Art Strengthens the Mind

With her art exhibit Joan Glintborg Vissing demonstrates how a group of citizens acquire a new identity as innovative creators rather than the obvious label, mentally disabled.

The artwork has no title. But you need not look at the countless black lines on the canvas for very long before the eye finds several organic forms. Some look like jellyfish in motion, others prompt associations to wind rustling through a pile of leaves; calm and turmoil at the same time.

"Hans’s works exude a meditative calm or inner abstract nature," says one website about the artist Hans J. Henriksen, who, in addition to some activities in Denmark, has exhibited in both Paris and Amsterdam – actually, quite an exceptional CV for an artist. If you dive a little deeper into the details of the CV, however, you discover something that is unique about this artist: Several of the exhibitions carry the epithet "Outsider Art."

Art by people on the edge
“‘Outsider Art’ is art created by artists outside the established art system, who have no formal artistic education, and who are typically also on the edge of the established, "normal " society; many of the artists have a diagnosis of mental illness," explains Joan Glintborg Vissing, who has worked with the concept in her graduation project in Communication Design at Design School Kolding. The most well-known Danish proponent of this art form is Louis Marcussen – better known as Ovartaci – who, during his lifetime, created more than 1000 works and today is considered a unique figure in the Danish art world.

No one at the art school Snurretoppen has been that productive yet. But that does not make Snurretoppen – an art school for adults with intellectual disabilities – less relevant to the users - and to society, as a matter of fact. For the school gives its users a new, primary identity as artists rather than mentally disabled.

"Art is a common area of interest for the school's users, and it focusses on what the attendants can do, rather than what they cannot do," says Joan. "Here they meet other artists on an equal footing and receive praise and recognition, which helps to build their self-confidence and their independence."

Open works
Art, however, is relevant to others in addition to the artists, and that is the starting point for Joan's project. For the Cultural Meeting at the island of Mors she curated and created an interactive exhibition of a number of works from Snurretoppen, including Hans J. Henriksen’s, who, besides being mentally disabled, is also blind.

“The exhibition is designed as a classic art exhibition with framed works hung on white walls. The interactive element is that one can open up the artworks and take a closer look at the person behind. I would like to give people the opportunity to get closer to the artists, because there is a widespread fear of contact among us when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities – we retreat in a mistaken display of kindness and consideration. I want the public to see these people as artists – rather than as mentally disabled."

Welfare political message
Joan’s project also has a political agenda: “I really want the politicians who attend the Cultural Meeting to see this exhibition and understand what art does to people. Quite cynically, places like Snurretoppen, which has been around for 15 years, make sense welfare economically, for the users simply gain better quality of life from their work at the school. There are about 10 schools of this kind in Denmark, which corresponds to approximately 150 places – to service the country's 50,000 mentally disabled. More schools would benefit everyone. That’s what I would like to draw attention to, and that’s what good design can do – help to change the world.”

Partner: The art school Snurretoppen