Two MFA Fine Art students at Duncan Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Euan Rutter and Neil McCulloch, recently took part in an exhibition for the ‘RecoverMay’ event at Perth and Kinross Council’s Civic Hall, in a celebration of recovery from addiction and mental health, in association with P&K Council Alcohol and Drug Partnership, Scottish Prison Service (HMP Perth), Hillcrest Futures (Prison Peer Support Service & Alcohol and Drug Service), Walled Garden and Wisecraft (PKAVS) project at Murray royal Hospital, Churches Action for the Homeless and other local recovery groups.
It was the first event of its kind and will hopefully become an annual occurrence as Tayside fights back against the drug death crisis and mental health epidemic in Scotland. Perth and Dundee are both cities with a promising future but they are also at the centre of this crisis, with rising numbers of drug overdoses and mental health interventions increasing every week with the introduction of new synthetic psychoactive substances on our streets.
The short film they both made for RecoverMay had the theme of Walking the Inch, a reference to not only taking those first few steps upon release but also to the journey across South Inch Park in Perth, where the path must be crossed by residents to reach the bus or train stations on their way home from HMP Perth. Those first few steps back into the community for those in recovery is a crucial time as their hopes and dreams for the future are met with the harsh realities of life and social crisis. The film consists of interviews with residents at HMP Perth’s Recovery Hub with Insider Radio, where they are frank, open and honest about their experiences of addiction and recovery. There are also group poetry readings with the residents that were written by Euan during the experimental writing module on the MFA Fine Art course.
Both artists are from Tayside, with Euan Rutter being from Bonnie Dundee, also known as the drugs death capital of Europe, and Neil McCulloch coming from the beautiful city of Perth. Furthermore, the dynamic duo both have their own lived experiences of the social issues that plight many in our local housing schemes. Euan has experienced addiction issues and has been a resident at HMP Perth but now is a peer support worker in the same prison, helping others in the same position he once was before getting into recovery from a heroin addiction for over ten years now.
Neil has also worked in a similar role with the Walled Garden and Wisecraft (PKAVS) project at Murray Royal Hospital, where he was once a mental health patient at the Forensic Unit, after periods of instability saw him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He then went on to study contemporary art at Perth College UHI, before progressing to the University of Dundee. During his time at DJCAD, he returned to work at the hospital supporting others as Activity Engagement Worker (Creative Wellbeing) for a period, before committing to the MFA Fine Art course full time so he could focus on his final year of studies
Both have used their education journeys as a means of rehabilitation and reintegration into society as a whole, which I think we can all agree is a remarkable testament to the power of recovery and the resilience of character of the artists. Art truly has the power to change lives for the better, but to then go on to use those artistic abilities to become a therapeutic force in aiding recovery from addiction and mental health, by empowering others is a symbol of hope for those in our communities. We spoke with the artists and asked them about how it feels to be returning to work in places that were synonymous with their lived experiences and revisiting the past.
Neil told us “It was quite surreal to return to the grounds of the Murray Royal for first voluntary then paid employment with The Walled Garden and Wisecraft (PKAVS). The Murray Royal Forensic Unit is where I was sectioned through the criminal procedure act in my late teens. Art therapy and involvement in The Koestler Awards during my time as a forensic patient aided my own recovery immensely and so I’ve always felt a pull in this direction, knowing how hard it is to shake the shame of mental illness, addiction, criminality, and incarceration, but also knowing how powerful art can be in this process.
For this project I haven’t been working directly with any of the recovery groups but have been collaborating with HMP Perth through Euan and it has been an inspiring experience. Through many weeks of intense editing I have listened to the audio material that Euan brought from the recovery hub and insider radio many times, and I still can’t believe my ears. What I heard is a solid testament to the value of employing people with lived experience into these roles. The audio is so powerful, I defy even the most sceptical viewer to not to be moved in some way with the honest, insightful dialogue and willingness to be vulnerable in the context of a prison.”
Euan went on to tell us that “Returning to HMP Perth was a daunting prospect at first but in the first week, one of the residents explained to me that it was for the right reasons that I was back” and that it was “an example of a light at the end of the tunnel for those in custody and recovery,” which made the decision to commit to the role an easy one. During the six months since he has started, he has continued to develop as a recoverist and as an artist, as he supports residents in art groups at the Recovery Hub, as well as recovery meetings, coaching, yoga, mindfulness and meditation, dramatherapy, harm reduction and one to one support, receiving excellent feedback from all residents, colleagues and partnership agencies alike.