We’re embarking on an exciting creative partnership with Hospital Rooms, an arts and mental health charity co-founded by Cornish curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw.
We caught up with Niamh, Tim and Deap Khambay, head of sustainability at Seasalt, to find out more about Hospital Rooms and the Bluebell Lodge project we’re helping to support.
Tell us about Hospital Rooms – what do you do, and how does it work?
Niamh: Hospital Rooms brings extraordinary art to people in locked mental health units. The units that we work in provide care to people who have severe and on-going mental illnesses and are intensively managed environments. This means they can be very sterile and clinical. In addition, this community faces a significant inequality of opportunity to engage with and be inspired by the arts. We address both issues by commissioning world-class artists like Anish Kapoor and Nick Knight to work with patients and staff to transform these spaces with museum-quality artwork.
At Hospital Rooms, we believe that the arts are among the few tools in this context that have the potential to dignify suffering, inspire hope and alter perceptions. Art encourages conversations, asks questions, instils power, gives voice and offers comfort. It challenges deeply set attitudes and assumptions both in ourselves and in the world.
In addition, we think that creating radically new and beautiful spaces for some of our most vulnerable members of society to recover in has a hand in making people feel valued and connected. We install artwork that you might see in the National Portrait Gallery or in the Tate Gallery, the kinds of spaces that we most revere, in spaces that are in many ways otherwise invisible. We demonstrate the positive impact you can have when treating mental health units with the same respect and care.
What inspired you to set up the charity?
Tim: We set up Hospital Rooms after a close friend was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. On visiting her, at that moment when she was so vulnerable, I was taken aback by the state of the environment. It was safe, but it was highly clinical, sterile and not at all conducive to recovery.
I am an artist and Niamh is a curator, so between us, we had all the skills and contacts to make a change. We pitched the idea to bring artists into these communities, to ask them to collaborate with patients and staff, and to come up with radically new visions for the environments to Medical Director of Springfield Hospital, Dr Emma Whicher. She gave us our first opportunity to work in a locked rehabilitation unit for people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Since then, we have been inundated with requests for projects across the country. The need is very apparent and we have found a novel solution for it.
What made you want to work with Hospital Rooms?
Deap: At Seasalt we believe the wellbeing of our people is very important and we feel very lucky to be inspired every day by Cornwall’s beautiful landscape and rich creative heritage.
Seasalt has worked with numerous charities over the years. Our latest fundraising initiative harnesses the power of socks: for every pair of single socks sold, we’ll donate 20p. The money that we raise from sales of our socks will go to a variety of charities throughout the year.
The first charity we’ve chosen to support, as part of this project, is Hospital Rooms. They are doing critical work to support the recovery of some of the most vulnerable groups of people in society and working with them seemed like a natural fit for us. We’re proud to be supporting such a worthy cause.
Niamh, you grew up in Cornwall – what influence did this have on your creative practice, and how does it feed into your current work?
Niamh: I feel so fortunate to have grown up in Cornwall and I love coming home to see family and friends. The privilege of being constantly surrounded by such epic beauty is something I have never taken for granted. I know how rejuvenative it is to look at our coastline, moorland or endless green space. This access to nature, light and beauty is so intrinsic to our ethos at Hospital Rooms. We try and bring these qualities to units that are largely deprived of them to offer care, dignity and support to people with mental health difficulties.
Your projects focus on co-production, with the artists working in partnership with each unit’s community. Can you tell us more about the process?
Niamh: It is very important that our artists work collaboratively with the communities they create artwork for. Patients have the greatest expertise in the experience of being in these spaces and it is vital that they have a strong voice in determining the environments they receive care in. Equally, staff have clinical knowledge that is required to ensure everything we create is safe and appropriate. We also feel strongly that the artworks should improve their quality of life and be supportive of the work they do.
Each project lasts 8 to 10 months. During this time, artists visit the units multiple time to speak to patients and staff, view the various rooms to get an understanding of how they are used and lead creative workshops where patients contribute ideas more practically. The artists use and interpret all of this information in coming up with their proposals for the units.
What kind of creative workshops do you run for the people in the units you work with, and what has the response been like?
Tim: For each project, we programme a series of workshops that encourage service users and staff to create artworks themselves. The majority of the artists we work with deliver a workshop with us and this can also help to give some context to the work the artists have created in the units. The workshops have been incredibly successful and some brilliant artworks have been made by service users – and we’ve often installed these artworks in dedicated galleries in the units. We were especially impressed with the artworks made by the older people at Garnet Ward, a unit for people with dementia and other mental health difficulties, especially as some of the patients had not picked up a paint brush in more than 70 years.
Tell us about the Bluebell Lodge project – what do you have planned, and what do you hope to achieve?
Tim: Bluebell Lodge will be our first project in an acute men’s rehabilitation unit and we are enjoying getting to know everyone working and being cared for there. We have six artists who will be making work at Bluebell Lodge: Anna Barriball, Mark Titchner, Bob & Roberta Smith, Steve Macleod, Rachael Champion and myself. We also have a donated piece by Antony Gormley that we will be installing.
The unit won’t be easy to make artworks for as it is made up of a number of small and busy rooms, so the artists will have to take this into account and will be in for a challenge!
We want each project to be totally unique and our job is to help make it possible for the artists to create incredible artistic environments in spaces that are very different from the gallery white cube.
We love working in a multi-disciplinary way where we have these enormous challenges to overcome, but with all of the different types of expertise involved, we are able to achieve really fantastic things. The other really rewarding part is getting positive feedback from patients; people have said the artwork is a light in their life – it’s shown them how much they are capable of and that they feel they are part of a wider community. We’re constantly amazed and inspired by the artists we work with and the incredibly inventive ideas they come up with.
Looking to the future, where do you hope Hospital Rooms will be in five years’ time – what do you aim to achieve?
Niamh: We have big dreams for the next few years. We’ve been inundated with requests for projects from mental health units across the country, which highlights the real need we are addressing. We have ambitions to scale up the organisation, increase our capacity and to expand our work across the UK. We want to demonstrate how powerful engaging in the arts can be for people who use mental health services and to be leaders in arts and mental health collaborations.
This support from Seasalt has come at such a pivotal time for us and we are so excited to grow with their support. Together, we will ensure that it is not so extraordinary to have extraordinary art in locked mental health units.
Tim: It is important that we don’t ever rush a project, as the intense co-production process and the quality of the artworks made is so important to the success of the charity. However, we hope that we will be delivering many more projects in the future – we have a very long waiting list, with dozens of locked mental health units asking us to come and work with them.
Our aim is also to have completed projects in all areas of the country in the next few years, and to have changed perceptions of what is possible within locked mental health units.
Funding for the charity is what will help us to continue to grow and to be able to reach more and more people in locked mental health units, and we are so excited and grateful to be supported by Seasalt. Seasalt and Hospital Rooms is a great fit, and we can’t wait to see what the future will hold.
For every pair of single socks sold, we’ll donate 20p. The money that we raise from sales of our socks will go to a variety of charities throughout the year. The 20p donation applies to both full price and sale styles, but excludes multipacks/boxes of socks, Cottage Socks, Fair Isle Socks, Welly Socks and Tights.