My older brother Mike, autistic, low functioning and nonverbal, lived at home until I was 10 years old. I posted a picture taken from that period yesterday and painted a reference portrait. My mother looked everywhere for a place that would take care of Michael. Nobody knew what was wrong with him back in the 1950s. Finally, she found Willowbrook, on Staten Island. This was a large institution (more than 6,000 patients), that would later be described as a snake pit (by Robert F. Kennedy) and the public expose of this institution would lead to a major revamping of how New York State managed its mentally ill.
Today’s watercolor experiment:
Many of my paintings have been experiments in exploring my relationship with Mike (Lighthouse, Another Mask, Abstract Mike and Me), just to name a few recent ones. This past week I painted an abstract portrait of Mike (Abstract Portrait) and one of me (Self Portrait).
After reading an introductory essay in the catalog for the 1996 exhibition, ‘Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation‘, I engaged my imagination during the process of painting. Instead of painting a likeness of a real face I tried to meld my own features with my brother’s (Portrait: Brothers).
Today’s portrait represents the beginning of Mike’s metamorphosis from an autistic child to an autistic adult. It shows his non-presence, which always seemed to be there, but also evidence of mistreatment. My family would visit Mike every week, at first. The nursing staff would call Mom in between to say that Mike had gotten a scratch, or a bruise, or a tooth knocked out. The perpetrator was always another patient according to the nurse.
For those of you interested in other stories of Willowbrook see these posts: 1) A Visit to Willowbrook; 2) Mike’s Building at Willowbrook; 3) Teetering at Willowbrook; 4) Recollections of Willowbrook; 5) Large Mental Institutions.