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Martín Ramírez: Art and Mental Illness

Swedish researchers believe they have uncovered a possible explanation for the link between mental health and creativity. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet studied brain neurotransmitters and receptors and discovered the dopamine system in healthy, highly creative people is similar in some respects to that seen in people with schizophrenia. High creative skills have been shown to be somewhat more common in people who have mental illness in the family. Creativity is also linked to a slightly higher risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.


Certain psychological traits, such as the ability to make unusual or bizarre associations are also shared by schizophrenics and healthy, highly creative people. And now the correlation between creativity and mental health has scientific backing. “We have studied the brain and the dopamine D2 receptors, and have shown that the dopamine system of healthy, highly creative people is similar to that found in people with schizophrenia,” says associate professor Fredrik Ullén from Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Woman and Child Health. Just which brain mechanisms are responsible for this correlation is still something of a mystery, but Dr. Ullén conjectures that the function of systems in the brain that use dopamine is significant. For example, studies have shown that dopamine receptor genes are linked to ability for divergent thought.

Dr. Ullén’s study measured the creativity of healthy individuals using divergent psychological tests, in which the task was to find many different solutions to a problem.

The study shows that highly creative people who did well on the divergent tests had a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus than less creative people,

says Dr. Ullén.

“Schizophrenics are also known to have low D2 density in this part of the brain, suggesting a cause of the link between mental illness and creativity.”

The thalamus serves as a kind of relay center, filtering information before it reaches areas of the cortex, which is responsible, amongst other things, for cognition and reasoning.

“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” says Dr. Ullén, and explains that this could be a possible mechanism behind the ability of healthy highly creative people to see numerous uncommon connections in a problem-solving situation and the bizarre associations found in the mentally ill.

“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” says Dr. Ullén about his new findings.

Martín Ramírez one of the greatest artists of the 20th century all of the work was created inside a mental institution

Last year, The New York Times called the Mexican artist Martín Ramírez “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.” What is so remarkable about his achievement, beyond the mesmerizing repetition of lines and images in his drawings, is that all of the work was created inside a mental institution.

Mr. Ramírez, who died in 1963, was an immigrant who fell on hard times during the Great Depression, and for the last 30 years of his life he was institutionalized after a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

After a major exhibit of his drawings last year at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, a cache of previously unknown work was discovered. Now 25 of those new drawings, created during the last three years of his life, are on display at the museum through April 12. This weekend, the museum is presenting a panel discussion in which historians and sociologists will explore Mr. Ramírez’s life and work, including the circumstances of his diagnosis and whether his work really reflects a mental illness.

Scientists have long studied the link between creativity and mental illness, and the lines between the two are often blurred. Studies suggest that creative people often share more personality traits with the mentally ill than “normal” people in less creative pursuits. One Stanford University study compared patients with bipolar disorder with a group of healthy people. They found that graduate students in creative disciplines shared more personality traits with the bipolar patients than with their healthy but less creative peers, according to a study published last year in The Journal of Affective Disorders.

In the case of Mr. Ramírez, scholars continue to debate whether the artist really suffered from mental illness. Some see a thoughtful sanity in the work. Brooke Davis Anderson, the director and curator of the Contemporary Center at the Folk Art Museum, says the latest exhibit shows that Mr. Ramírez developed artistically over the years, employing a greater use of color and a bolder exploration of the abstract near the end of his life. And unlike art that is sometimes typical of the mentally ill, she said, he didn’t need to fill in every space on his canvas.

“That diagnosis does stick to him,” said Ms. Anderson, who will be speaking on Saturday’s panel at the museum. “But he wasn’t afraid of white space at all, His reliance on motifs and animals indicate a more sane and less mentally ill part of Mr. Ramírez. There’s great diversity in the decorative palate, composition and scale.”

Whatever the answer, the work and the artist’s personal story are fascinating. He created art long before the days of “art therapy” classes. Later in his career he was given art supplies, but early on he was forced to cobble together his own tools to make art. He made bowls out of dried oatmeal, grabbed scraps of paper in the hospital, used burnt matchsticks to draw, and made paste for collages out of potatoes and saliva.

About Martin Ramírez

Did Martín Ramírez create art because he was mentally ill? Or did he do it to keep from going insane?

Born in 1895, the Jalisco, México native has been hailed as "one of the greatest artists of the 20th century" by The New York Times. Ramírez, who spent most of his life in mental institutions, was considered an "outsider artist" – art made by someone out of touch with reality.

In 1925, a 30-year-old Ramírez left México to look for work in California, leaving behind his pregnant wife and three kids. After finding employment in mining and railroad construction, Ramírez kept in touch with his family by sending letters, many of them containing drawings in the margins.

By late 1930, the Great Depression left Ramírez both jobless and homeless. A year later, he was detained by San Joaquin County police for erratic behavior and an inability to communicate. Ramírez was committed to Stockton State Hospital for manic depression and was eventually diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic.

A self-taught artist who only spoke Spanish, Ramírez spent his days drawing cowboys, trains and churches on whatever he could find, including paper cups and pages torn from books. Instead of using crayons to draw, Ramírez melted them and used the wax as ink. He also used a matchstick as a pen and a tongue depressor as a ruler. Many of his early work was destroyed, as hospital workers were instructed to throw away or burn his drawings.

After being transferred to DeWitt Hospital, Ramírez was visited by Tarmo Pasto, an artist and psychology professor at Sacramento State College who was intrigued by Ramírez's drawings. Pasto spent years observing Ramírez, who rarely spoke while institutionalized and only occasionally answered "sí" to the psych professor's inquiries. Pasto eventually arranged art shows featuring Ramírez's work, but many of the Mexican artist's drawings didn't surface until after the death of Pasto in 1986.

In 2007, New York's American Folk Art Museum opened the first major art show featuring Ramírez's art. That same year, over 140 of his drawings were discovered by Peggy Dunievitz, who had the pieces sitting in her garage for years. The daughter-in-law of Dr. Max Dunievitz, a doctor who also observed Ramírez at DeWitt, Dunievitz says her family nearly threw the drawings away.

Now with over 400 drawings to take in, scholars are drawing connections between the themes in Ramirez's art and his life in México. The churches resemble those he grew up with in Jalisco. The horses were similar to the ones Ramírez learned to ride as a child. The trains and tunnels symbolized distance and isolation. Maybe Martín Ramírez was very much in touch with reality.

Ramírez died at DeWitt State Hospital in 1963. He was 68 years old.







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