John Devlin: his Personal Views of Psychosis & Art
First exhibited in Halifax from September 2015 to January 2016, and now on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth location, Spring in Cambridge: the Visionary Drawings of John Devlin features works by the Nova Scotian artist from an outsider perspective charting the physical, emotional, and spiritual world.
Born in Halifax, Devlin began his studies in environmental design at Dalhousie University at TUNS faculty of architecture. He went on to study theology at Cambridge University in England in the fall of 1979; however, by spring of 1980 he had his first encounter with mental illness so his studies were cut short and he left a world of architectural antiquity for his hometown to receive specialized care.
Devlin began a creative journey after numerous years in and out of hospitals, discovering that using simple artist tools he could create a different kind of place. So began his construction of a utopian city, inspired by his memories of England, imaginatively re-invented, based on hidden codes, symbols and mathematical ratios, of an imaginary island in Minas Basin, Nova Scotia. This would be his new Cambridge, or Nova Cantabrigiensis.
Devlin recently wrote about his experience of bringing his vision to life, as shared below in his own words.
John Devlin, untitled no. 62, March 1988, mixed media on paper, 21.59x 27.94 cm. Collection Henry Boxer Gallery
Strength in a Delusion: Personal Views of Psychosis & Art
When I had my first taste of psychosis in 1980, I found myself thrust into a puzzling world where normal laws did not obtain. It was like going through a looking-glass, or down a rabbit hole. Kepler, Newton, Darwin et al were abandoned there. Other laws governed the psychotic world, and it was terrifying. Like those who expose themselves to LSD, my life was changed forever. I was given a twisted sort of illumination, but the price of wisdom was damnation. Like Adam & Eve, or Jonathan in the Old Testament who ate the forbidden honey, I saw with new eyes: enlightened, frightened.
I have ever since been trying to fathom the laws which govern and explain the psychotic universe which cut me off so completely from my former life. I had wisdom, but I spoke in riddles. People were mysteries to me, and I found language no longer communicated what I wished. Thus thwarted, I was forced to find other ways of communication, and turned to sketches and diagrams to describe my inner state.
Kepler, Newton, Einstein and the rest no longer worked in my world. In their place was Jesus Christ, God, Satan and all the rest. As well as a mysterious building - King's chapel in Cambridge - which set the wheels in motion, and exposure to which cut me off from former existence.
John Devlin, Untitled, No. 308, mixed media on paper, dated 19 May 1989.
I found the domination of the Biblical drama a mystery, because hitherto I had always been a moderate liberal humanistic person, not a Christian fundamentalist. Because of this split with the past, I was (and still am) trying to design an algorithm which explains and generates the biblical drama. It sucked me into its weirdness, and there was no escape from the bossy voices of Jesus Christ and others, hijacking and governing every detail of my life.
Cut off from past friends and my family, I began delving with my pencil and crayons to describe the bizarre world I now inhabited. This began in a serious way in 1984, and continues to the present: I am gradually beginning to dominate my idées fixes by finding the only meaning I could in a delusion. The delusion of perfect architecture, the delusion of the centrality of Jesus Christ, the delusion of subliminal numerical structures which explain this peculiar new world.
By working and drawing and producing a corpus of over 1100 sketches [available here], as well as literary works I have come to be strengthened by a delusion, and, in this curious way, overcome the problem of communication, the breakdown of language in 1980, and the sense of being thwarted in my new relation with other people by psychosis.
- John Devlin, July 19, 2016
Spring in Cambridge: the Visionary Drawings of John Devlin is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Yarmouth location until November 13, 2016.
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Photo: Ingrid Bulmer.