Artist's tribute to hospital dayroom

  • By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 24, 2001 -- BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- Anna Schuleit got on her hands and knees this spring to lay linoleum in a white room in Vermont. Though she studied to be a painter, a restless interest in what used to happen inside lunatic asylums long ago led her deep into their derelict spaces.

    The woman who filled the Northampton State Hospital with sound last fall isn't done with such places.

    That linoleum? Green, of course.

    In the room that houses her latest work, an installation at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, that linoleum is a detail that could be taken for granted. But it's unlike Schuleit to compromise.

    In the quietly provocative piece that dominates the room, "To Those Who Have Been There," Schuleit uses an illusion of light streaming through windows to make the exhibit room over entirely into a place people waited and suffered.

    She does it gently and with reserve, as befits the German-born artist's lingering old-world formality. But she does it convincingly, with enough detail and imagination to transport viewers into the place she summons - the dayroom of the former state hospital in Northampton, on a sunny day, sometime in the late 20th century.

    "People react so differently to abandoned places. Some don't feel anything, others are overwhelmed by the sense of loss," Schuleit said last week from Germany, where she was visiting family.

    "I find it fascinating to imagine what happens to lost spaces when nobody enters for long stretches of time," she said. "What happens to the colors and textures, and to, my favorite, the silence?"

    Those who have been there in the dayroom, the ones Schuleit is again honoring, would no doubt recognize her careful orchestration of light. If this were just any place - a library room, say, or town hall - the effect might seem interesting but thin.

    Into the quiet, she loosens a voice. Large, elegant capital letters on the exhibit room's side wall call out a memory of someone who had been there, a former state hospital patient who the artist says wants to remain anonymous. The patient reveals a lot in the words on the wall, though:

    "I would soothe away all the madness felt by resting my forehead on the smooth tempered window glass, as it was of cool temperature, I'd close my eyes and drift away ... the ward behind me was stagnant and suffering, a loss of reality, a total waste of human beings ... I'd dream and wish away everything, including reason, and sanity, madness ... and yet some drab asylum green and gray, in the dayroom it's always day, and beyond, in the world outside it is everlasting night."

    Looking down, after reading, we see that what stand before us are features of that Northampton State Hospital dayroom, conjured by the patient's words - cool panes of glass, the stagnant, wasted humanity, green and gray. Being inside, or out, was as different as day and night.

    In Schuleit's rendering, it is day, given what her windows tell us. We face 149 window panes, stacked in sections and rows on the exhibit room's far wall. The windows are modeled on an actual bay window at the state hospital. Each of the panes is a small watercolor painting in grays and browns with faint washes of orange mounted on inch-thick blocks of wood.

    One by one, the panes reveal what can be seen out the actual windows of the dayroom, scaled life-size. The impressionistic images show brick, foliage and more windows on the opposite facade.

    That's what the patient would have seen, when pressing forehead to glass.

    Schuleit saves the drama for this side of the glass, inside the room. From the angle of rays that enter, it is midmorning or midafternoon. The artist captures the light's soft landing in green rectangles and trapezoids. It falls on the linoleum and across a chair and a little desk positioned formally, as if the arrangement of furniture could make this a place of learning.

    The light that hits surfaces in the dayroom, represented by a nauseating institutional green, is worn and worked. Each of the 149 panes throws a separate green smudge, in a pattern ordered in a way that life in the dayroom, the piece suggests, never could be.

    Even something as pure as light, Schuleit seems to be saying, takes on baggage in this place. But it gets in.

    "Only the light moves in and through the old architecture with the steady rhythm of a passing visitor," Schuleit said. "The light is able to do something unique: It breaks the harsh angles of the institution, reaches in and moves around freely."

    On the desk, Schuleit has placed an old bound volume of newspaper clippings, all of them about mental health care from the 19th century. It lends the installation an even sharper edge.

    The volume, which Schuleit found at an auction, was open on the day I visited to coverage from October 1896 about a scandal at the state asylum in Waterbury, Vt., which had opened only a few years before and by then was home to 500 people from across the state. Its director had just been indicted by a grand jury for mistreating patients.

    The headlines in a Boston Herald clipping laid it out in large type: "FLOGGED WOMEN / Charges Made Against Dr. W.F. Giddings / Alleged Barbarities at Vermont's Asylum / Female Lunatics Dipped in Ice Cold Water / One Stripped and Beaten Most Unmercifully."

    In an outer ring of related works, Schuleit gives the installation a second breath.

    In "Anatomy of Shadows at 11:19 a.m.," she offers four small 3-D models in wood of the state hospitals in Taunton, Northampton, Worcester and Danvers, as seen from above. Against a worked black background, she sketches in, again in green, the boundaries of shadows each building threw at that moment.

    The bulk of the structures raises the question: How did any light get in at all?

    Schuleit tackles another preoccupation in "Walk Through Elms A." A small floor plan of another state hospital hangs at the left of one wall. To the right runs a frame that is 2 inches shy of 8 feet long, and just 3 inches high. It contains 26 small boxes of paint chips under glass. The chips were taken, in order, from rooms along a ward in that building.

    Here, Schuleit brings in documentary evidence that trumps those news clips. Some of the chips are hard and thick as beetle shells. There is fuchsia, lavender, light blues and greens and a shade that could be pieces of a robin's egg.

    "Bringing in pieces from the building is just my way of preserving some of it," she said of the paint chips. "The colors used in the buildings, where patients would spend an outrageous average of 20 years in the mid-20th century, were so intense that I cannot imagine them to be soothing in any way."

    "Often each room was painted a different color, as can be seen in the walk through Elms A," she said. "Most of the colors in state hospitals are strange derivatives of greens and pinks. Some yellows, as well. But mostly aqua greens."

    On another wall, she provides more materials of state hospital experience, but only after letting her imagination play off each piece.

    From the shelf where it sits, an ether vaporizer, a device that once anesthetized patients, casts a shadow of its shape. In that space, Schuleit has painted a spire and turret, more places of likely confinement.

    Similarly, the shadow that trails a piece of broken tile shows windows floating in an expansive outer wall. A large vessel contains what appear to be more paint chips and sweepings from the floor, including dust and a rusty paper clip.

    Soon, the installation will be dismantled. The exhibit closes July 31. The linoleum will come up and the place Schuleit invoked will break apart. She's resigned to that, even ready.

    "As soon as we enter a time capsule, which does not happen very often, we bring our own time with us, our own stories," she said. "And in leaving, we take parts of it with us as memories, which then live on."

2001 Daily Hampshire Gazette