A Unique and Vital Part of a Patient’s Experience at Riggs



by Mark Mulherrin 

Mark Mulherrin, Instructor in Visual ArtsThe Activities Program was founded in 1954 by Joan Erikson, artist, dancer and wife of Erik Erikson. She understood well the value and importance of play and exploration, not only for children, but also for adults, particularly those working hard to take charge of their lives. As she stated so clearly, “…art, crafts, drama, intellectual pursuits, involvement in the nursery school or greenhouse program are productive for personal growth and development in any individual. These activities … promote change in a positive direction, support competence, and enhance the dignity and identity of the person involved.” 

The Activities Program continues to be a unique and vital part of a patient experience at Austen Riggs. There is a strong adherence to the original mission as described by Joan Erikson and within that, room for change – for trying different things within our mission to give students new experiences.    

In a 1952 edition of Inkblot, a Riggs patient publication, the subject of the entire issue was the Activities Program – at that time, only a year or so old.  There were essays by the instructors about their respective philosophies paired with essays by students describing their experiences.  It was interesting to see how little has changed since then in terms of the student experience and the commitment of the instructors.

Since that time, with the exception of photography (which is no longer offered), all of the other disciplines represented have remained consistent. In place of the darkroom, we have created a digital lab, complete with a large screen Mac, image processing software and an archival printer. This addition has proven to be very popular among the students. We have also transformed the Lavender Door storefront into a gallery which maintains a professional venue for students to create exhibitions of their art work. These are often solo shows and are quite an undertaking for the student who is willing to try it. The experience takes them through the entire process of making the initial commitment, curating the work they have made and learning how exhibitions are conceived and installed. They also go through all of the feelings that artists often have around their exhibits, such as fear, excitement and loss. The gallery is always open to the public and has regular hours, adding to the cultural life of Stockbridge.

This past year, we launched an intensive workshop in multi-media performance art. This is in addition to the two theatre productions scheduled each year (Much Ado About Nothing and Lysistrata in 2013; The Winter’s Tale and The Master and Margarita in 2014). Students have often expressed a desire for performance activities during the off-season. To this end, our painting instructor enlisted the help of a working musician and performance artist based in Hudson, NY to come to Riggs each week to help us create a piece that would be performed in the theatre in the fall. It went quite well and was a brand new way to encourage the skills that our patients often have, but don’t always have an outlet for, such as writing, music and video. 

2015 Activities Program underwriting support provided by: High Meadow Foundation, The Fox Endowment Fund and numerous individual donors. 

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