The Riggs Blog

What's the Connection Between a Psychiatric Hospital and an Art Festival?

“Materials wordlessly speak for themselves and say the same to everybody. If you prove responsive to them, they will respond to you without argument, apology, or blame. They offer a range of cognitive discoveries and confirmations – from the simplest to the complex.” Erik Erikson

In the 1950s Joan Erikson and a committee of staff members at the Austen Riggs Center created the Activities Program to give patients a space to step away from their intensive therapy, recognize their strengths and capacities, develop skills and discover new talents and interests. Artisans and teachers, specialized in their field and not trained as clinicians, offer individual instruction and workshops in theater, fiber arts, woodworking, ceramics and visual arts in a dedicated studio space on Main Street called “The Lavender Door”. 

Given the focus of Riggs’ treatment, our patients are increasingly conscious of the ways their lives and behaviors play out their internal struggles; they are constantly in the patient role thinking about the meaning of what they do and their impact on others - except when they are in the Activities Program. There, they are students, not patients: it is an “interpretation-free-zone”. Members of the staff, other patients, and people from the Stockbridge community come to their art exhibits, attend their theater performances, and admire their capacities. Maintained as completely separate from the clinical work, the program is unique for a psychiatric hospital, underlining the values of an open setting where “patients” can become people taking charge of their lives.   

The Erikson Institute draws on the research and clinical experience at Austen Riggs to bring its learning into dialogue with professionals and the general public, and to stimulate conversation on the core issues of mental health and recovery. One way we do this is through an annual Creativity Seminar and the Arts in Mind series.  The latter is a set of events held in New York City with top artists ranging across the literary, visual, multi-media, and performing arts whose work touches on mental health issues.  An Arts in Mind Festival will be held this weekend (March 15-16); details can be found at the Arts in Mind website.   

"We wanted to provide a situation, many situations, where people could try to let go, try something else, fail comfortably, succeed without being labeled or limited by success,” – Joan Erikson

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