Some artwork in this exhibition contains ideas and images you might find triggering or traumatising. Themes of abuse, suicide, self-harm and the experience of being sectioned feature. We encourage you to prepare yourself emotionally before proceeding. If you believe looking at the exhibition will be traumatising, then you may choose not to enter.
We are thrilled to bring you this online exhibition by New York City based American artist, Susan Spangenberg. City Arts has a long-term partnership with the Institute of Mental Health. Together we curate exhibitions that highlight creative responses to mental health issues.
Susan was the first international artist to feature in our annual open exhibition at the Institute. ‘Escaping Childhood’ contains brutally honest and true accounts of her lived experience of mental health issues. They continue to inform her creativity to this day.
About the artist
Susan is an untrained self-taught artist. She started painting and self-harming at the age of three. She did not talk or communicate effectively for much of her life and that left art as the only healing tool in her very silent world. Susan further isolated herself when she suffered the devastating loss of her twin brother Robert, dying of a drug overdose.
Coming from a severely dysfunctional family which led to group homes and institutionalization in her teenage years, Susan cut her outsider artist teeth at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s renown ‘Living Museum’ art rehabilitation program in Queens, N.Y. She was in the vanguard of the ‘Girl, Interrupted’ female asylum artist wave that has in twenty years become the new normal, yet Susan has maintained the raw essence of that genre imbued with a twenty-first century sensibility.
Susan prefers to create alone in self-isolation. Her work is autobiographical, as seen in her large-scale tapestries fervently painted on raw, unstretched canvas, commenting on her experience as a psychiatric patient. Susan likes to incorporate text and writing into her art, including messages from her deceased brother. There are also elements of spiritual symbolism from her East Indian ancestry, samples of her psychotropic medication and hand sewn fabric throughout her work. She works in small and large-scale format encompassing textile, mixed media, painting and body prints.
Feeling a loss of community with her former art program ‘The Living Museum’, Susan spent ten years in her bedroom rarely going out as her Clinical Depression worsened. She then turned to acting, writing and film to express herself. So began her journey of socialization and telling her story of physical and sexual abuse, racial identity, growing up with poverty, violence, parental alcoholism and the unforgiving secondary diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. Susan currently has the diagnosis of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder but chooses to pay less attention to these labels.
Failed by the system after forty plus hospitalizations and five suicide attempts, Susan decided to pay out of pocket for a private psychoanalyst, who she says changed her life. He continues to support her along her artistic journey.
Susan’s current work is whimsical, hopeful and awash with color. She is at once that precocious girl thumbing her nose at the system refusing to be a victim and finally a grown woman with a potent voice and a creative ability to communicate, educate, liberate and transcend. Spending thirty years in and out of mental hospitals, Susan’s life is reflected in her work, revealing the trauma that brought her into the mental health system, the horrors endured in the asylums and the insight and awareness that allows her to heal. Susan hopes to inspire generations of female artists to document their trauma, inequality, and identity and show how these realities have affected them – and to give female artists the freedom to speak out as she has.
About the Institute of Mental Health
The Institute of Mental Health seeks to help transform our understanding and treatment of mental illness. It is a partnership between two highly respected organisations, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and The University of Nottingham. Since its formation in 2006, the Institute has established a track record of success, with achievements in pioneering and innovative, service-facing, inter-disciplinary research. It hosts eight centres of excellence, alongside other key areas of mental health research.