. Most of Melbourne’s galleries are closed for a couple of weeks over the New Year period; except for some big public galleries, like the National Gallery of Victoria. The collection is named after its founder Dr Eric Cunningham Dax who in 1946 pioneered the place of art therapy in mainstream psychiatric treatment.

Above the purple entrance doors, there is the gallery sign and slogan: “art, creativity and education in mental health”. Inside the Cunningham Dax Collection there are two large gallery rooms, a small side gallery, a video lounge and a large room containing a library, research area and office. The collection itself consists of over 12,000 works, held in a climate controlled storage room.

I didn’t see the main collection, just the current temporary exhibition. Out of the Dark: the Emotional Legacy of the Holocaust is an exhibition of artwork by survivors, child survivors and the children of survivors of the Holocaust. The Cunningham Dax Collections proposes a multi-dimensional approach to their collection as a clinical record, art, historical artefact and education material as opposed to “objects of curiosity and amusement”. This is not outsider art as it is traditionally defined but creative work of people who have experienced mental illness and trauma. There are some quality works of art in the exhibition along with others were better viewed as clinical records or historical artefacts, but regardless of the quality of the work in the exhibition there was a unity of shared of trauma. Trauma shared across generations is the well documented by this exhibition.

Some of the works on exhibition are by trained artists. There is a great surreal photograph by Hedy Ritterman, who was the winner of the Linden Gallery’s 2003 Hocking Stuart Award. And the central work by Michelle Fox, “People I should have known or should have known more” 2009, a mixed media installation, was a playful, child-like response to trauma. Fox’s installation reminds the viewer of play is a thoughtful system that creates a magical substitute world. Fox has created a substitute extended family of dolls on a field of playing cards; small guidebooks provides details to the figures in this substitute world but the striking feature of these substitute people is that they are almost featureless and unknown.

There are plans to relocate the Cunningham Dax Collection to a purpose built gallery space in the Department of Neuroscience at Melbourne University’s main campus in lat 2011.


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