by Julia Saltiel
|"A few weeks ago Joe asked me to speak about Mary's work. I have been
painting with residents and guests in the Arbours Communities since 1983 and I would like to share with you some
of my thoughts about her.
When I began to think about Mary, I found I was also thinking about Joe. In 1978 I was working in an ice cream parlour in the Finchley Road. One Sunday, a bear man walked in to the shop holding two children in his arms. I was taken aback at the strength of this man. He held the children equally, even though they were different ages. They were laughing, happy and the man ordered a huge tub of ice cream. He never faltered, but held them tightly. I thought about this father and his children for many years. It was very impressive to see.
In 1983, I was in an Arbours Community meeting, when the bear man walked in and I recognised him immediately from the ice cream parlour. It was Joe Berke. I had heard about Mary Barnes and I realised that he had contained and held her in the same way that I had seen him holding his children.
In offering Mary a crayon, Joe gave her a tool for expressing her feelings, which she had been out of contact with for so long. Mary painted with her fingers and I feel that she needed to be able to be in touch with her feelings. One of her paintings shows her crouching in one corner in darkness, while all the colour and feelings are in the other half of the painting. Mary was empty and everything was outside her. By painting with her fingers she was able to make contact with her feelings and internalise them, so that she became full rather han empty. I feel that this contact with the paint and her feelings made her real rather than unreal and she could go on to live her life.
She had, as she put it, "gone down," and needed to be looked after like a baby. At first, she painted with her shit, because she felt that this was something she could offer, that she had produced herself. This was the beginning to acknowledging that she was alive. She progressed, with Joe's help and accepted the tool he offered her, which enabled her to continue her work and move on from her regressed state. Her paintings were a constant reminder that she had feelings and she could see that people had feelings towards her paintings too, which reinforced her sense of self.
What is remarkable about Mary is that she can symbolise so much to so many. She represents hope for all of us; that we can acknowledge and survive our madness; that it is possible to repair damage and make reparation through our relationships. Her art became a mediator of her terrible feelings and put them in a safe place where she could look at and think about them, make sense of and then own them.
Mary's later paintings are full of light and continue to include much religious imagery. They are vivid expressionistic images like a stream of consciousness that flow with energy. Mary, herself, describes painting as a movement of body and soul, the essence of an experience.
When one looks at her work one has a powerful sense of her urgency and need to bring to life her visions. She had been saved by her art and was reborn, able to live a whole, creative life. Joe's work with Mary offers us a model, a way of working, that we continue to use today. It shows us that we can contain and hold very disturbing and destructive feelings, that we can think about them and make them understandable.
In this vein I offer Art therapy at the Arbours Crisis Centre. Thus the work that Joe encouraged with Mary Barnes continues: Like Joe I try to offer the guests the tools with which to express and explore themselves with paint. Mary's work is for sale and the proceeds will benefit the continuing work of Mary Barnes."