Windows with a Difference presented a day of artists' talks at The New Art Gallery Walsall, on 29 February 2012. Tamar Whyte's personal and moving interpretation of this event on the theme of Art and Health, demonstrates the perspective of artists, and the enrichment of talking about our diversity.
After a detour into other artforms for artistic inspiration, I finally attended an event that was not only ‘Fine Art’, but was directly relevant to my own practice.
The performance and event was so moving and powerful, I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing about it. However, something about the personal relevance triggered a massive anxiety attack after a few too many recent knockdowns. I spent the rest of the evening in A&E trying to get hold of emergency meds. Life as an artist juggling a mental health condition is never dull.
The event is part of a project organised by Alan McLean through a new art and health network in the Black Country called ‘Windows with a Difference’, and has a whole host of impressive project partners.
It kicked off with artist talks given by Bobby Baker, Mark Storor and Sean Burn. I’d come directly after hearing a proposal I’d put in for a road trip with a talented journalist had been rejected, and spent the first half hour panicking that my phone was about to go off in my massive bag (the reason that I couldn’t locate it being that it had been left at home…) so I have to say that sadly, I wasn’t able to take in much of Bobby’s talk, even though she had been the main draw for me. However, I found out that she had some very similar life experiences to me, had been given several similar diagnoses, and also seemed to cope with them in similar ways. Here was someone I could relate to… and at 61, if I have grown to manage my condition and have the same success personally and professionally, I’ll be a very happy munchkin indeed.
One of the difficulties for artists who use any type of mental health to inform their art practice, is that it’s just so darn unfashionable. I’m not talking about outsider art – although we draw from the same wells of inspiration and creativity – I’m talking about art critics, funders and galleries understanding that we have an intellectual practice that involves looking at various academic theories and models behind what we do, often keeping an eye on where we fit into the current social landscape and perhaps musing on our place in Post-Modernist society. It’s not all crayons and tales of window licking.
Here, Bobby was an inspiration. Tales of £100k projects, working abroad, tours, a collection held by The Wellcome Trust, highly esteemed residencies, teaching posts. 43 hospital admissions in x years, with a wry smile she added that these were generally in between tours (people don’t understand how we – ‘Borderlines’ – can achieve so much one minute and then be in crisis the next… it is often suspiciously viewed as attention seeking or manipulative behaviour).
Bobby’s latest book, ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness & Me’ is Mind’s book of the year, and some of these diary drawings are being shown at the newly opened Hallam Street Resource Centre Gallery until 31 March.
Bobby described the hierarchy of mental health – schizophrenia being top, then Bipolar, and last of all, the highly stigmatised Personality Disorders, which I can confirm from the nationwide training I deliver are often viewed as not being a ‘real’ mental health issue. Interestingly, her practice mirrored a lot of my own. Suddenly, I found that the talk was having two polar opposite effects – inspirational, and at the same time, demoralising. If an established artist is doing what I do, and has done it bigger and better and longer, what’s the point? Should I just give up now?
Then came Mark. He started by saying that Bobby was the first person that had said ‘Yes’ to him. He started off doing drama, but they didn’t ‘get’ him, and he kept getting bad marks. He later did an MA, and saw a performance by Bobby in which she poured oil over herself. This triggered a ‘lightbulb’ moment. Her encouragement led to him embracing his performance and contemporary art practice. He won long term funding from the Wellcome Trust. Some of this work included a residency with terminally ill children in a hospital ward. Part of this work was an animation that told the heartbreaking story of Opie, a little boy who no longer tells stories. I was touched that a special version of the film was made for Opie’s family. In a beautiful, heart wrenching voice he tells his story of becoming a flower child and being with his Mum.
Mark also did some groundbreaking work on tenderness amongst gay prisoners, where he faced the steep learning curve of prison staff culture… something I too have come across with the Personality Disorder Awareness training I have delivered to forensic cohorts. He was told that there were no gay men on a wing that contained 1600 prisoners, and later, that it would be too dangerous to identify these prisoners if they did indeed exist. Still, he carried on (and is still carrying on, 3 years later), and has made significant progress with the project.
Again, I felt the dual elation of discovering another artist who worked with these themes and who had earned success, and the painful feelings of failure as a professional artist. I have to add, at this moment in time, the fact I’ve done an artist’s talk at Tate Modern, won a runner’s up prize in an international film festival or had one of my exhibitions expanded on by an Austrian Art Historian at the Hartheim Institute in Linz meant nothing. This day all I was seeing was the failed proposal.
Lastly, Sean Burn’s talk about his work as a playwright and artist had the same dual polar opposite effect on what was turning out to be a pretty fragile mood. He spoke about his incarceration and ill-treatment at the hand of staff during his sectioning; how his entire art practice was ‘lost’ by staff who had supposedly kept it safe in a locked room. He spoke about his struggles to get his work heard or shown because it wasn’t fashionable enough, or that regularly funded arts organisations (ie theatres who receive regular funding from the Arts Council) complained that they had just programmed a ‘mad play’ and didn’t want another one.
He spoke of his realisation that he couldn’t just wait in line anymore, that his turn would never come. He had to push in, make people listen. The New Art Gallery Walsall, who I think are absolutely fantastic for the work they do in programming quality work that is inclusive without being patronising or crap – had him in for a residency, and his Sound Map of Walsall is now part of their permanent collection.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the highlight of his talk – tearing up a page of the DSM-IV (on Anti-Social personality Disorder, ironically enough), and eating it. He handed bits out for the audience to eat.
I ate some!