Mad Artists’ Gallery

Mad Artists’ Gallery

Green Chinese takeaway boxTakeaways

  • Appreciate the importance of art-making and creative self-expression as a healing practice for racialized mad people who often have adverse experiences in the traditional mental health system
  • Understand art as a form of activist engagement with, and critique of, interlocking systems of oppression
  • Recognize the value of art-making as a medium through which community and collective identity can be forged and strengthened

Three green gears working togetherComponents

A person's face and head floats against a blue sky over a coastal landscape with water, a rocky coastline and buildings. A missile hangs in the air.The components for this unit are an eclectic – even unruly – collection of art and creative productions. All were created by mad artists who identify as racialized. They include paintings, drawings, poetry, song, screenplays, and multimedia works.
Additional components that allow learners to contextualize the creative work are the artists’ statements and spoken reflections that accompany each piece.


Green hand-held magnifying glassLearning Lens

Art and artmaking are significant in the mental health world. Many who live with mental health differences find the creative process to be affirming, healing, even personally transformative, particularly in the face of a dominant medical model that can reduce a person to a psychiatric label or the category of “psychiatric patient.” Researchers have found that opportunities for creative expression foster wellbeing, resilience, and positive self-identity among people with mental health histories. This matrix of affirmation can transcend the personal to become communal, bringing together individuals with shared life stories in mutually supportive networks or sparking cultural expressions of explicitly Mad Art rooted in a collective quest for justice and system change in mental health.

Several factors make these processes problematic. Art therapy, linked to the theories and practices of occupational therapy, was a feature of the late institutional period and the shift to community mental health care. By the 1950s, for example, there were in-patient newspapers like The Reversing Falls Review in New Brunswick’s and The Leader in BC. But mad scholars point out the trivialization of art that is deemed therapy and express concerns about voice and ownership of such projects. Is it possible that The Reversing Falls Review, produced under the purview of psychiatry, could be an authentic, unfettered expression of mad culture? What about Vancouver’s beloved Art Studios, created in 1992 for clients of the city’s mental health teams? And while art programs are remarkably cost-effective mental health services, they are vulnerable in times of austerity and restraint because they do not fit the dominant medical model. Efforts to attain “the good life” can be entirely undermined when a valued art space is abruptly defunded and shuttered.

Nevertheless, intimate and often highly political expressions of mad art found space to flourish in the post-asylum era. Speaking back publicly to professional psych discourse, psychiatric survivors constructed their own narratives and claimed the title “expert by experience.” They spoke out, made art, and created community. This was a powerful process. Sheila Gilhooly, one of the first visual artists in Canada to be “out” about her mental health history declared, “When you flaunt something, nobody can use it against you.” In the 1970s and 1980s, a cluster of mad newspapers and magazines – In a Nutshell, Phoenix Rising and Our Voice/Notre Voix – emerged alongside books like Shrink Resistant, Call Me Crazy and La Folie comme de raison, and a flurry of art exhibits, film screenings, and theatre projects. Today, the work of public mad artists like fibre creator Jenna Reed, painter Gloria Swain, and American musician Lauryn Hill, explicitly challenge sanism, blurring boundaries between mad activism, feminist movements, queer movements, anti-racist movements, Indigenous projects, and disability rights activists. The emergence of Mad Studies as a recognized field of study has included an explicit acknowledgement of the value – and validity – of mad artists like Reed, Swain, Hill, and of course those featured in this gallery.

This Mad Artists’ Gallery showcases the work of racialized youth living with mental health differences. To support safe and effective learning, educators new to this material need to study and implement Mad School’s Anti-Oppression Statement.

Green kitchen weigh scaleEvaluating the Components