‘I am a special human being. I cannot go to university, but I know what it takes to live, and it takes a lot of things.’ N.D.
Man, who art thou?
Experiencing social living. To the questions ‘What is a human being?’ and ‘What does it mean to me to be a human being?’, the residents of a social therapy institution responded with ‘text images’.
The people in the socio-therapeutic work and life community at Humanus-Haus, near Bern, live in family-style groups. In independent community houses, four to ten residents live with their carers and their children, and other co-workers. In some houses staff live outside. In this way it is possible to meet a wide range of support needs.
Sentence by sentence, a path to self
For a year now, residents of Haus Humanus, Beitenwil, have been working artistically with the question: ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’ ‘Text images’, as speech therapist, Monika Kellersberger, calls them, were the result. Following discussions on the theme, residents wrote their most important phrases on large coloured sheets. The authenticity and originality of their formulations are touching:
‘The human being has two legs and two arms. It can work. I need air and other people, otherwise it’s boring. It is important that I can decide my own life, because I do not want the things everybody else wants.’ (E.H.)
‘I am a special human being. I cannot go to university, but I know what it takes to live, and it takes a lot of things.’ (N.D.)
‘I came to earth to carry out a task. Only one thing that is important: when I am not well enough I must try and get better again.’ (F.B.)
‘I am an artist for sure. I do paintings as birthday and Christmas presents. I am an artist, because other people say I paint well and I say with all my heart that I am an artist. In my room, I copy, poems and things like that.’ (M. F.)
An image instead of the missing words
I have often been surprised by the people who have painted in this project. Surprised by the self-understanding of what has been expressed, by the certainty of choice of colours, by the elementary and archaic character. I observed the phases of waiting, then holding back, followed by clear, assured brushstrokes. Those who painted approached the subject in many different ways. Some reworked past experiences, others placed religious themes in the centre, or fairy tale characters, or friends and companions – or simply themselves. I limited my help to the minimum. Some images were painted by people who speak little or not at all. In this way images can compensate for oral deficiency, by providing a medium of nonverbal communication. ‘A bridge to the ‘you’,’ said artist-therapist, Elke Bühler.
Artistic activity, expression of personality
But where is the art in that? Dr. Hartwig Volbehr, a highly experienced psychiatrist in social therapy, writes about this in the book Der Mensch hat eine Unterschrift (Human beings have signatures): ‘The inability to relate is an essential feature of many mental illnesses and many forms of cognitive impairment. For people who find themselves in this situation it is hardly possible to connect, even in very limited areas. They are inside somewhere, but not where it would be necessary in the present. However, it is touching to see how these people can flourish in a creative activity. How they are able to dive into their work and become totally one with ‘It’.’
Every human being is an artist
This observation is crucial: art in this sense is not primarily the result of artistic creation, but the activity of uniting oneself with a creative process. ‘As in all art, what touches us in the art of people with disabilities is that it is created in the face of events that represent resistance, crisis, conflict. This is what makes the imperfect perfect, the naive deep, the simple complex. Under such conditions, as Beuys said, every human being is an artist,’ writes Dr. Rüdiger Grimm.
All quotations are from the book Der Mensch hat eine Unterschrift, Raffael-Verlag, 2010, Ittigen, ISBN 978-3-9521326-6-1n, 38 Fr .-. www.der-mensch.ch (Human beings have signatures.)