Expert Advisory Day

Today I had arranged to go to Chinatown with some friends, but they cancelled (due to perfectly valid reasons). However, nothing can come between me and dim sum, so I went by myself. It may not seem like much, but I felt like it was an important step, and demonstrates just how comfortable in my own company nowadays; there have been times in my life when I haven't been able to go out at all. There have been other times when I have gone to a restaurant and embarrassed my significant other by wolfing down my food and hightailing out of there, so convinced in my paranoia that other diners and staff were watching and talking about me, and could somehow tell there was something wrong with me just by looking.

Today I spilt half a cup of tea on the tablecloth, mopped it up with a napkin, and thought no more of it. And yes, that does feel like an important step.

I have been thinking a lot about mental health this week, as well as food. On Monday I went to an "expert advisory day" organised by the delectable Daily Life Ltd. Daily Life is an arts and mental health organisation collaborating with, and co-producing the work of, individuals and artists with experience of mental distress. Daily Life is headed by Bobby Baker, an artist about whom Nigel Slater said "I would go without food for a week just to get a ticket for her next show". I'm inclined to agree with him. I have been lucky enough to have been invited along to a couple of Daily Life events since first seeing Bobby and Co. present Mad Gyms and Kitchens back in 2012. I have written about the Experts By Experience workshop, run in collaboration with Jake Spicer of Draw Brighton here, and the resulting exhibition, The Expert View (in which a teeny weepy drawing by yours truly featured), here.

The purpose of the expert advisory day was for Daily Life to bring us up to speed on their activities and ambitions, to discuss language and the media around mental health, strategies around being a mentally ill artist and getting work out there, quality control in disability arts, and finally to share our work with likeminded (obviously in more ways than one!) peers.

It didn't take long for my blood to boil. This was brought on by our discussion around representation in the media. I was glad to hear that Bobby, as well as many of the other artists and activists present, feel a sense of disparity between all that we can offer as people with varied and unique life experiences (which often lead to us having a greater sense of empathy and social justice, as well as providing a rich seam of strikingly original ideas and creativity), and media and political portrayals of "the mentally ill" as "burdens", or, as I put it, "the great unwashed".

I doubt many people, on first meeting me, would be able to tell I have a mental illness (well, if they didn't take the bright clothes and pom pom earrings at face value, anyhow!) I'm bubbly, upbeat, friendly, and at first glance, confident. Not society's view of people who have had some of the life experiences I have; I rather suspect the tabloid press would instead expect me to be blithering in a corner.

It's almost as if the attitude to disabled people in general is that we are a problem to be solved, and, in extreme cases, that we originated the source of that problem ourselves. This is the medical model of disability. The social model is that society should accommodate the so-called "disabled", and give them every opportunity to not be a burden and instead make the most of their abilities; to contribute.

I mentioned sitcoms such as the pervasive Big Bang Theory, in which characters fairly regularly "accuse" each other of "acting totally psychotic". So often I have wished I could tell the writers of these shows that the word they are searching for is "psychopathic", and that they probably don't mean that their characters are being talked at by the washing machine (true story).

Misuse of language is not restricted to low-brow entertainment, either; in academic texts, slippery and changeable literature is sometimes referred to as "schizophrenic". The words these writers are searching for are "dissociative identity disorder". They are rather making the same mistake as Celtic fans did when they learned one of the team's players was schizophrenic and began chanting "Two Andy Gorams, there's only two Andy Gorams" at matches.

Luckily, despite our ranting and the odd #crazypersonproblems joke, we were there to talk about the work. Bobby shared with us the history of her career, struggles and triumphs as an artist, with her trademark warmth and generosity. Aidan Moseby presented his linguistic and empathetic ingenuity. It was fabulous to meet Jacqui Dillon, chair of the Hearing Voices Network, to know that there are so many people out there like me, we're not completely abnormal, and there is peer support for us. James, aka thevaccuumcleaner, talked about his deceptively simple utopic asylum project Mad Love, and his upcoming performance of his one-man show, Mental, in Sigmund Freud's bedroom, which I am so excited about.

Next week, on Thursday the 7th (election day!) and Friday 8th May, Daily Life Ltd are presenting their first micro festival. The Expert View brings together the work of Bobby and Daily Life and a whole host of artists, organisations and activists. These include Selina Thompson, who makes big-hearted, challenging, participatory performance art I could watch again and again, Jacqui of the Hearing Voices Network talking about her work in more detail (which unfortunately I won't be around for, but you should hear Jacqui speak if you can), and oh so many more. I'm gutted I can't get around to see it all, it's such an exciting prospect. Perhaps converse to your expectation of an arts and mental health festival, I guarantee that you will leave feeling elated. I always do when I spend time in the presence of these wonderful people. They are the future, and I am more than up for the ride there.

The Expert View

Louise Bourgeois' scrawled slogan "Art is a guaranty of sanity" and Tracey Emin's "I need art like I need God" are both saying the same thing. That art is at once proof of our humanity, and also transcends it. That the human spirit is endlessly resilient and capable of greatness, whatever hardships have befallen us, whether external or internal.

I kept this in mind as I visited The Expert View on Thursday evening. The installation of light boxes in Dalston Square is the culmination of Daily Life Ltd's Experts by Experience workshops, shown alongside Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings. As I explained in another post, I was lucky enough to be a participant in one of these workshops, and, I'm thrilled to say, one of my little drawings is included in the exhibition.

I was surprised that such a humble offering was included, particularly with the wealth of talent on display. Ironically, when I went to art school I became less confident in drawing; to begin with, my work was mostly text based, and then embroidery became an all-consuming compulsion, where I would stitch the design directly on to the cloth without figuring it out on paper first. Experts by Experience has inspired me to pick up the pencil (and inks, and paints, and pastels, and...) and learn how to draw again. I feel it can only be good for my textiles practice.

Despite my misgivings about my artistic capabilities, at The Expert View I was overwhelmed with positive responses to this tiny illustration of my erstwhile expertise at crying. People seemed to find it very touching, which to some extent was unexpected; I find it rather humorous. I think, in mental health, humour about the situations we find ourselves in can be a very powerful resource. That is, so long as we are not laughing at each other, or bitterly at our own "shortcomings", but together at the absurdity of the world we have to navigate.

Bobby's work, of course, is rich with the power of humour. It is very hard to be truly afraid of something if you can laugh at it. Even if that "something" is the amorphous and unpindownable "spectre of mental illness".


The drawing above, of Bobby buying Christmas presents for her loved ones, I found particularly heartening. At our workshop, Bobby showed us this drawing and explained that she loves buying presents for others. I think, in mental health, it can be so easy to discount the things that really matter in our lives; the media and society at large can reduce us to how productive we can be; to scroungers sitting around sponging up benefits, feeling sorry for ourselves, and not "contributing". But people living with mental illness have families; have loved ones; have cherished relationships, and it is of vital importance to celebrate this, because so many of us can feel like our illnesses are a huge burden on those we are closest to. We forget what we give; we forget that the world is a better place because we're in it.

I think The Expert View is palpable evidence of this. It is a celebration; a riot of colour, of life experiences, of the whole gamut of human emotion. There are contributions from mental health professionals, patients past and present, and people who intersect with the field in other ways. Of course, you could be all three, and that is, in part, the point. The question being posed is Who is the expert? And the answer, given in the installation flyer, is another question: Who's to say?

People who study and treat mental ill health, psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers, doctors, nurses; can they ever understand these illnesses in the same way as people with lived experience? I would argue not; unless of course, they have lived experience of mental illness themselves. Certainly, mental health professionals can bring expertise to the table that those of us with lived experience may not have; years of training and study, in-depth understanding of individual illnesses and symptoms, and (hopefully) the compassion which brought them to the profession in the first place. But this can sometimes translate to seeing people as just a set of symptoms to be "cured" and not an individual. Perhaps a more holistic approach is required. Which is where art comes in. 

Daily Life Ltd.'s Experts by Experience workshops were not art therapy. They were not an exercise in psychoanalysing our drawings, or a means of alleviating symptoms. For some of us, these may have been by-products of the workshop, but this was not the objective. What I came away with from the workshop was a profound sense that there is very little separating those designated "mad" and those designated "sane". For some people, that is a deeply troubling thought, but as an individual who has been placed in both categories at different times, I found it comforting. 

This is why I think it is so important for The Expert View to be exhibited in such a public and well-frequented place. Members of the public whose lives have been touched, or not, by mental illness, will happen across the installation in their daily lives. I'm already proud to be a part of this exhibition. If even one person who happens upon it reconsiders mentally ill people as people just like them, I will feel I have made a very small but nonetheless substantial difference for mentally ill people in this country. Being involved in this project has already made a difference to me personally; I'm more open, more outspoken about mental health injustices, and more enlightened. 

The Expert View shows what people with experience of mental ill health are capable of; beautiful, riveting, touching, hilarious, heart-breaking, unique art, positively zinging with life.

Experts by experience

Remember I talked about crying and making art about crying yesterday? Well, today I am reeling from doing the same; making art about crying, but not actually doing the crying itself; from laughing and smiling and making and chatting and absorbing and opening up and being receptive and empathising and oh, the list goes on and on.

You see, I attended a very special workshop today; facilitated by the brilliant Jake Spicer of Draw Brighton, it was run in participation with the also rather brilliant Daily Life Limited, set up by art hero Bobby Baker and based in Stratford (where Pip's from and a short bus ride from me, coincidentally).

I'd met Bobby very briefly once before, when my dear friend Jess and I went to see her performance Mad Gyms and Kitchens at the Barbican. I did write about my experience there, but unfortunately it has been lost in the annals of the internet. Suffice to say it was a practice (if not life) changing experience. Bobby was lovely to meet then, and she was lovely to meet today too, as was Jake, the rest of the Daily Life Limited team who were present, and the other artists participating in the workshop.

The workshop was based around the idea that people who experience mental ill health are experts by experience, and more generally, who is an expert/what makes an expert?

It was suggested (though by no means prescribed) that we consider what we were experts in/of in our drawing experiments. I drew myself as an expert at crying and an expert at eating. 

Thankfully I don't cry as much as I used to, though I'm sure my many years of unwavering service to tear-letting still qualify me as a professional weeper of some expertise.

Eating is a funny one; it would be hard not to be an expert at eating in my rather food-centric family. However, when I am unwell it's often the first thing to go out of the window. It becomes a way of punishing myself for my many perceived failings. I am happy to report that for now, however, my eating is prolific and unlikely to wane in quantity or quality.

The workshop was a particularly interesting one to undertake whilst I'm looking for work. I have a funny feeling that a lot of "expertise" is blagging anyway.

Aside from the self-portraits, I was back to portraying potions (and emergency glitter!), which I plan to bring back into my practice in a big way in the near future.

The most lovely thing about today was meeting so many like-minded individuals (in more ways than one). Even at art school, people weren't necessarily open about mental health, and my fellow workshop participants today just made sense to me. If anything, they were more sane than a lot of people I've met who haven't been through the mental health mill.

I now feel invigorated to go out into the world and make some damn art! Thank you, Bobby, Jake, and co!