Art in Asylum
The halls are taupe and evergreen, as if someone gutted a pine tree and stretched it on tenterhooks. Every eighteen feet a poster of a landscape hangs, smothered in Plexiglas and set in a frame screwed tight to the wall.
When we move to town, my wife says our house looks like an asylum because the walls are empty. I tell her asylums don’t have blank walls, but I find places for my mother’s woodcuts and linocuts—the ones of my sister and me sleeping, of the trees along the Susquehanna, and the ones with titles that are too clever.
As a boy, going for walks, we leave empty-handed and return carrying branches and stones. “I need that,” my mother says. Many years later she creates a painting of a woman trying to rise from the canvas while being pulled down by ropes tied to branches and stones. But people only buy scarves and holiday cards—things to cover up what’s bare.
There is a wooden star on my son’s bedroom wall—the product of one of her art therapy sessions on BP-2. She has dozens of admissions, not counting detox, rehab, or jail. She paints that star with colors so bright they blister my corneas.
The day after the star hanging, I go to a gallery featuring the work of a Wyoming-based printmaker. The walls are covered with horses. His process starts with improvisational sketches of the animal in motion, aiming at the blur of contact between the spirit of the creature and that of the artist. Then he transfers that onto a sheet of plywood and gouges it out.
From across the room, gesture dominates. Up close, thousands of cuts—narrow gaps of bare paper. Having made woodcuts with my mother when I was young, I know the physical and mental exertion that goes into each blank space. Also the swearing, peroxide, and gauze.
Have I told you I’m afraid of horses?
I return to the exhibit several times, working up the nerve to be someone who buys art. I settle on the first print I’d encountered; my wife says it looks like something my mother would do, and I disagree because she has a point.
I bring it to the framing shop where I’d taken my diplomas. The same woman works there, now with a narrow, white line from hairline to brow; a jagged and pretty violence. She asks my name and phone number, but before I can finish, she puts down her pen.
“I was wondering if you were ever going to come back here,” she says. “I named my son after you.” She points to a photograph on the wall—Eben.
There is blank wall in my office. That’s where I hang it. Most days I forget it’s there. But the next time I’m feeling trapped in some borrowed room, curled up in the fetal position, shivering, wild, and staring at a blank wall, I want to remember the horses.
Eben’s writing has appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, JAMA, BMJ, and Hippocampus, won the 2019 Washington Island Literary Festival Flash Prose Award from Write On, Door County, and has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays and The Browser. He is a neuropsychologist in Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter to see what he writes next.
Cover Photo by Mark E. Ritchie