Home Arts Artists bring hope and healing to mental health facilities in London

Artists bring hope and healing to mental health facilities in London

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As anyone who has spent time in the hospital knows, these are often the least hospitable places. Noisy, harshly lit, often dilapidated and blandly decorated, many hospital buildings seem at odds with any sense of care for patients or staff. And for those with serious mental illness, they can make an already difficult situation unbearable.

It was recognition of this grim state of affairs that led to the founding of Hospital rooms, the UK arts and mental health charity, which aims to provide people using hospital mental health services with a more welcoming and dignified environment by commissioning site-specific museum-quality artwork. The impetus for Hospital Rooms came when its co-founders, artist Tim A. Shaw and curator Niamh White, visited a friend who had been hospitalized following a suicide attempt. “We were struck by how the service was inhumane, so cold and clinical and so ramshackle,” they recall. “At a time when she was so vulnerable, it felt like the environment was doing the complete opposite of what you would want it to do.”

The couple set up Hospital Rooms, which completed its first project in 2016 in the Phoenix Unit, a rehabilitation center in south-west London for people with schizophrenia. Art pervades the building, from the billboard designed by award-winning Turner Assemble collective, to the communal lounge decorated with works by photographer Nick Knight (one of which had its twin simultaneously exhibited at the National Gallery), and an eccentric “double Egg” mural by Gavin Turk in its resource room. Since then, Hospital Rooms has commissioned leading artists including Richard Wentworth, Mark Wallinger, Jade Montserrat, Tschabalala Self and Harold Offeh to produce works bespoke for over ten mental health facilities across the UK These include a mother-child unit in Exeter, a secure forensic unit in Norwich, an adolescent unit in Maudsley Hospital in South London and a locked unit for older people with dementia in Highgate, North London.Each project is shaped and informed by a program of workshops with artists, staff and patients , that Shaw and White regard as “an integral part of the hospital room process”.

Michelle Williams-Gamaker’s work references Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health

Photo: Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms

Last summer, Hospital Rooms struck a partnership with gallery Hauser & Wirth, which has pledged to raise £1million for the organization by 2025. This month, it’s upping its game by unveiling over 20 major bespoke works for two new mental health facilities being built at Springfield Hospital in Tooting, south London. These light and airy buildings dramatically transform the look and feel of a mental hospital with visually arresting works in a multitude of media.

Stained glass and stars

Entering through the lofty top-lit main atrium, it’s impossible to miss a pair of giant collage works by Michelle Williams-Gamaker that merge photographic images of animals, flowers, and classical deities, including Hygieia, the goddess Health Greek; while the staircase leading to a secure forensic unit has now become a limpid forest grove, rendered by the flowing brushstrokes of Hurvin Anderson.

Harold Offeh worked with Springfield patients to make individual clay tiles inspired by their personal and cultural experiences, which punctuate his mural work at Trinity Recovery College. Nearby, another large, light-filled hallway is adorned with Yinka Ilori’s vivid rainbow billboard declaring “Hope for A Better Tomorrow.” For the third of Springfield’s three-story inner atria, Sutapa Biswas created a stylized night sky influenced by Giotto’s 14th-century Scrovegni Chapel, in which an entire wall is painted ultramarine blue and adorned with a cascade of stars with gold leaf. In the multi-faith room, Abbas Zahedi, who won the 2022 Frieze Artist Award, gives an abstract stained glass effect by covering the windows and skylights with semi-transparent vinyls printed with marble patterns.

In keeping with hospital room practice, these and all other works for Springfield emerged from the artists who conducted more than 80 workshops with the trust of the hospital, service users and staff. Additionally, in a particularly savvy move given the market value of many of the artists involved and given the cash-strapped state of the NHS, if any of the participating hospitals attempt to sell the works, the artists in question agreed not to authenticate them. The value of each work therefore rests solely on its relationship to its specific place. And judging by the overwhelmingly positive response from everyone currently experiencing them, that value is priceless.

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