Jon Crispin's Notebook

The Changing Face of What is Normal, The Exploratorium

Posted in Jon Crispin, Willard Asylum, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 02/05/2013

I finally got the chance to see the exhibit, and while I have a few quibbles, it is very exciting.

The space is situated very close to the front of the building.  There are basically three components.  On the left of this photograph (↑) is the Utica Crib display which deals with the idea of confinement.  To the right of that is the entrance to the “attic” where the cases are located, along with my photographs and Karen Miller’s poems.  And out the back is the interactive space where visitors can write about their feelings toward the exhibit and the ideas represented.

After entering the door ( top photo above) one enters the attic. (This is the core idea of the exhibit space.  Gordon Chen based his design on the room where the cases were rediscovered.  I think it mostly works, although I did hear several complaints about the lighting.  It does seem a bit on the dark side.  The wall to the right has nine 12 inch prints.  I  think they could have used more.  There seems to be a lot of empty space, and given that the cases are displayed in three levels it would make sense to me to have used more photos in this area.

This shot (↑) shows the relationship between the photographs  on the right and the actual cases on the left, which are placed behind chicken wire.  The wire is a bit distracting for me.  Viewed from a distance it works well, but when one gets close to the objects, it makes it difficult to read text and get a feeling for the items.  I would stress that this could be a problem only for me, since I have had such an intimate relationship with the contents of the suitcases while photographing them.  Others might not have any issue with this.  At the far end of this shot is one of the amazing 36 inch photographs that Alex Ross printed (they used six of these).  The idea of big prints has never really appealed to me in general, but I will say that they work really well in the space.  Behind that wall is a series of video monitors with different people talking about mental illness, and I heard many visitors found these interviews fascinating.

This view (↑) looks back toward the entrance and shows how the cases are displayed.  The hanging clipboards are Karen’s “then and now” diagnosis of the patients.  Several people told me that this was an extremely effective way to connect with the owners of the suitcases.  It is a simple concept that describes how the doctors at the time of admittance made a diagnosis, and how those same symptoms might be treated today.

Here is another one of Alex’s 36 inch prints, with cases on the right.

This view is toward the exit, and leads into the interactive space.

And this is the exit door looking back into the attic.

Visitors are encouraged to sit at tables and use small cards to answer questions like the one above.  Most of the answers are heartfelt and interesting, although some trolling is present.  What is especially touching to me is seeing comments in the handwriting of children.  I visited on two separate occasions, and I saw parents with their kids viewing the photographs and objects, and reading Karen’s poems.  This is an exhibit that is clearly provocative, although not in the negative sense at all. What it does, and was clearly intended to do, is open up dialogue about mental health issues.

Here’s another one of the questions.  The card on the right reads “My stuff toy Johnson”.

The Exploratorium folks thought it would be a good idea to print up some cards with my photos on the front and a snippet of one of Karen’s poems on the back.  These are beautiful and so far seem to be selling well.  I bought several sets and am excited to have them.

I have a few comments about the whole experience and am not really sure where to start.  But here goes.

The new Exploratorium is simply amazing.  It is a beautiful space with so much to see.  Keeping in mind their original charter as a hands-on learning environment, it is completely successful.  And the fact that they are now branching out into the social sciences and presenting more artistically orientated concepts is great.  Not only great, but brave and daring as well.  My first visit was on an extremely busy Sunday and the place was jammed.  As I lingered in the “Normal” space, I noticed some visitors were clearly not expecting to see something like it, and there were a few who were obviously put off by the whole idea.  I even heard one young kid use the word “awful” twice in one sentence.  And that is why I use the words brave and daring.  They are now doing everything a public museum should be doing by exposing visitors to concepts that are not always comfortable.  And I am honored to have been asked to play a small role in that process.

My second visit on Tuesday helped me to be objective about my involvement in the project.  I was able to talk to quite a few people and get some very positive feedback.  Early on, I accepted my role as an adjunct player in ” The Changing Face….”.  It was difficult at times as most of the decision making was out of my hands.  And there are still some elements of it that are at odds with my initial concept of what to do with the photographs. But as I move forward, I will be able to show the work at venues where I have much more control.  That said though, I am happy and excited by what the Exploratorium has done.  The photographs are being seen by a diverse audience and that is always a good thing.

So, big thanks to Pam Winfrey, Stephanie Bailey, Julie Nunn, and Stacy Martin who have all supported my involvement.  Please go see the new building and the exhibit, and I would really appreciate any feedback.

The Amazing Beverly Courtwright

Posted in Asylums, Buildings, Willard Asylum, Willard Suitcases by joncrispin on 06/02/2013

I have always given primary credit to Craig Williams for saving the Willard suitcases, and his contribution to the preservation of these objects was enormous.  But if it wasn’t for Beverly Courtwright’s connection to Willard and her tremendous respect for the patients and their lives, the cases would have been lost forever.  On Saturday I got the chance to meet her for the first time, and thanks to the corrections folks who now control the site, we were allowed to go into the attic for a few minutes.  It is behind this door that in May of 1995 Bev “rediscovered” the cases.  She had become one of the Willard employees heavily involved with the transition team responsible for shutting down the psych center.  As a storehouse clerk, part of her task was to go through all the buildings to determine what should be saved and what could be thrown out.  She described the first time she opened this door and saw the cases stacked up as a surreal experience, and told me that she felt a “whoosh of energy” sweep over her.

She grew up in the area, and as a child remembers Willard patients coming to her home through the Family Care program that allowed for patients not in need of direct care to live temporarily in private homes.

This is what the attic now looks like when you walk through the door.  The racks are on either side of the attic with men’s cases on one side and women’s on the other.  When Bev was talking about being up here for the first time it literally gave me chills.

You can see the letters on the racks representing the first initial of the  surname of each patient.  Whomever set up the system did an amazing job.  I find it so interesting that as in the residential parts of the buildings, men and women were segregated up here as well.

There were a very few items left behind that could not be linked to a specific patient.  This coat was one of them. / As my work on this project continues, I am constantly overwhelmed by the people I meet and the stories that they have to tell.  Late last night I got an email letting me know of a new comment on this post.  Scroll down toward the bottom of the comments section and read what Stephanie had to say. /  Getting into the attic and meeting Bev really tied together everything that I have been trying to say with my work on this project.  She is a truly remarkable person with a huge heart and the ability to convey a great sense of connection to the people who were at Willard, and I just want to thank her for all she has done.

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