Shame. Disgrace. Fear. Isolation. These are some of the range of experiences attached to mental illness due to the misconceptions and stigma present in our society. Stigma associated with mental illness often stems from a lack of understanding and accurate education. As stated by the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, some of the myths associated with this specific disorder include the belief that the person diagnosed with schizophrenia is violent, lazy or irresponsible, morally weak, and untreatable. This couldn’t be further from the truth in the experiences of the late Robert Vander Plaats, an artist whose works were featured at the recent Hearts and Tears Exhibit in Hamilton, Ontario. The exhibit, held from May 16 – June 12 at the Flagship Gallery (semaphore.ca) and co-hosted with the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (schizophrenia.on.ca), sought to create public awareness for the disease in order reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
The Flagship Gallery is located in the heart of Hamilton’s vibrant James Street North art district, an area that has seen extensive revitalisation over the past few years. It is a cooperative gallery founded as an extension of the Semaphore Fellowship, an international group of Christian artists who work to provide support for visual artists within the faith community. The Flagship Gallery was first established to create a place where new artists and fine arts students could launch their careers, but it also works to aid the spiritual and cultural community through artistic and educational work. Peter Reitsma, one of the artists at Flagship, initiated and organized the Hearts and Tears exhibit along with gallery curator Amanda Fintelman. As a long-time friend of Robert Vander Plaats, Reitsma planned this show to honour his friend and fellow artist by creating a glimpse into Vander Plaats’ life both as an artist and as a person who struggled with schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia, not to be confused with split or multiple personality disorder, is a serious, chronic brain disease that affects how one determines what is real or not real. Although various symptoms manifest in many different ways, a person with schizophrenia will often experience hallucinations, in the form of voices and delusions. While the cause is unknown, this disease can be treated through medication. For Vander Plaats, the disease manifested itself in the constant stream of voices, multiple interior dialogues that would speak over each other, at times abusive, making it extremely difficult for Vander Plaats to isolate his own interior thoughts.
Robert Vander Plaats (1949-2013), son of CRC minister Rev. Gerrit Vander Plaats, graduated from Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa in his early twenties. He then studied at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, Ontario, where Reitsma and Vander Plaats became friends. They were both involved with social advocacy and discovered their love for art around the same time. Vander Plaats also loved music, especially jazz. He went on to obtain his PhD at York University in Toronto. He taught high school, was married and became a proud father. Then, in 1979, he suffered a breakdown that led to the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Vander Plaats turned to art as a means of therapy, painting hundreds of pieces up until his death last June. After his funeral, Reitsma was approached to assist with his large art collection. Reitsma worked to restore the many pieces that were wrapped in newspaper and placed in storage and facilitated the exhibit opening on May 16, 2014. Before the exhibit, Vander Plaats’ work had never been seen by the public.
At the Hearts and Tears exhibit opening, many friends, family and gallery supporters gathered to remember Robert Vander Plaats and celebrate his life as an artist. Angela Eady of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario spoke about the disease and Hamiltonian poet John Terpstra read several poems, one of which was written for this exhibit entitled “The Common Thread.” The exhibit featured various pieces from Vander Plaats’ collection. There was also a chair with earphones and a recording so that attendees could listen to a simulation of the conditions associated with schizophrenia. The recording, with an overwhelming confusion of voices, was hard to bear after several minutes. In experiencing for a few moments what it might have been like for Vander Plaats, it is astounding that he accomplished the extent of work that he did: “Amidst psychotic episodes, it took a lot of drive to spend a day painting. It’s amazing that he was able to do this until he was 64,” Reitsma said. The Hearts and Tears exhibit was well received and closed on June 12. Reitsma now plans to catalogue the remaining pieces and perhaps set up an online gallery in the future.
All of Vander Plaats’ work is geometric in nature, often depicting the theme of a mandala. Mandala, from the Sanskrit word meaning “circle,” is an art form originating from Eastern symbolism to depict the universe. A mandala will often have four gates that lead to an inner sanctum at the center, representing the spiritual journey from the chaotic, outside world to a place where one might find peace. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung also believed the mandala aided in meditative therapy as a means to rebalance the psyche and work towards wholeness.
In Christian art, the center of the mandala represents an inner space where one can meet God. Mandalas are found in many cathedrals. The most-renowned examples are in the 12th century medieval Chartres Cathedral in France where the mandala form is found in the three famous rose windows and in the labyrinth on the cathedral floor. In each of the rose windows, Christ is depicted at the center. The circular labyrinth on the floor was used by pilgrims as a meditative space to surrender mental distress with the hope of journeying closer to God.
For Vander Plaats, painting allowed him to cage his hallucinations and to create a space where he could meet God. He once told Reitsma that “painting keeps the voices quiet.” Vander Plaats’ mandalas usually depict hearts at the center, as a symbol of God’s love. “Robert knew that God was still there for him and still loved him despite the assailing voices,” explained Reitsma. “Although suffering from schizophrenia, he somehow managed to create a dazzling array of images that are all variations of the mandala theme.” Vander Plaats’ work also has influences from the Pop Art movement with his use of bold, contrasting colours and thick lines. His style indicates a Gaelic influence through cross motifs and intricate designs.
The Hearts and Tears exhibit not only paid honour to a talented artist and friend, but it also sought to eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness and create public awareness that people can still function despite their disease. “One of the misconceptions that exists in our society is that when diagnosed, it’s hopeless, that their life is over, while we know from our work that people can go on to live full lives,” explained Angela Eady, Family and Community Coordinator at the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. “What was really wonderful about the show is that the exhibit showed Robert Vander Plaats as a whole person and how he coped with his symptoms,” she added. “It created a fuller picture of a person, not just a diagnosis.”