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Artists Explore Psychiatric Health

10/24/2013

Painter Rebecca Chamberlain 91 AP spent last summer working on the grounds of a psychiatric institution in the Netherlands, exploring how light, air and space affect health and healing. As part of an artist’s residency known as Het Vijfde Seizoen (The Fifth Season), she, her artist husband Guy Richards Smit  and their two young sons lived in a 1940s pavilion with leaded glass windows looking out onto the institution’s beautiful grounds. The goal of the residency program, which began in 1998, is to open the sanitarium in the Dutch city of Den Dolder to the outside world and enable the public to better understand psychiatric issues.

After a harrowing first night in which mysterious visitors climbed into the tree outside their windows, Chamberlain and her family settled into a mostly peaceful routine and got to know many of the residents well. “At first I was overwhelmed by the place,” she recalls. “My mind would go crazy after dark. I don’t paint landscapes much, but it was impossible not to. The woods and sky became so much a part of my solace and also the solace of the patients.”

During the Dutch residency, Chamberlain focused on how the sanitarium’s built environment contributes to (or obstructs) the healing process. “I asked patients to take me to places that give them a sense of hope or calm,” she says. After photographing these special places, she created paintings of them using lithography ink on vintage tracing cloth – the type of paper used for architectural plans in the early 20th century.

Chamberlain notes that at RISD she “learned a fearlessness in working with different materials, doing whatever it takes to get an idea across.” In addition to painting, the Apparel Design graduate works as a fashion industry consultant and says she went into apparel because she made “a pragmatic decision” that it would be easier to earn a living “in the fashion world [than as a painter] – especially if you’re good.”

The creative process she employed at the Fifth Season is one Chamberlain has been using recently to capture the essence of other built spaces – primarily those designed between World Wars I and II. In creating the work for Homatorium I, a solo show on view earlier this year at the Dodge Gallery in NYC, she worked with her own photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman House in Manchester, NH, along with others taken when the house was first built.

Since the summer residency, Chamberlain has been getting funding in place to work with a glass artist to create cast glass panels that mimic the Dutch sanitarium’s leaded windows. The panels she envisions will hang between her newest paintings when she exhibits them in 2015 – as part of a show at Dodge Gallery tentatively titled Homatorium II. “These really particular round, iconic windows punctuate the buildings in a strange way,” she says. “They’re like ship’s portals or eyes or periscopes.”

In a late summer exhibition aptly titled A Home. Not a Metaphor. The Real Thing., Chamberlain and her husband exhibited their work together at both the Fifth Season gallery and the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam. At both venues, her multipanel pieces were shown in tandem with her husband’s gigantic watercolor mock-ups of New York Times–style newspaper pages.

As for discovering whether or not the sanitarium environment is helpful or harmful to the psychiatric patients in residence, Chamberlain says, “It’s an ongoing question. There are some ominous feelings in my pieces. Many patients feel that the trees are conspiring against them…. And I have to admit that the work that came out of the residency is more creepy than uplifting.”

 –Simone Solondz

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tags: Apparel Design, alumni, global

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.