Nina Royle’s Work in Progress

We catch up with Nina Royle on her work for Hospital Rooms. Nina will be installing her final work in the new Mother and Baby Unit in Exeter at the end of April.


Hospital Rooms is an arts and mental health charity co-founded by curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw. They’re working with artists to transform mental health units across the country with the help of staff and patients.

Seasalt is proud to sponsor three Cornish artists as part of their latest project in Exeter; Lucy Stein, Grenville Davey and Nina Royle.

We visited Nina’s studio to catch up on her work in progress. Nina will be installing her final work in the new Mother and Baby Unit in Exeter at the end of April. There will also be an exhibition at the Phoenix Gallery in Exeter to celebrate the completion of this project, from 3rd May – 30th June.

Nina Royle in her studio, CAST, Helston

Can you tell us about the project?

Niamh and Tim contacted me in November to invite me to be part of the project. It is based in the new MBU that is opening in Exeter. It sounded like a fascinating project and completely different to anything I’ve done before. As an artist it is nice to be asked to make something different in response to a specific place and situation, to make artwork that must empathise with the experiences that the women on the ward have gone through.

It is an important project and something that lots of people don’t know about. I was shocked to find out that this new ward is the first of its kind to provide the provision for mothers that have psychosis through or because of pregnancy to be opened in the South West.

Mental health is stigmatised in our society and not something that is discussed.

In January, everyone involved in the project met in Exeter to meet the staff on the wards and have a look around. We heard more about the project and the staff spoke to us about their work.

The building is beautiful, the architecture has lots of consideration for how the light comes in and how people move through the wards. Usually wards are narrow and cramped. It was good to get an idea about what is important for a patient’s recovery process. It’s one of those things that if you haven’t experienced it yourself and if you’re not a health professional then you have no idea.

Niamh and Tim are good at making everyone stay open minded. You can still plan but they encourage you to work in response to the actual experience of going there and meeting people in a relaxed and open environment.

As part of the commission each artist involved runs a workshop with the staff and patients. It is great to be able to meet them all and develop conversation and context to understand people’s experiences.

What did you do for your workshop?

When I was planning my workshop, I was considering what I can draw from my practice. I thought about what makes me most relaxed and I find making ink and practising brush marks relaxing.

I made oak apple ink called iron gall ink which is beautiful. It is made from oak galls which grow in oak trees, they’re made by wasps laying larvae into the oak tree which is rich in tannin. You soak the galls in water and heat it up, adding iron sulphate which creates incredible black ink. This type of ink is very old, the Doomsday Book is written in it. I like that the ink is natural and sourced from the landscape, I hope people might make it again.

We practised meditative strokes, because they’re so repetitive I feel there is never a good or bad mark. There is just this levelling or peace in how all marks come out, they’re all beautiful or ugly and a nice thing to explore. It was a very relaxed session and a good entry point. I like doing things like brush marks because conversation can flow at the same time.

The oak galls Nina uses to make natural oak apple ink for drawing

How did you select a space in the unit to work on?

When we had our walk around the ward I quickly formed an interest in a room. It is the nursery room which is an enclosed room with two interior windows and I believe it’s going to have seats around it. I like the interior windows, I can play with putting imagery within those, so you can see it when you’re passing in the corridor but then it opens to something bigger when you’re in the space, the windows work as a framing device. The space had a lovely top light and I would like to create a piece of work that feels very quiet and meditative.

I’m going to do a painted mural that will extend with clusters of imagery. I want to incorporate writing in a fragmented way, to extend across three walls of the room but to also maintain white space so it’s not claustrophobic. I want it to feel airy and feel like breath. A piece that is about inhaling and exhaling, something flowing that has a feeling of restfulness.

I’m going to use abstract marks and a brush to reflect that, some figurative imagery that embodies peace and some poetic text embedded. I like the idea of people finding bits within the image each time they sit in the room, something different opens to them.

I’ll be up there installing the artwork at the end of April. It’s quite nerve-wracking having to consider lots of different things. As I don’t live in Exeter I have three days and each day will be mapped out with a different task.

Can you tell us about the constraints you’ve had to consider?

When Niamh and Tim approached me, they said it can be an installation, but it needs to be flat and easy to clean. There can’t be any ligature points and there are lots of practical things to consider. The materials being used need to comply to the NHS’s hygiene levels. The room is going to get a lot of wear and tear, and will need to withstand scrubbing and detergent, so the paint materials will need to be acrylic because it’s sturdy. The work can’t have anything hanging off it that could be removed or canvases if you’re a painter as they’re not hygienic enough.

In some ways it is limited but I think it is fascinating working within constraints. For me it is the first time I have done a mural on a wall, it is pushing my practice in a different way. I’m sure it will crop up somewhere else and feed into my practice at another time.

How we raise money for Hospital Rooms

For every pair of Seasalt socks sold, 20p is donated and the money that we raise from sales of our socks goes to a variety of charities throughout the year. The 20p donation applies to both full price and sale styles, but excludes our multipacks of socks, House Socks, Fair Isle Socks, Welly Socks and Tights.

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