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.







Say It With Flowers

"What a desolate place would be a world without a flower! It would be a face without a smile, a feast without a welcome. Are not flowers the stars of the earth, and are not our stars the flowers of heaven?" ~ AJ Balfour
A rainy Friday found Pip and I at the Garden Museum delving into the history of the flower trade. Whilst the flowers outside were getting a drenching, we learnt an awful lot of floral trivia, including that the Floral Industry in the UK is worth a whopping 1.65 billion, that roses are edible, that over four hundred flower girls were selling bunches in London in 1851 , and that, according to scientific research, flowers just make us feel good.

Flower Seller, Unknown Artist, Between 1800 and 1850
I've recently started stitching some flowers that feel bad; some melancholy flowers. This is a bit of a break from my big project, The Constellation Quilt, harking back to my project Milk Thistle (which I swear will get done one day!), which explores the link between flowers and sickness and recovery.




Possibly the flowers I'm stitching are suffering from depression; they certainly seem (literally) downcast, and slightly weepy! They are an illustration from Land of Play - Verses, Rhymes, Stories, first published in 1911 and written by Sarah Tawney Leffert. The melancholy flowers were sketched either by M.L. Kirk or Florence England Nosworthy (though I do hope by Florence, due to the floral connection of her first name!)



I'm growing very fond of turn-of-the-century illustrations of this style; they seem to really suit my laywoman's blackwork technique (not for long though; soon I'll be a pro at blackwork, as it's one of the first techniques I'll learn at the Royal School of Needlework!)

Floriculture, the exhibition at the Garden Museum, may have been all about the inspiration afforded by cut flowers, but a site specific installation which I came across recently celebrated both the vibrancy and the restorative properties of living flowers. Bloom was a public artwork comprised of twenty eight thousand potted flowers which filled the offices, basements, day rooms, wards and corridors of Massachusetts Mental Health Center from the 14th to the 17th November 2003. The building was scheduled to be knocked down the same year, and the artist, Anna Schuleit, was commissioned to create a public artwork memorialising the lives and experiences of those who had lived, worked, and been treated there over the building's lifetime; a memorial which was also open to the public.



Although the Center had been a place of healing and hope as well as sadness and despair, Schuleit was struck by the lack of colour and vibrancy in the worn old halls. She struck on flowers, a symbol of vitality, new beginnings and hope, to flood the building with. In a fantastic interview on the Colossal art website, Schuleit writes that "Bloom was a reflection on the healing symbolism of flowers given to the sick when they are bedridden and confined to hospital settings. As a visiting artist I had observed an astonishing absence of flowers in psychiatric settings. Here, patients receive few, if any, flowers during their stay. Bloom was created to address this absence, in the spirit of offering and transition.



This very much relates to my Milk Thistle project, and makes me wonder why it is that the mentally ill are rarely brought flowers, when surely an injection of cheerful nature into their environment could (almost always) only be positive. Certainly many of the former patients who visited Bloom during its four day installation were deeply moved by the artwork, with one writing "Today we flourish", and another visitor commenting "For all the patients who never received flowers, these flowers are for you. I don't know if I've ever encountered such a life-affirming and gorgeous artwork; part of me wishes I could've nipped across the pond in 2003 to witness it, but another part recognises that it was a deeply personal installation best experienced by those who had been a part of the building's story.

Flowers signify so many different things in our culture; healing, new beginnings, love, celebration, life itself. I will be undertaking a little research into the language of flowers to learn more about the symbolism of the "stars of the earth".