The Creativity Sanctuary of Lefty Caligari

Sanctuaries are places of refuge, traditionally spaces of respite from subjugation, from oppression, locations of safety to whoever may seek protection from threats to body, mind and spirit. The concept of a sanctuary has association with the notion of an asylum, and the asylum to lunatics to the insane. The lunatic asylum had connotations of repression and secrecy; places where the mentally ill could be secreted away from society, keeping the public safe from psychotic actions and insane constructs of sick minds. This questionable and barbaric construct of the past is but a shameful aspect of medical history. But what if someone had created a alternative asylum, an “art asylum”, an “art sanctuary”, a space for art and healing where the wounds of battle could be healed; repaired by paintings, by poetry, by performances, films and music? It would be a place where the meaning of the conflict with fracture and dislocation could be challenged in a symbolic, linguistic, and creative way. Where dreams would be made to manifest. The battleground the psyche, the field of thought in variance with the everyday, the street, the home, the workplace and indeed with the body itself.

“(I)…began to understand that people with mental illness are blessed with special gifts in the arts. When this gift is organised, channelled, and focused it creates an art that is significant”.  ~ Dr. Janos Marton founder of the “Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Center” – New York Journey of Hope.

AiM (Artists in Mind) was founded nine years ago as such a place for creative self realisation, as a place of respect and freedom of expression. One of the first and vitally important tasks for such a community of artists was to establish together a unifying credo; it became a card carried by everyone involved with AiM:

AiM believes…..
– in the freedom to be creative in our own unique ways, but with freedom comes responsibility to respect the unique vision of others.

– in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect in which non-judgemental listening, sharing and open generosity to others takes place.

– in cultivating and appropriate support and empathy for others, mindful that people can be fragile; taking care not to offload our own problems or views onto others who may not be able to cope at that time.

– in being aware at all times of the safety of oneself and others: not exposing oneself or others to risk through irresponsible actions.

AiM is a creative sanctuary where we all work together to develop a deeper sense of awareness of the world through art. Each person at AiM is unique and precious. AiM expects its artists, staff, volunteers and mentors to behave in ways that accord with these positive attitudes.

This understanding is often in stark contrast to the status of the “mental patient” or the “service user”, labeled with paranoid schizophrenia or personality disorder, to one of an artist who illuminates moves or challenges an audience, sharing deep, beautiful or fearful insights into the human condition. These particular artists can change attitudes, invoke emotional states, and in so doing develop self esteem, confidence and a deep sense of self worth and validation. This creates hope and positivity, and hence artists can in turn help other people to cope with difficulties as wounded yet knowledgeable healers in their own right. They can transform an outlook and way of being in the world and make a powerful contribution to the spiritual health of the community, in any community.

The Dream Weavers of AiM: Lefty Caligari is a remarkable poet and a film maker, suffering from acute anxiety and various aspects of personality disorder. He lives alone in a high rise apartment in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire England. His connection with AiM began when he came to participate in an AiM multimedia project for users of mental health services in Huddersfield entitled Remembering: a Journey to Wholeness. His dark and humorous perspective in the film on what he sees as a “bland society” was powerful and striking from the outset. He took a studio with AiM on a permanent basis in 2010, and began to develop his distinctive filmic style and language. Working with a very basic camera and laptop, he evolved a lexicon of images and sound, eliminating half tone and enhancing the abstractness of his work.

His films created at AiM are dark, claustrophobic intense subjective experiences of psychosis, paranoia and acute anxiety. They challenge us to the core, transfixing us in a voyeuristic gaze, into a world of fear and apprehension. The filmic dream worlds of Lefty Caligari are often disquieting and psychologically subversive. They take us on a journey of obsessions, of feeling moments of a deconstruction of matter into its fragmented, atomic parts.

The work of Lefty Caligari embraces much of the ethos of AiM in that his unique lexicon of images and sound grew from the bed of his experiences with mental distress, and paranoia, but his work is not without humanity, his inherent compassion and empathy with the outsider, the loveless within society shines through all that he does. The creative space at AiM within which to develop one’s voice, one’s language is central to the supposition that Lefty’s unique vision is an antidote to his suffering, and his films allow him the mechanism for expression and articulation of issues bound up with his experiences of mental illness.

Art enriches and makes us strong. An idea cannot be put down with a missile, a bullet or a hammer. Understanding and communication are what separates us as human beings from fruit flies. – Lefty Caligari

Caligari was invited to show his films at “HowTheLightGetsIn” 2011.

AiM is an arts and mental health charity working in the community and in secure psychiatric hospitals. It is based in Huddersfield, a large town in West Yorkshire in the UK famous for its textile industry. AiM has at present 20 artists working full time in its studios in an old textile mill in the town. It holds exhibitions, publishes books and holds performances of films, poetry and drama. AiM is also developing a repository, a “left luggage” office for work by artists isolated by mental distress. This is called “The Creative Archive”.

AiM depends on donations and grants for its survival. Contributions are welcome here.


jholt-27Artist/writer. Cultural theorist. Interests in non western contemporary art; art of the “marginalized” and the value of the creative process in itself. Founder of A.I.M. (Artists in Mind) an arts and mental health charity based in the UK.


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