With their red-brick walls and stone turrets, many of America's mental hospitals look eerily like sanctuaries. Some of these facilities genuinely endeavored to do good. Others have darker histories, belied by the elegance of the architecture. In The Empty Places, a photo collection and soon-to-be-produced documentary, Ralena Gordon tries not just to depict the physical structures that once housed the mentally ill, but to imbue them with emotion and memory.
A fundraiser to push the project is set for 6 p.m. this Saturday, April 14, at the Mercury Cafe.
"It started out as an architectural interest. It was a senior thesis in college that just sort of took over my life," Gordon says, adding that as she worked on the photographs, the thesis project evolved into a desire to know more about "the people who build these places -- what is their history? How does that affect people?" For Gordon, the project was very personal: Her own grandmother was institutionalized at a young age.
What started as simply documenting the architecture of institutions turned into five years spent chronicling how American society has dealt with mental illness, during which Gordon visited fifty institutions across the country: well-known sites like Mclean Hospital of Massachusetts, which housed Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell; the thought-to-be-haunted Anoka State Hospital of Minnesota; and the infamous Topeka State Hospital in Kansas, where patients were abused and, in some cases, forcibly sterilized. And Gordon isn't done; she hopes to document eight or nine institutions across the South this year.
Gordon has two goals for Saturday's fundraiser. The first, she says, is "getting awareness about this project and about mental health needs out to the community." The second is the more concrete goal of raising enough funds to finish the project within the year. Gordon is thoroughly engrossed in telling this "rich, interesting, kind of forgotten history," but it's hard work, and she has so far funded the entire project herself.
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So this weekend she'll get backup from local speakers, musicians and the Merc."There will be live music, information about mental health facilities, a local speaker will talk about mental health. And it'll be fun to show the teaser that I have, a little ten-minute film," says Gordon of the program that will give an overview of her work; following that, she will host a Q&A session for those interested in learning more.