First published:Summer 2006
When Dornan died he left about forty drawings that had obviously been made during his time at Kingseat hospital and were precursors to his larger paintings. The text and captions on the drawings from that period are poetic, aphoristic; sometimes clear in their meaning, at other times obscure:
‘Last seen heading towards the brain; it is hard to lose the things you own’, ‘She had dark skin on her kisses: it is only better thinking that will give us a cure for mental health’, ‘Can Dr McDonald trap the brain without damaging it; how elusive is the sun’, ‘My flesh and blood is my age but my life is a million years old’.
Although the drawings portray different items and allude to individuals and situations, they are linked to images of the brain, often by common electrical wiring or by concoctions of vascular systems. Tool-kits, television sets, crank handles, meters, spanners and ships become symbols in an extended metaphor with recurring images which appear to derive from medical text-books. There are references to mental health throughout Dornan’s work, such as ‘today’s education is of a high standard, no-one should be shut away in a mental hospital.’
In the 1960s a lot of changes took place at Kingseat. The discovery of anti-psychotic drugs had revolutionised psychiatry. The ‘villas’ – separate freestanding wards – were no longer locked, recreational facilities were expanded, and segregation of male and female patients was abolished. But by the end of the sixties large institutions such as Kingseat were being wound down and individuals such as Dornan were given no option but to go back into the community.
When Dornan returned in 1967 to live in the cottage he had built for himself in the town of Wairoa, he produced a remarkable body of artwork, painted in acrylics on both sides of large calico sheets attached to wooden strips and rolled up for portability, as Dornan had a continuing dialogue with some of the psychologists he had met in hospital. He often travelled by bus or train and made the long journey to show them – and anyone else who was interested – what he was doing.
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #55