One of the tiny offices on the third floor, with orange tulips at mid-day.
In 2003, a building housing the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) was slated for demolition to make way for updated facilities. The closure was a time for reflection and remembrance as the MMHC had been in operation for over nine decades and had touched thousands of patients and employees alike, and the pending demolition presented a unique problem. How does one memorialize a building impossibly rich with a history of both hope and sadness, and do it in a way that reflects not only the past but also the future? And could this memorial be open to the public, not as a speech, or series of informational plaques, but as an experience worthy of they building’s unique story?
To answer these questions artist Anna Schuleit was commissioned to do the impossible. After an initial tour of the facility she was struck not with what she saw but with what she didn’t see: the presence of life and color. While historically a place of healing, the drab interior, worn hallways, and dull paint needed a respectful infusion of hope. With a limited budget and only three months of planning, Schuleit and an enormous team of volunteers executed a massive public art installation called Bloom. The concept was simple but absolutely immense in scale. Nearly 28,000 potted flowers would fill almost every square foot of the MMHC including corridors, stairwells, offices, and even a swimming pool, all of it brought to life with a sea of blooms. The public was then invited for a limited 4-day viewing as a time for needed reflection and rebirth.
Perhaps no single installation or piece of art seen on Colossal has touched me more deeply than Bloom. After learning about it for the first time a few weeks ago, I reached out to Anna and asked if she might be willing to share some photos and information about the genesis and execution of such an incredible installation. What follows is a brief Q/A and a number of high-resolution photos that have never been shared before online.
Red Regina Mums in the hallway that was the last one to close—it used to be one of the busiest homeless shelters in Boston.
How did you first become involved with the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, were you approached or did the impetus of the project begin with you? Had you done anything like this previously?
In 2003 I was working as visiting artist in a psychiatric institution in central Massachusetts when I got a call from another institution in Boston that was about to close. I was asked if I would consider creating a project for the closing of the historic building—the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. I said I needed to see the building, learn about its history and people and its particular architecture. I had done this sort of work before, at the Northampton State Hospital in 2000, a project that took me almost four years to complete. But here I had no more than three months to do the entire project, start to finish. So I started immediately. I asked for an office in which to crash and brainstorm, a key to every door in the building, and a person who knew all its stories. It took me about a week to create the concept for the project, and then three whirling months to make it happen.
The Child Psychiatry unit with white tulips. Photo by John Gray.
The basement of the building was covered with 5,600square feet of live sod, which was raked and watered throughout the day, and continued to grow. Photo by John Gray.
Bloom seems perfectly situated at the intersection of many different ideas and mediums, functioning as a memorial, an art installation that was experienced as an event, commentary on the environment of mental heath centers, and now as photography. Were you looking for a particular outcome or response with any of these?
I was hoping to create a work that would bring aspects of play into the seriousness of the institution, an element of the absurd. It would have been infinitely easier to work with just a few hundred flowers, or a few thousand even, but I wanted to reach my goal of twenty-eight thousand, because it had occurred to me at the beginning of the project that that was the minimum number that was missing here. If it had been a project merely for photography, we wouldn’t have needed so many. But it was really a project for the passing visitor, someone coming in, in real time, from the street and finding this sea of color inside the building, and throughout. A multitude of greetings on every floor. Really, simply, a work of the imagination. That’s all I hoped for. I was amazed by how many people wandered through the building on those four days.
Pink Heather in one of the patients’ waiting rooms. These flowers had traveled the farthest to be part of ‘Bloom’—from California.
Was it difficult it was to install so many flowers and plants? How many people were you working with and what was the process for getting everything in and out of the MMHC?
The concept for Bloom came to me as a site-specific installation to mark the transition of the life and history of the institution toward its closure, from its physical state to the remembered. I imagined the project on a 1:1 scale with the building, on all floors and hallways. Twenty-eight thousand flowers arrived on trucks in the span of a few days, all needing to be watered as they came in, all having to be placed in the building, unwrapped, arranged, watered again. I had a team of about eighty volunteers to help me with this, all spontaneous helpers. After four public days of “Bloom”, the building was closed for good and we delivered all twenty-eight thousand flowers to shelters, half-way houses, and psychiatric hospitals throughout New England—which is why I didn’t want to work with cut flowers. I wanted these flowers to continue onward, after the installation. Bloom was a reflection on the healing symbolism of flowers given to the sick when they are bedridden and confined to hospital settings. As a visiting artist I had observed an astonishing absence of flowers in psychiatric settings. Here, patients receive few, if any, flowers during their stay. Bloom was created to address this absence, in the spirit of offering and transition.
One of the longest axes of the building: white mums and orange tulips on the first floor
How did visitors react to seeing Bloom for the first time? Did you hear from anyone who had previously worked in or stayed at the MMHC to see how they experienced it?
The reactions to Bloom ranged from expressions of delight to raw and renewed sorrow. It was a strange duality: at its core this project was intended to allow people free access to a building that had always been locked and mysterious, while opening its doors also (and especially) to those who had been there for years. The building meant many things to many people, as a workplace, a refuge, a place of confinement. The installation of live flowers and audio (a collage of the sounds of the building before it closed being played over the old PA system) elicited as many reactions as there are stories. I met many hundreds of people who had worked and been at MMHC for years and decades. It was for them that I created this work. We had a guest book in the lobby which filled up with many entries, here are some:
“I walked through Bloom with a close friend of mine who has spent a great deal of time inside similar hospitals. He was close to tears and repeated said he felt the desire to jump into the flowers, sum bold for the freedom and the celebration of his own growth and healing. We recognized that Bloom brought beauty and wonder to what has always been an inherently taboo subject matter.”
“‘Never worry alone’ was a Dr. Tom Gutheil classic line, but because of the lack of social support, too many patients who came here had to worry alone. Anna saw these corridors as places to be filled with growth. For all the patients who never received flowers, these flowers are for you.”
“My therapist’s office was in the basement and the floor is covered in grass. Grass does not bloom but it cushions and it is in the right place. It is the foundation, it softens everything. Conceptually it is brilliant.”
“My mother told me, 36 years ago, “Hang on. They’ll find a cure.” I was suffering alone until I came to MMHC. And today… oh so grateful… beyond any words, so grateful. Lives and sufferings have been redeemed here, and today we celebrate and honor, all of us, in this place, for better or for worse. Today, we flourish. The list of what we cannot do grows shorter and shorter. We become comfortable in a world of three dimensions; we gladly surrender the fourth, fifth, and sixth.”
Treatment rooms on the first floor, with orange tulips.
The connecting hallway between the historic part of MMHC and the research annex was covered in blue African Violets. Photo by John Gray.
Did the success of Bloom influence or impact work you’ve done since? What have you been doing most recently?
Bloom took so many people to get realized, so many helping hands, such immense logistics—these types of art projects consume all of one’s energy and resources. During Bloom I learned to share and relinquish control in the creative process, to imagine joint efforts on a larger scale, as if it were a movie production but without a product to sell. When it ended we delivered twenty-eight thousand flowers to people behind bars… that doesn’t have much to do with traditional art-making. Right now I’m working on four collaborative projects that revolve around my painting practice, but with a twist: one is a set-design for Ivy Baldwin Dance at New York Live Arts, a form of live-drawing into the space, another is a collaboration with the composer Yotam Haber for 104 paintings and 104 piano pieces. This semester I’m also a visiting artist at the Eastman School of Music, working with four students there on a piece based on colors and musical intervals—which is a new challenge. And then two book projects: an oral history about psychiatric hospitals, and a book on painting.
Orange begonias leading to the doctor’s offices.
I want to thank Anna for her tremendous assistance in putting this article together and for taking the time to share so much about the project. You can learn more about Bloom at its permanent online home, and more about Anna via her website. All imagery above copyright Anna Schuleit.