Monday, June 26 , 2017, 5:42 pm | Fair 75º

 
 
 
 

Noozhawk Talks: J.T. Turner Rolls Out New Film About Art, Mental Illness

His documentary, Crazy Art, which explores art and schizophrenia through the lives of three local artists, premieres this week at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

Frustrated by state budget cuts to mental health funding, J.T. Turner, executive director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara, decided to become “more entrepreneurial” in his efforts to further the understanding of people diagnosed with mental illness by producing a film. Leslie Dinaberg sits down with the executive producer of the new documentary Crazy Art, which explores the link between art and schizophrenia by looking at the lives and work of three local artists, as well as that of Vincent Van Gogh.

Leslie Dinaberg: How did you come to make this movie, Crazy Art?

J.T. Turner: This movie is really a portrait of these three artists here in town who I know with schizophrenia and how they use art to help them recover. I’ve known them for about seven or eight years. One of them was a client of ours at Phoenix of Santa Barbara, in one of our residential programs, and that’s Rodger Casier. The other two — Lesley Grogan and Trinaty Lopez Wakefield — have had their work in the annual Mental Health Arts Festival in De La Guerra Plaza, so I came to know them from them exhibiting their work there.

I was totally impressed by the quality of the art, and as I came to talk to them, I realized these are amazing personalities. These are three very articulate people with very charismatic qualities who do amazing art. … Things just came together about a year ago, and I thought now is the time to do this.

We’d had one of our programs cut. There was a whole series of mental health cuts, and the county programs were cut and one of ours was cut. I was feeling pretty frustrated about that, having to lay off some staff and discharge some clients, and it felt like it was time to do something that was more entrepreneurial and more creative and not relying on government funding. So as I was thinking about possibilities, I thought, let’s do a movie on these three artists and how they use their art to help them cope and maneuver around this, and let’s look at how this fits in with the concept of recovery.

So I asked each of them, “What do you think? How does this appeal to you?” And each of them jumped at it and said, “Oh, wow. People have been talking about this for years and years, and people have been trying to do something like that. No one has ever got it off the ground, so sure.”

Then I thought, “OK. I need a filmmaker.” … I knew Justin Rowe through contacts with the Montecito Picture Company, so I asked him.

He had done a movie called The Aphrodite Project several years ago that was in the film festival that I was familiar with and saw. He and Jennie Reinish focused on cancer patients who were teamed up with artists as part of their recovery from cancer, and they teamed up on an art project to help recover … and that really had some connection to what we were going to focus on in this movie.

LD: I remember that documentary. I wrote a story about it.

JT: So I thought he’s already in the zone, and he’s a documentary producer and filmmaker, and he was up for it. He was excited about it and wanted to get back into the film world himself. He was a mortgage broker for a while.

LD: Oh, really.

JT: So last year was a good time for him to think about getting back into film. I introduced him to the artists, we had lunch together and everyone seemed to really connect. It was really important because I wanted a filmmaker whose personality was going to work with three people diagnosed with mental illness, and that worked out really well.

… We went to Trinaty’s apartment in Carpinteria on April 1 of last year and shot just some rough footage to see what it was like to have the people interacting, me asking questions and Justin filming, and it just went so well, just flowed so nicely, so we decided to move ahead. I made some calls about funding. My first call was to Lillian Lovelace. … She and her husband, Jon, had helped us on different projects, and I explained to her it would be great if we could get a challenge grant and $4,000 or $5,000 to help with the project. She talked to Jon and they said, “Yeah, sure, we’d love to do that.” They’re very interested in art themselves. So we had the challenge grant. We put out the word to our contributors and money came in to match that, and basically it’s like a $10,000 project.

We started shooting, and the idea was to focus on the art with these individuals and also focus on their story. How did they become artists? The interesting thing is that the movie is intentionally about identity. … Do they see themselves as primarily mentally ill or something else? Do they see themselves as an artist? … Identity is a really big issue in terms of recovery. So we ask them about that, ask them about their childhood, ask them when they were first diagnosed, in terms of how the art helped them along the way. It’s a real blend of their lives and their art.

LD: So it premieres at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival?

JT: The first screening in the film festival will be in Victoria Hall on Monday at 10 a.m. We’re calling that the sneak peak. And the premiere is the show at the Lobero Theatre, which is 5 p.m. Wednesday. We’ll have a panel after both.

LD: Is the movie directly tied to Phoenix?

JT: No. The whole idea of this was not to have it be a PR piece, not to have it be about our services. The idea, the driving concept here, was it’s got to be about the people and their story, their art, and we are the sponsors. I function as the executive producer, so Phoenix is actually mentioned indirectly and we’re listed as the production entity for the movie. Justin’s the filmmaker and we’re essentially the producers, so it isn’t something that people will react against because it’s just some puff piece about us.

LD: Right. It didn’t sound like that.

JT: And it’s pretty hard-edged in terms of it doesn’t try in any way to be a Pollyannaish version of psychiatric recovery. We wanted to find out whether art is helpful, and maybe it’s not. And we pull in Van Gogh. … Near the beginning there’s a little segment that we shot down at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena where we filmed Van Gogh’s “Mulberry Tree,” and we have a section at the end at The Getty where we’re filming Van Gogh’s “Irises,” and it’s pretty clear from his life that when he was painting his best stuff he was having the greatest struggles psychiatrically.

He was diagnosed, and the various symptoms he had weren’t termed bipolar disorder or manic depression in those days, but it looks very much like he would be diagnosed now with bipolar disorder — he had seizures and things, so it was complex. Plus, he was eating his paint and drinking a lot of alcohol. It’s not a clear picture of what was going on, but he was in a psychiatric unit for a year, and while he was there he painted some of his most amazing stuff.

One thing we were interested in was how much of the art that these three local artists do is done in a pretty symptomatic state, and how that feeds into the quality of the art. If you say that Van Gogh’s art goes up in price correlated with how symptomatic he was, can we look at the local artists and say what happens when you’re doing fine or when you’re doing really well? Are you painting as much? Are you expressing or hearing voices or having hallucinations? Are you painting more intense stuff when you’re really symptomatic? It’s not just looking at recovery; it’s looking at how symptoms affect the art and maybe — and in Van Gogh’s case this was the sad aspect of it — he became so symptomatic that he was painting obsessively and driving himself more crazy. He wasn’t in recovery using his art. If he’d had a case manager, it would have been great for him.

LD: Does it also make you understand a little more clearly some of the issues people may have with noncompliance — not taking their medication — because obviously there is something exciting and fun and rewarding about being in that highly creative state, even if you can’t function outside of that in your day-to-day life.

JT: Yeah. There are some people who are manic depressed, bipolar, who will tweak their meds so they move from being in a depressed state, or a kind of stable state, to a manic state. Deciding if you want some drama or excitement, ease off on your lithium and start to get more energy and sleeping less, or maybe not sleeping at all — and wow, life is really happening.

LD: It’s interesting.

JT: Trinaty, in the movie, one of the things she says is, “If I paint too much I go crazy. If I don’t paint at all I go crazy. I’ve got to find some kind of place in the middle there.”

None of them says art cures them. None of them says art is the ultimate remedy. It’s not a magic wand. They are all on medication. The medication gets rid of maybe 80 percent of the psychiatric symptoms, and then you’ve got the remaining 20 percent that are still pretty horrific. Each of them complains about hearing voices that are really critical, and they have paranoid thoughts and suicidal thoughts and are really depressed. The art is working to diminish those symptoms.

I think one of the primary findings of the movie is that art functions like meditation. They get into the zone, they do the art, and as they are doing it there is simply no space for the voices. … There are various things that you can do to kind of get into the zone, where you are no longer worrying about your everyday issues — for the normal person — but for the psychiatric issues, it’s interesting that as they paint and do sculpture, those symptoms are sort of driven out. It’s almost like deep space for the psychiatric symptoms, because what’s there is this intense focus on the art. They are channeling some muse, and there’s no room for depression, no room for paranoia in that place. It’s really impressive.

LD: I can’t wait to see it. It sounds really interesting.

JT: Yeah, it’s moving. It’s uplifting in some ways. There’s a lot of insight into what it is like from the inside to be suffering from these kinds of symptoms. I think a challenge to people is how to be creative around psychiatric symptoms, and even if you’re super creative like them, you’re still dealing with this stuff. It’s not like it ever goes away, and that’s pretty sobering to think that with the best medications, we have a lot of really good treatment here in Santa Barbara. These people have really good support systems. They’re doing art. Even then, they still have to suffer a good deal with these psychiatric symptoms. … Going into it, I was thinking they really are going to be ahead of the game with this. But they are ahead of the game in terms of a lot of other people who struggle with more stuff. Still, their everyday battle is with a lot of depression, hallucinations and things.

LD: Will you show it locally on public television?

JT: Yeah. It’s 58 minutes, and it’s been shot and edited for use as a TV documentary. We have in mind showing it on Channel 17.

LD: Great! You mentioned that you paint. What else do you like to do when you’re not working?

JT: I have done ceramics, so artistic stuff. I love going to art galleries. I don’t read books; I listen to podcasts. … I like watching documentaries.

LD: If you could be invisible anywhere, where would you go and what would you do?

JT: I think I would have liked to be invisible in the world of Winston Churchill during World War II, just to witness how he and his team prevailed in that horrible conflict. … I’d love to be on the International Space Station, is my second thought.

Vital Stats: J.T. Turner

Born: Dec. 26 (Boxing Day) in Tenby, Great Britain

Family: Two adult children, James and Kim

Civic Involvement: Rotary Club of Montecito

Professional Accomplishments: Formerly an anthropology and sociology teacher, Turner has worked in the mental health field since 1979, and has been executive director of Phoenix of Santa Barbara since 1996.

Favorite Podcast: “The time I used to spend reading I now spend listening to podcasts, especially Terry Gross’ ‘Fresh Air’ and Bob Edwards’ ‘Weekend.’”

Little-Known Fact: “I am addicted to Banana Republic clothes.”

[Noozhawk’s note: Crazy Art will screen at 10 a.m. Monday at Victoria Hall and at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Lobero Theatre. Click here to order tickets online, or purchase them at the door.]

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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