The art show Still Sane hit the Vancouver art scene in the fall of 1984. It told the story of Sheila Gilhooly’s entrapment within the beast that psychiatry was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when homosexuality was still a category in the DSM (Diagnostics and Statistical Manual) and sexism was rife in the profession. Twenty-seven female figures with anguished faces, inscribed with Sheila’s stories of incarceration, greeted visitors to the Women in Focus Gallery. Just twelve months later the book Still Sane rolled off the presses of the local feminist publisher Press Gang, bringing the show’s compelling mix of feminist, lesbian and mad politics to a much wider audience.
Born in 1951, Sheila Gilhooly grew up in Ottawa. Her story is very different from those of most LGBTQ youth today.
When I first went to college, there I was in a college library, all anonymous, no one cared what I took out and I looked up homosexuality and there were two references. One was to The Well of Loneliness which is a really depressing novel by Radcliffe Hall. The other was The Omnibus of Abnormal Psychology, which had a write-up in it. So I didn't find myself in either of those two places. (Sheila)
After her first sexual experience with a woman, Sheila came out to a counselor as a lesbian. She spent the next three years of her life in and out of the psychiatric wards of various hospitals, undergoing electric shock treatment, and enduring constant admonitions to dress and act in a more feminine fashion. After her last hospitalization, Sheila found supportive lesbian and feminist communities. Moving to Vancouver in 1981, she became even more active in these circles.
While Sheila gave birth to her story, artist Persimmon Blackbridge acted as midwife and nursemaid. Another 1951 product of the post-war baby boom, Persimmon grew up in the United States and moved to Vancouver in her teens. Recovering from a breakdown at age eighteen, she became an artist, a lesbian and a feminist. Much of Persimmon's art is political in nature, and her subject is often the people in her life and their experiences.
Persimmon was someone who not only asked the next question, but really asked it from a very knowing place... And it was kind of okay to talk about. Then that inspired her, being an artist, to want to do an art piece on the subject of lesbians being locked up for being lesbians. (Sheila)
Sheila and Persimmon met in a life drawing/ life sculpture group – Sheila was the model and Persimmon was the artist. As the two got to know each other, part of what connected them was sharing about their histories as psychiatric survivors. The two had a short and intense romantic relationship, and a much longer artistic alliance.
Basically Sheila did the writing, I did the art work but I was her editor and she was my co-conspirator, like she came up with a lot of the ideas for the sculpture and she was always saying “Okay that's working...oh no, that's not working” and so we had our fingers all over both pies and so did a lot of other people. (Persimmon)
What started as a couple of sculptures turned into a three-year collaboration. Persimmon constructed molds of Sheila's body and used them to create a series of life size clay figures. Sheila wrote stories about her experience of being institutionalized, which was inscribed on the sculpture pieces. Art that incorporated the visual and the written was still seen as out-of-the-ordinary in the mid-1980s.
Recalling their collaboration, both Sheila and Persimmon speak to the role of community in making the project a reality, with friends contributing money and moral support. This culminated in a pre-show presentation of the sculptures at a party in Sheila's living room, where the two women were encouraged to go public with their art. A group sculpture of five smiling women portrayed Sheila, Persimmon and three friends.
The 1984 show was a revelation and an affirmation, breaking long-held silences about women who had been psychiatrized, and particularly those who had ended up in the mental health maze because they were lesbians. One entry in the Comments Book read: “I too have been in locked wards. I too am no longer paralyzed with fear, doubt, insecurity. I too am a strong, proud dyke woman.”
I can't even count the number of people who had been locked up, many of whom had never told anyone. It was a place to say “yeah, me too.” I think it was really moving for people, I know it was really moving for me. (Sheila)
Inspired by the Still Sane exhibit, Barbara Kuhne, editor at the feminist publisher Press Gang, insisted that it be turned into a book. A collective came together to assemble articles to accompany Persimmon and Sheila's images and stories and to raise funds to pay the printers’ bill. Sheila said that Press Gang was known for its community spirit and boldness. “Press Gang was always, for a small shoestring press, really brave about printing the things that people might not like, or might think was too controversial,” she noted. The book was released in paperback in November of 1985.
Warmly received and regarded as groundbreaking, glowing reviews of the art show and the book kept pouring in. “Persimmon and Sheila have provided us with a reminder of how vulnerable those of us without money and power really are,” Sima Elizabeth Shefrin wrote in Kinesis, the paper published by the Vancouver Status of Women. “Sheila's story is scary because it could happen to anyone. But the show is also a reminder that individually and especially collectively we can look after ourselves, and change for the better the world in which we live.”
Responding to a San Francisco slide presentation of their work by the two artist-authors, Jenny Miller wrote in the American women’s publication Hurricane Alice, “Everyone seemed to feel that Sheila and Persimmon's work represents a new dimension in the creation of 'mad culture,' and that its effects would be felt for a long time to come.”
Noting that Sheila and Persimmon's mix of feminist, lesbian and mad politics was not an obvious or comfortable combination for everyone, lesbian and mad activist, Dee dee NiHera commented, “Though I've been involved in mad culture for some time, I've never seen anything like Still Sane... To see the sculptures was more than an honour – it was a gift.”
Just when I think nobody knows about it anymore, I'm at a thing and someone comes up and says, “I remember a show that you and Persimmon Blackbridge did that really meant a lot for me.” (Sheila)
I am completely and always proud of Still Sane. (Persimmon)