Art and experience
"It was all very, 'bring somebody in for six weeks, patch them up and send them out. And don't worry about ongoing medication, give them a bottle of pills when they leave and they can sink or swim' ... That's an indictment of the mental health system that they should let you wallow for 20 years."
Anthony Mannix, artist
At times, the most personal connection in Anthony Mannix’s life has been with the extraordinary works he creates.
“All those drawings, they may just be bits of paper, but it was fundamental to who I was to make those things and that’s a unique relationship and the most prized relationship,” Mannix says.
“The big thing it did for me was to make an environment that’s friendly. I could make art and sit there 12 hours a day and it would be a very loving, friendly world even if the external world was quite nasty. I really can’t say that art has saved my life but it did produce a place where I could go and at least be comfortable.”
At a 2013 retrospective of his work at the Sydney College of the Arts, Mannix was heralded as “Australia’s most celebrated Outsider Artist.” His work has been widely exhibited in Australia and is part of collections in the US and Europe.
Inspired by the occult, eroticism and mysticism, he produces his art mainly on paper, using inks, oils, watercolour, tea and ball-point pen.
The works are dark and humorous, often annotated with dense text, and feature recurring motifs – a many-headed beast, high heeled shoes laced up the leg, wide-mouthed faces – all rendered with exceptional technical accomplishment, though Mannix has never had any formal training.
The artworks are an extended portrait of Mannix’s psyche as he spent two decades in the grip of recurrent mental illness, and an escape from the brutal hospital environments in which he found himself.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Mannix was periodically admitted to Rozelle and Gladesville psychiatric hospitals, for involuntary treatment, where he was shocked by aggressive patients and uncaring staff.
“The overall theme was violence. There were a lot of rough edges. After the first couple of times you figure it’s the norm and you’d better handle it.”
The culture at Gladesville, in Mannix’s recollection, was particularly inhumane.
“They had much tighter regimentation and from my experience the staff were much nastier, less humanitarian. At 4 o’clock every afternoon you were taken in from the outside gardens and herded up to the locked-in space. That was always a definitive and glum period of time. You’d spend the next 20 hours completely locked up.
“A psych nurse would be told you needed exercise and she would herd you from one side of the grounds to the other, back and forth, back and forth. It felt really strange, like I’m a bit of a cow, or a steer or a heifer,” he said.
“Sometimes those fairly minor things done to you can be quite destructive. And they might be done to you often, which can be really destructive.
“Some of the staff absolutely hated to be there. You were the cause of everything bad in their life. It’s still quite a mystery to me why at those mental hospitals we were not quite human.”
After two or three weeks, Mannix would be discharged. “In the early 80s I sometimes left hospital and would wander for three or four weeks around Sydney, around the CBD, and you’d see lots of other people in the same boat. Generally I’d have to go back to hospital. Hunger would drive you there,” he said.
“It was all very, ‘bring somebody in for six weeks, patch them up and send them out. And don’t worry about ongoing medication, give them a bottle of pills when they leave and they can sink or swim. Our responsibility is over’.
“For that 20 years there was really no sort of grasp on what to do. That’s an indictment of the mental health system that they should let you wallow for 20 years.”
In the mid 1980s, Mannix took up art in earnest. “It began to be compelling and it occupied the majority of my time and I considered it a job.”
His mental illness, diagnosed first as paranoid schizophrenia and later as schizoaffective disorder, was, “a horrible card to be dealt, but if you can get at it, madness is really a resource – all that visualisation and all that intellectualisation. Even the delusions are quite a profound allegory and analogy about your life. Other people were so down on being sick and I didn’t see it as entirely sick.”
At his home in the Blue Mountains, hundreds of Mannix’s works are stored in piles on the floor; he appreciates them as they age, acquiring a patina of ash and grit. He describes the art he does now as pottering.
At age 60 he still receives a monthly medication injection, and says he is now “no more mad than anyone else”. His life and his art practice are gentler than at the height of his illness, when he would work obsessively.
“Those hallucinations, which are like dreams and tie up with your life, those really profound things are a bit missed,” he says. “But you really need physical stamina to be able to handle all that adrenalin and dopamine and you’ve got to realise your limits.”
Mannix enjoys the recognition his work receives. “I wondered whether that would ever come about but it has come about in the last 15 years and it’s great … It means I’ve built something rather than everything going into a big hole, and I think for probably the majority of psychiatric clients it goes into a big hole.”
He particularly relishes being collected and exhibited at Sydney College of the Arts, which is housed on the former Rozelle Hospital grounds.
“It’s something that appeals to me because I’ve always been a person who thought that if you sit in one place long enough the fruit will drop. It will turn into something different. You really shouldn’t bang into a wall and think, ‘This is all hopeless. I’ll run away’. Things change.”