Angels In Straight Jackets, Exalted on the Ward

Connecticut College Art Department
Students in the Art Department at Connecticut College working on fabric square designs. The squares will be made into pillows and included in the installation. Pillows are incorporated throughout the installation. They serve as symbols of comfort as well as protection. Patients who were excited or agitated might have been put in a padded room or inn a straight jacket.

At about the time that I started working on the Wolf Creek Project in 2011, Mab Segrest contacted me about another Journey Project for Central State Hospital. When we met in 2011, Mab was Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Connecticut College. I knew very little about Central State Hospital but remembered Dorothea Dix in North Carolina.

“Keep on acting crazy and I’ll send you to Dorothea Dix!” my mother would threaten when I was overly rambunctious. To be sent to an asylum scared the crap out of me, even as a child. Cartoons and movies were full of insanity and even in my own home town there was a “sanitorium”.

Central State Hospital, located in Milledgeville, Georgia was  founded in 1842. At various times in its history, it was the largest mental health asylum in the country. Mab is writing a book on the institution and  I am creating a site specific installation for the Ennis Hall Gallery at Georgia College and State University. We are both working from intake documents of patient, “Mary Roberts”, an African American woman who  was interned there in 1911 for singing, praying, and shouting.  Her identity has been redacted because of confidentiality. The work also remembers some 30,000 patients who are buried on the hospital grounds, probably the largest burial ground of differently enabled persons in the world. The Moonlit Road gives a good synopsis of the history of Central State.

According to intake documents, Mary Roberts had “fits of insanity” at an early age. In fact, several of her relatives had episodes of mental dis-order. Tuberculosis was prevalent. “She has two children living and nine dead”, noted an attending physician. Much of the art work remembers her dead children and indeed all the children born in the facility.

I traveled to Connecticut College on two occasions in 2012 and worked with students in the Department of Art and Gender and Women’s Studies. I challenged the students to create pieces that would serve as prayers, healing, and offerings to those buried at Central State. The students did cyanotypes on fabric. Our main focus was hands, touch. The cyanotypes created by the students are included in the installation.

Student designs with my photography. I continue to explore design possibilities.
Student designs with my photography. I continue to explore design possibilities.

Collaboration is a core component of the Journey Projects and it is a challenge to use many parts to create a greater whole. I will share more about the process in the coming weeks before the show, which opens on January 29, 2015.

–Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier