Ashes to Art in Library of Dust

From David Maisel's book Library of Dust

From David Maisel's book Library of Dust

From Time Magazine, January 9 2009

Californian photographer David Maisel has spent years shooting the blighted landscapes around America’s copper mines. No surprise, then, that in 2005 he was immediately intrigued when he read a small news item describing the efforts of the Oregon State Hospital to move the cremated remains of thousands of psychiatric patients who had died between 1913 and 1971. The article hardly suggested an art treasure — except to Maisel, who noticed that the remains were stored in copper canisters, which he guessed had probably turned to dazzling colors over the decades.

So they had. In Maisel’s new book Library of Dust, he shows dozens of the canisters in larger-than-life size, their turquoise, pink and gold colors so sumptuous they look more like oil paintings than photographs. On some of the canisters, white powdery corrosion oozes from cracks — the after-effects of regular flooding in their underground storeroom — creating geomorphic shapes in brilliant hues. The abstract beauty of the canisters is a jolting contrast to their grim origins. And to Maisel, that’s the point. “It’s about beauty and horror,” he says. “It’s a double-edged thing — seductive and disturbing.”

The tale behind the canisters is indeed deeply disturbing. They hold the remains of 5,121 people who languished in the psychiatric hospital in Salem, Oregon — many of them for their entire adult lives — for reasons that nowadays might require nothing more than a Zoloft prescription and some couch time. The patients’ conditions listed in hospital records include “worries about sex” and “worries about money” — “things everyone walks around with today,” Maisel says. When these patients died, their relatives either had no money for a burial or no interest in claiming the bodies.

The possibility that some families might have kept quiet about their relatives’ conditions struck a nerve with Maisel. He recently learned that his grandfather had been treated for severe depression with 12 rounds of electro-shock therapy before Maisel was born. “Here was this very important piece of my family history and it was almost forgotten within a generation or two,” he says. To their credit, officials at the Oregon State Hospital had neatly numbered and catalogued each cremated patient. But for decades they kept the storeroom of canisters a secret from the outside world. Even when Milos Forman shot the 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the hospital, and used several patients as his extras, the room’s existence wasn’t revealed.

Now under new management, the hospital has decided to lift the shroud of secrecy around the storeroom and its contents. And Maisel’s photos have prodded staff to release the records of some patients to relatives who can produce death certificates proving their family connections. One of those patients was Ada Winterburn, whose stay at the hospital was uncovered by distant cousin Katherine O’Connor as she researched her family history. O’Connor had previously asked to see Winterburn’s records, but the hospital refused to share them with her — until Library of Dust was published.

The records reveal that Winterburn had been admitted in 1911 for “melancholy” at 32 and stayed there for 40 years until she died.

“Ada appears to have been one of the many who were committed not because they were insane, but because they were inconvenient,” O’Connor wrote in an email to Maisel. Last August, O’Connor claimed Winterburn’s remains in their canister, which now sits in her study at home in Grant’s Pass, Oregon. “We thought we would bury her on our 10 acres (4 hectares) of wooded land,” she wrote. “But we have found we like having her in the house.” Finally, Winterburn has received in death the warm welcome her family denied her in life.