Larry LaRue: Western State Hospital patients find therapeutical value in art

Staff Writer Staff WriterMay 21, 2014 

The discussion before opening an art and poetry room at Western State Hospital centered on the self-esteem it would bring contributors and the encouragement it might offer other patients.

It was a conversation touched with the reality of living and working in a state psychiatric hospital.

“Ceramics could be used as a weapon, and we wouldn’t want someone picking up a bowl and hitting someone else on the head,” said Sascha Schaudies, a hospital art instructor.

Librarian Kathleen Benoun had tried to create a similar display 10 years ago and encountered one monumental complication.

“We made copies of the original art, and most of it was immediately stolen from the exhibit,” Benoun said.

Art as therapy — all manner of art — has been used successfully by mental health professionals for decades. That doesn’t mean it’s a simple process.

At the hospital in Lakewood, patients grade out from zero to five, with five being those closest to discharge. The ones and twos are fighting their issues. The zeroes often do not want to leave their rooms.

“We’re basically for level three or higher and what they do here might start their road to discharge,” said Schaudies, who runs the largest campus art studio. “We have patients whose fears won’t let them leave their room — and we have to provide a safe place for them to come work with art.

“When someone is going through an internal struggle, we might get a painting of a talking dog, because that’s real to that patient.”

At Western State, the 34-year-old Schaudies is a recreational and athletic specialist trained in working with patients. He teaches ceramics and supervises painting and paper-mache creations.

He monitors and evaluates the results.

“We’ll show off the art in class, and if it’s darker, I’ll ask the artist to tell me the story,” he said. “If what they say is worthy of mention, I’ll mention it to the staff.”

One patient who has taken to ceramics is Thomas, whose talents have long sought the proper medium. (The hospital would not allow The News Tribune to report patients’ full names or mental-health histories.)

“I tried oil paints, acrylic paints, water color, drawing and origami. This is easier for me to do,” Thomas said. “My work is getting better — I’m learning about different glazes, more facets of the work.

“I’m here two hours every morning, and I come back in the afternoon to help clean up.”

When librarian Benoun first opened the art and poetry room, she asked for submissions from patients and has received plenty. Most found their way into the permanent exhibition; new works will slide in to replace older ones or fill empty space.

Like art anywhere, the works produced by patients at Western State run the gamut, both in terms of ability and content. Some poems are deeply personal and emotional. Some art is primitive, some eye-popping, some could appear in a graphic novel. Each work is different from the next.

Micah, who is working on his poetry and discovering a love of painting, is 31. Larry, who has written poetry for decades — and self-published a book 16 years ago — is 62.

“Writing is like slow braking,” Larry said. “I use my poems and songs to release energy.”

Micah has found art to be something he can share with other patients at the hospital.

“Being artistic helps lots of people here,” he said. “I’ve dealt with lot of things for a lot of years. Painting is calming me, it’s relaxing. We’re always talking about art, and some of us work on projects together.”

So far, the exhibit hasn’t had a theft. It’s open to patients, staff and the public during library hours, from 8:30 a.m.-noon, then 1-4 p.m.

Schaudies believes his art studio is a special place for patients, where they can go to express themselves.

“Whether they know it or not, when patients come here, they’re inviting us into their mind,” he said. “It’s like being allowed into a garden. You have to respect that garden — and realize there are no ugly gardens.”


This was written by a middle-aged woman who had been in and out of the psychiatric hospital for years:

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ Take your pills, right on time Get to class just before nine Get a pass to leave the gate Never come back to Western State

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