History - Oral Histories
Oral Histories of People at AMHI - Natasha Mayers
Interview with Natasha Mayers
[taught art at AMHI from 1974-1981]
October 7, 2003
Interviewer: Ed Oechslie
EO: What was your involvement with AMHI?
NM: I had an art class there from 1974 to 1981.
EO: How did you get that class? How did you get involved?
NM: I went there in 1974 and asked if I could volunteer to work with an art therapist, but there wasn’t an art therapist, and Bob Schroft, who was in charge of OT, hired me. Now my very first job I had in my life, when I was fifteen, I taught art in a camp for emotionally disturbed kids.
EO: So at fifteen you got that start? You had that interest?
NM: Yes, and my father was a psychiatrist, and I have a sister who is manic-depressive. I didn’t know I had that interest. I mean I didn’t remember until later on that that was the first job I ever had.
EO: I’m curious when you say you just walked into AMHI and said, ‘I want to work with your art therapist.’
NM: I’m trying to remember the sequence. I think I had just finished working at Thomaston. I worked at Kennebec County jail. I had been teaching art to kids and I was very interested in ‘outsider art’, and authentic art, children’s art, but I can’t remember why I decided to go to AMHI. I was teaching at a nursery school from 1973 to 1974. That’s when I also decided to take painting classes because I was so crazy about kid’s art.
EO: Had you been a painter prior to that time?
NM: I had been a sculptor. I had an art background and then I got a degree in teaching social sciences in high school, then I went into the Peace Corps and taught. I came back and I worked in Portland at a free school on Mayo Street. That’s when I became interested in painting. I was doing batik and teaching it to the kids. That was in 1970. For the next few years I was a nursery school teacher, and then in 1973 I taught in Thomaston. I was the first woman to teach there, and in the Kennebec County jail. I taught art — lot of painting. In that period I was also an intern teacher’s supervisor for Antioch graduate school. I supervised a lot of student teachers around Damariscotta, Brunswick, and Freeport. But I was at the prison in 1973 and I guess that’s what prompted me to go to AMHI. I got kicked out of the prison.
EO: You got kicked out of the prison? Why?
NM: “Bringing in books through improper channels,” they said. Which wasn’t really true. I gave them a list of every book I was bringing in, they just didn’t like the kind of books I was bringing in, so they kicked me out. Anyway, I was doing a lot of organizing around that period, organizing art shows. I designed an arts program for AMHI, which included a poet, filmmaker, and theatre person in 1978 and 1979. I organized projects for the Maine Festival. The tunnel project [at AMHI] was 1978. I exhibited the AMHI patients’ work in 1980.
Okay, so I started studying painting with Leonard Craig up at Unity College about 1974 to 1976, and I got a scholarship to Skowhegan in 1976. So I was doing a lot of serious painting in my studio in 1974, just as I was starting at AMHI, and the AMHI experience was formative in my own work because I was finding it was giving me permission to make my work more personal. Before I started working there, or around the time I started working there I remember I would often start my paintings with expletives, kind of work out my anger, and I would always cover it over. Quite a bit of it. I remember somebody bought a piece of mine, who subsequently became a friend of mine, from a show right around 1974 or 1976, that had ‘what the [expletive deleted] am I doing, sitting here in front of this blank piece of paper’ scrawled across it. If you really looked you could read it. So she is a writer and she bought it to put right up over her typewriter. So working at AMHI gave me permission to reveal more of myself. See, the real motivation of art, you know, where it comes from, wasn’t something outside. It was bringing up something that was internal.
EO: And so that’s the authentic art you mentioned earlier.
NM: Right. I was taking myself very seriously as an artist right about that time. I was studying and doing nothing but painting full time and working with my mentor, Leonard Craig. And then I worked one day a week. I guess I only worked that one day a week at AMHI and painted the rest of the time. I was painting so much I would go into the studio in the morning and say, ‘Oh the elves have been here,’ because I had painted so long and hard into the night that I couldn’t remember some of those last couple of hours of painting. They just happened. So there was this wonderful moment of discovery in the morning. The elves had been there painting. I love those moments.
EO: So, from 1974 to 1981 you were associated with AMHI, officially. And since then?
NM: I have been teaching one day a week at Linc Social Club since 1981, and after a number of years, Waterville Social Club, also. Waterville wasn’t set up until 1991. I wrote about the artwork created by the adults I worked with: ‘I want it to touch you, to make you respond and recognize yourself, in these personal statements. The power of this work is to get right to the point, graphically, with originality, and translate our feelings into visual metaphor.’ This is what I want my artwork to be, too. That’s why I loved my job so much.
EO: So for you, that cuts right to the chase about what you love about this work.
NM: Right, [quoting again] ‘This is work that will touch the viewer and make him/her respond and recognize him/herself in these personal statements, and might serve to make all of us ask: What are we afraid of revealing? Why are we so hesitant to reveal ourselves?’
EO: In your experiences at AMHI, are there any images that stand out, any memory that really ‘pops’ for you?
NM: I think one of the funniest ones was the day, I think I was priming something on the floor. There was some paint in a tray on the floor and nobody was on this ward, but down the hall walks a patient. He steps in the paint, doesn’t even realize he’s done it and slops it down the corridor, and I’m cleaning up after him, and he never even knew what he had done.
I loved working in the ducts. I loved giving people a chance to put a poem on the wall or a painting on the wall. I loved it. My favorite day of the year at AMHI was Halloween. We’d make costumes and masks ahead of time and we’d have the wildest, most wonderful party; people really became their costumes. Another favorite moment was when there would be two or three Jesus Christs sitting at the table at once; when they discover that they just did a picture of themselves as Jesus, and somebody else did a picture of himself or herself as Jesus and they realize they weren’t alone. I loved having them draw my portrait. So many of them wanted to come in and draw me. I loved never knowing what to expect. There was always something out of the ordinary happening every week. It was like my own New York City. I could go to work and know that if I were open, responsive, something interesting would happen.
I loved the staff, especially the lowest rung of the mental health workers. They were the kindest, most humanitarian staff. I was always impressed with the kindness with which they treated the patients. Amazing that people paid so little to treat others with issues like that could maintain such kindness.
EO: I wanted to ask you one thing when you mentioned the ducts. When I first walked in to go through there, and of course there is a lot of fading and peeling and a lot of damage that has happened over the years, and they’re not going to stay there forever as things get renovated, I got a sense of their transient quality as I looked at them. As I was thinking these thoughts I realized that some of these figures appeared to be body tracings. Were they?
NM: There was one section in the adolescent unit where they didn’t feel confident about painting large figures so they asked if they could trace themselves.
EO: Yes, it has a quality of a handprint on the cave wall, this mark, ‘I was here, and here’s the tracing of my body or my hand.’
NM: I loved some of the poems on the wall. It is really powerful to put a poem on a wall. I would have liked to do more of that. I would have liked to spend more time in the ducts. It was really a lot of fun.
EO: So how do you feel about the work that you did there?
NM: I would like to be there now, to continue, because I just got to be a better person, a better and better artist, a better and better teacher. So I could have left more of a legacy. I loved the opportunity of being there. I think I did good work. I think I helped make the atmosphere less institutional. There were a lot of people who would come through the ducts and say, ‘Now I’m not as afraid.’ It was amazing that just the presence of art would make people less afraid to walk through the ducts. That was a real, positive, tangible effect I had on the institution.
I brought a lot of art onto the wards. We didn’t just keep it in the art rooms. We were hanging artwork on the wards, and that made it a more friendly, colorful, happier place to be. What I’m doing right now is something I always wanted to do while I was at AMHI. They are going to have an art cart where people coming in to the institution can choose a piece of art to hang on their wall. It’s artwork by clients in the mental health system.
What they used to have for art on the wards were these giant photographs of places. And they were ugly! You know, not art, but photographs. We would take them down and paint on top of them. They would still be the theme, but real impressionist. We would convert them to something more creative and hang them right back up. We did a bunch of those.
EO: So when you mentioned some of the rewards for yourself in this, it sounds like there was some sort of energy; you weren’t just there to provide something for the patients at AMHI, but there was something that you got back from that, too.
NM: Oh, tremendous. And as I said, when they couldn’t afford me, or they didn’t have a job for me, I kept working, and I loved it. I still do. Lee Sharkey, who teaches Women’s Studies up at Farmington is really busy, but she still teaches at Linc. We both work there forever because it feeds our own soul; it feeds our own artwork. It is the best writing, the best artwork we’ve each come across. I mean she’s the editor of “The Beloit Poetry Journal.” She’s reading professional poetry all the time, and I’m looking at professional art all the time, and the art that people I work with [at Linc] make, is the most exciting that I get to see. It keeps me honest. That’s the key. It keeps me honest, and it keeps me nice as a human being. It teaches me patience in the face of adversity. It is my teacher. It is my well.
I’ve also worked with people who I have helped to get better. It’s clear that some of them feel better about themselves and have more will to live because they have created an identity for themselves as artists. I have had that pleasure and tremendous satisfaction. Also I have had the satisfaction of working with people long term…for twenty years, ten years. It’s nice to have that.
EO: That covers the satisfying experiences. What was not satisfying? What were the frustrations?
NM: I can barely remember, but I’m sure I was frustrated at the time. Sometimes some of the people I was working with might have been locked up and I was unable that week to work with them.
EO: What do you mean, ‘locked up?’
NM: Solitary. Restraints. Or on a locked ward and not allowed out, or they couldn’t get a staff to accompany them so they could get to art class. Those kinds of things must have been frustrating. I can’t remember. Institutions are frustrating. It was frustrating to get purchase orders for materials. But I remember there were times when I would take time after class to go and sit in the rooms where people were locked down or restrained and work with them when I felt a person couldn’t really go a week without art. If I had a real strong relationship with someone I would try to make contact with him or her. I also got permission to work inside the forensic unit when people wanted to make art.
There was red tape in getting permission to work in the ducts. I don’t like to deal with red tape. Fortunately, I was able to exist enough outside of the system to not have to do paperwork.
EO: What do you think is most beneficial for the patients about doing art? What do they get out of it?
NM: I’m a painter, but I must say, every time we pulled out the clay they would get instantly in touch with their feelings. Not ceramic molds, but wet clay with their hands. I always thought that was instant. And theater, too. Why do I think these were beneficial? I just think they could express themselves, you know, immediately, and honestly, and it helps to see. Sometimes they can’t verbalize it, or think through what it is, but it appears before them as they draw it, and ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what it is.’ It gives them a chance to bring it out and gives them a chance to make beautiful stuff. I feel like that’s an accomplishment. I can go on forever on that one.
EO: Okay, two-part question. Was there anything about AMHI that you would have changed as a mental health institute? And what is your ideal vision of a mental health system?
NM: Let’s start with the ideal. The ideal would be for all the residents to have access everyday to painting, clay, theatre, dance, music; the classes would be available to all. That would be the mode of treatment. That and art therapists. There would be individual sessions and group sessions with the arts. They would be making art, writing, theatre, dance. Their art would be stories about their lives. They would all be working on ways to share their stories; get their stories out of themselves and out so that all the treatment would start from there. There would be no locked wards and mental health workers would be better paid. It would be a community of artists and the whole place would be decorated, and furniture made, and walls painted by the clients. They would grow their own food and cook their own meals. How much detail do you want?
EO: I want an application. I want to work at this place. It sounds really nice.
NM: I also think it would be based on hominess rather than wards. There would be cottages. People would divide up the chores like in a family.
EO: Contrasted against that vision, is there anything about AMHI that needed to be changed?
NM: Yes, it was run kind of like a prison, but luckily, the people who worked in the prison were kind and humanitarian people, but its model was kind of like a prison model.
EO: Is there anything else you want to add? Is there anything we missed?
NM: Yes. Why does AMHI not have an ongoing arts program? They have never replaced what I did there with anything close to it. I certainly wasn’t the best thing to come along, but they didn’t seem to recognize the value of what we did. It’s inexcusable that they have not had an ongoing art program.