For a long time in Vermont, saying someone was “going to Waterbury” either meant that person was literally being confined in the state mental hospital or it was a euphemistic way to call him or her nutso. But in the post-Irene era, the forced closure of the flooded institution, and its pending demolition, have inspired a bit of nostalgia in some locals — or, perhaps, a sense of history and the impulse to commemorate it.
Waterbury resident and Representative Tom Stevens (D-Washington-Chittenden 1), a crew of artists and a handful of mental-health-related nonprofits have collaborated on an art installation and closing ceremony at the former hospital. It will be held this weekend in the Vermont State Office Complex’s 4 South building, which was once a library and, before that, a ward, Stevens says. The doomed hospital building itself is off limits because of FEMA constraints. “The state is trying to make the argument that it is not safe,” Stevens says.
Inspired by an installation by artist Anna Schuleit at a mental hospital in Massachusetts, Stevens — a self-described “theater person” — took it on himself to direct what he likens to a play. “I’m trying to keep my artist hat on,” he says. “I’m not doing this as a state rep. I just thought it needed to be done.”
He’s hoping people will come, talk and share their thoughts, good and bad, about the former hospital. A speakerphone will be available for anonymous comments. “People will bring different concepts to the memory of the place,” Stevens says. “We did a lot of things here; not all are good, not all are bad.”
Attendees will be able to walk through creative displays of “historical material, a sound installation by [Burlington artist] Jenn Karson and preflood photographs of the hospital by Neil Dixon.” Some of those photos are inside the Brooks, or “B” Building, whose first floor “had the most difficult patients,” Stevens explains. Dixon’s photo “Door 101” (pictured) shows the entrance to that ward, its cold steel, locks and alarms conveying the harsh reality of maximum security. Dixon is the proprietor of Yankee Imaging in Montpelier, a business that creates architectural and archival images.
Stevens credits the state’s buildings and general services department and state curator David Schütz with supporting this project. The Vermont Association for Mental Health & Addiction Recovery is its fiscal agent. Stevens notes he expects “further input” from a group called Vermont Psychiatric Survivors. “Patients are not all on the same page” about the state mental hospital and the treatment they received there, he says. “Some of them want a truth commission.”
However the next chapter of mental health care in Vermont unfolds, some of its stark history will be aired this weekend, perhaps giving some participants a funereal sense of closure. And, chances are, the phrase “going to Waterbury” will take on new meaning for a town united by devastation and energized by rebirth.
‘Going to Waterbury:’ Art installation open Saturday, October 27, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an ongoing public forum from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 4 South, Vermont State Office Complex. A moment of silence will be observed on Sunday, October 28, at 2 p.m. Closing ceremony with ME2/orchestra on Sunday, October 28, at 7 p.m. at St. Andrew Church, Waterbury. Info, 244-4164.