I have once been hospitalized for depression. One of the first things I noted, even in my detached state of mind, were the prints on the wall. Tired-looking posters of an unidentifiable lake in an undefinable country. Cheaply framed in brown mounts, sticking against the filthy plexiglass. The art felt lost, like me.
Artist Tim Shaw and Curator Niamh White had a similar experience when they visited a friend who was sectioned after a suicide attempt. The hospital mental health unit looked cold and clinical at a time when their friend was at her most vulnerable. With ten years of experience in the art world between them, they realised that they could use art to provide joy and dignity, and to stimulate and heal.
In 2016, Hospital Rooms was born. Staff of hospital psychiatric units around the U.K. quickly woke up to the enormous possibilities that artworks can offer to the wellbeing of their patients, and there is now a long waiting list to receive pieces of work. The charity itself has also grown and currently employs ten members of full-time staff.
Croydon PICU, a unit for men with severe mental health difficulties at Bethlem Royal Hospital, is a good example not just of the variety of artists that Hospital Room works with, but also of the careful process involved in creating the works – a process that is holistic and collaborative. Sonia Boyce, who will represent Britain at the 2022 Venice Biennale, created a large wall-based artwork which is inspired by the patients: it depicts the hands of people of various origins each carrying a different flower with healing properties.
Artist Harold Offeh held workshops in which service users were encouraged to explore the texture of different spaces in their unit through wax rubbings. He then layered the resulting patterns in a composition that was projected and painted directly on the wall of the Dining Room, telling the story of how we map the spaces around us.
That the service users really value the preparatory process is apparent from the many testimonials.
“The workshops and the care of the installations and the effort the artists put in very much validated me as a human being or individual, with permission to need and want a nice environment and made me feel like I was not just a patient-but a person. It felt very inclusive, when sometimes suffering with mental illness can be very isolating”, a service user wrote.
“To have somebody come along and invite you to take part in a workshop and listen to you and talk to you as an equal, that really validates you as a human being,” another said.
The charity has been active in all parts of the country. Greenfields Unit, near Plymouth, offers around-the-clock care for women with long-term mental health issues. One of the artists who made work there is Emma Talbot, who won the prestigious Max Mara Art Prize for Women last year. Most of Talbot’s work is centred around an anonymous, elegant female figure who blends in with the opulent nature around her: lyrical, colourful renditions of flowers and plants.
This is not easy work: it explores a dreamlike, inner narrative as well as socio-political issues such as climate change. But it is exactly this challenging and complex nature of the art that makes Hospital Rooms’ projects so different from a lot of other ‘hospital art’. Instead of settling for gallery-bought work that is neutral and tries to please everyone, Hospital Rooms’ site-specific artworks are inspired by the people and places where they were made. They sometimes evoke difficult conversations; they always ask something from the patients. This kind of art engages different parts of the brain, which is especially helpful for someone suffering from mental illness.
View this post on Instagram
One thing that all the artworks have in common is that they are uplifting and hopeful. Maybe the best example of this is Mark Titchner’s work in Snowfields Adolescent Unit, a residential ward offering mental health care to 12-18 year olds. Titchner is known for large and colourful murals that use text taken from sources as varied as Communist slogans and popular advertising (some may remember his billboards with ‘Please believe these days will pass’ during the lockdowns). The mural in Snowfields’ family room simply says ‘Believe Dreams’, against a backdrop of blue and white foliage.
“If you’ve been in hospital for a while, or don’t have leave, or you can’t go to a gallery, or art has never really been your thing, bringing a bit of the outside world in makes such a difference,” one of Snowfields’ users said. And ultimately, this is what Hospital Rooms does: empower people to dream and to believe through art. And not just any art, but the kind of art that you see in the UK’s best galleries and museums.
Did anyone say psychiatric wards are cold spaces? I didn’t think so.
Photographs courtesy of Hospital Rooms
Sabine is a member of Hospital Rooms’ Development Committee