‘In the Universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors’. 
― William Blake

In a drama studio, in a psychiatric hospital, a young woman leans forwards, arms reaching. Fingers taut. Back stretched. Nous regardons. Next to her is a photo of a statue, a bronze sculpture by the artiste Camille Claudel, L’Imploreuse. The woman mimics the pose of the stilled, curved matter. She begins to speak…

In January 2015, the filmmaker Gilles Blanchard - infamous for his prison film, Tête d’Or, starring inmates alongside actress Béatrice Dalle - drove through the gates of a French psychiatric hospital, where I work as an arts therapist. He was looking for a partner institution for a feature length film about the life and work of sculptress Camille Claudel. Weeks later, he and I began to run a series of open drama workshops with more than 60 clients and members of staff as part of the film preparation. One thing led to another. Regarde la caméra. Over the following four years, these initial workshops burgeoned into a series of short docu-fiction films, a cinema partnership, the creation of a staff-client film screening jury, life-drawing sessions, writing workshops, collage-making and training in film-editing.

Day after day, art flourished inside the psychiatric hospital: Challenging, disrupting, holding, expressing. Usually, we cross over the threshold of a hospital due to the existence of an illness. Hospitals are sterile, controlled, precise environments, while art is unruly and subjective, involves rule breaking and paint. Etymologically, the hospital is ‘a shelter for the needy’, patients are guests with pathologies, from the Greek, pathos suffering. Also, whereas as Kandinsky writes ‘There is no “must” in art, which is forever free. Art must always be a choice’, the psychiatric hospital has the particularity of being a closed space, with the legal right, as Foucault reminds, to use ‘order, physical and moral constraint’.

In the early stages, Gilles and I worked in close collaboration, navigating this territory between art and mental illness. La maladie. Gilles had experience making a film in a penitentiary institution but had never worked in psychiatry. For fifteen years, I had worked clinically, and run artist’s projects in mental health settings, but never on this scale. Together with the patients, staff, psychiatrists, psychologists and management team, we discovered what was possible and impossible. Our questions were therapeutic, legal, humanitarian, ethical and aesthetic: How to evaluate the informed choice of an individual with several learning difficulties? Explain a release waiver? Would introducing a camera into the workshops increase psychopathological persecution symptoms? Could we consider the expression of schizophrenia, like the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, as a source of art? When we began to talk about cinema projections, a patient asked, concerned: Is there a possibility my family could see me on screen? At every stage we talked and talked, and then we talked some more…

During the project, we explored Camille Claudel’s past: Her brilliant and tragic career, her relationship with Rodin and her internment in a psychiatric hospital, ending her days surrounded by walls. As Camille’s sculptures came to life, patients came into the ateliers, and danced like Claudel’s Bronze Waltz. Tourne. People with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression, learning difficulties and autism analysed Claudel’s work: C’est beau. Sombre. Triste. At a post-screening discussion, an audience member asked a patient/actor: ‘Did Claudel’s suffering remind you of your own past?’ The patient answered: ‘No, that was my private affair. The project was a space outside of that’. All of us agreed, both on a human and artistic level, the project had been infused with a raw delicacy, a sense of humour, laughter interspersed with flashes of emotional truth, sadness and tragedy. In this sense, the work produced broadened certain perspectives on art made in psychiatric institutions, what we could consider as ‘outsider art’. The films, poetry, collages and conversations were neither childlike, primitive nor wrought with Artaudian archaic angst.

During workshops, Gilles and I formed a trio with a psychiatric nurse. In this triptych, Gilles represented art and the nurse psychiatric care, as an arts-therapist I formed the bridge, specialized in the clinical potential and risks of art in a mental health setting. Our human framework, alongside other physical and time-space rituals, such as warm-ups, making circles and closure time contained the initial theatre productions, what Mnouchkine calls ‘the ephemeral monument’. These structures provided a separation between imagination, reality and potential symptoms such as hallucinations. Nevertheless, the barriers were porous, penetrable. During one improvisation session, a patient with severe schizophrenia asked Gilles, ‘Are we supposed to be acting le réel reality or le faux falseness?’

Gilles’s primary objective, as a filmmaker, was to understand, ‘with the imperative of truth and precision, the world of psychosis’. From the very beginning, he chose to avoid ‘a caring role’, which he believed could belittle staff and patients. He quickly recognized ‘the necessity to comfort, to guide participants within the creative process, as with an actor I can risk conflict, but this is not possible with a patient’. Nevertheless, he stated, again and again, ‘It is with the person that I am working and not with the patient or the pathology’. 

As the project progressed, we acquired funding, and more funding, met judges and discussed patients ethics and rights. Soon, the multi-disciplinary, hybrid nature of our venture crossed not only over the barriers between art and mental health, but also those between writing, drawing, theatre and cinema. From inside secure Units, calligram poetry was written, inspired by Claudel’s sculptures and Apollinaire. In Day Centres nurses acted in experimental digital films as a patient read a text from Franco-Chinese philosopher Francois Cheng about art, paysage, landscape and the visage, face. At a New York University, I talked about the project and the students drew Claudel’s sculptures sprawled on a padded dance floor.

For months and years, Claudel’s French Symbolist sculptures shaped our spirits and limbs. Her oeuvre whispered and spoke over decades, the bronze, marble and plaster forms became familiar friends: The Little Chatelaine, The Gossips, The Mature Age, The Wave… As the project drew to close, I often wondered about Claudel and how she would have felt knowing her work had influenced a group of over 200 people in a psychiatric hospital, inspiring to us to make so much art. It felt as though the truth of Claudel’s work, a seam through time, her spirit, ‘something unique, a revolt of nature’ had carried through into our creations. Writer Paul Claudel, Camille’s brother, described her work as ‘a monument of inner thought’. In this sense the project was driven by a constant to and fro-ing between art and illness, inner and outer mental and physical states. We moved from the marble sculptures to our real skin, muscle and bone, to our emotions, through time. Physically, the participants left the hospital behind, shot films on foggy beaches amongst the waves and on the esplanade of the local town. Clients participated in regular cinema events, and in projection boxes learnt how to screen films. In the late 19th century, contemporary critics wrote that Camille Claudel’s sculptures evoked the conscious ‘quivering life of muscles and skin’, her art ‘fused souls’. Paul Claudel also described his sister's Oeuvre as ‘a seed of a theme offered to all dreams’. During our project, one day, in a workshop, a young woman held the posture of the sculpture The Implorer, she reached forward, arms out-stretched, palms turned to the sky. Looking into the camera, she fixed her gaze and asked us calmly: ‘Give me life’.