The Collective What’s Happening on the Roof? exhibition was hosted by DJCAD’s Public and Community Engagement in the Matthew Foyer Galleries in July as part of the School’s long running partnership with Art Angel. The exhibition featured a beautiful and diverse collection of artworks from the twelve members of The Collective, a studio based project which came to an end on 22nd June 2023 and was hugely beneficial for all involved. The exhibition closing event held at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design on Wednesday 5 July was the opportunity for our University community, as well as members of the public, to join The Collective to celebrate all that they had achieved over their six months working on the project. A special thank you to Art Angel’s tutor Guendalina Rota, a graduate from DJCAD class of 2022 for her role in bringing this vibrant exhibition to DJCAD this summer.
An artist from The Collective has shared the text below as part of the exhibition. It details the positive impact which Art Angel has had on their recovery following a mental breakdown:
Several years ago I had a mental breakdown that left me quite debilitated. I went from being a primary teacher to becoming dependent upon my partner, who become my carer, and unable to look after myself. Atypical behaviours that I have since identified as being related to autism became greatly heightened – including violent tics and self-harm, attention / memory problems, unstable emotional states, acute social anxiety and real problems in communication/ interaction with others.
In many ways I was lucky to suffer a breakdown when and where I did. I think, in a large part due to my perceived position as a ‘professional’ and ‘male’, I had perhaps a better experience of care and support from local services than some others. (I mention here that I have had the opportunity to meet many people with diverse backgrounds who have shared their own experience with me). I had a patient and understanding GP whose patient I had been for a number of years, and who thus had a knowledge of how I was before and after my breakdown. I was helped in my most broken state with pre-therapy support, and was later referred to a therapist – who helped me greatly over several years. Vitally, I was also referred to a ’social prescriber’ – a role that was being trialled in my area at the time. Through them I was introduced to art angel, which in retrospect can be seen as the most significant moment in my recovery.
Like many people, being supported by art angel helped me regain both my self and a meaningful position again in society. Through working as a community of artists, including ‘service-users’, volunteers, and staff, I was supported in pursuing an artistic practice that has become vital to how I understand and respond to the world. Through peer support and community, I was assisted in coming to understand the damage my mind had undergone, ways to mitigate some of the most harmful effects, and to come to accept the areas of life and action that are now curtailed for me due to my disability. That is to say: Art Angel helped first to keep me alive, and then to find a way for my life to flourish.
As I have previously stated, I am aware that I have been lucky in terms of care and support following my breakdown. However, that does not mean that I have not experienced some of the more negative aspects of seeking support from the NHS. Beyond the unfortunate presence of individuals wholly unsuitable to care-roles (at all levels of the service one can encounter individuals that see those in need as problems to be resolved, or disposed of, as inconveniences, or as statistics to be manipulated – for example, I was referred to a psychiatrist who saw communicating with me/ their patients as beneath them, and an impediment to their ‘diagnosis’ / decisions), I think by highlighting where Art Angel and some NHS interventions diverge can help us see why Art Angel is so successful.
When speaking to staff at Art Angel I am reminded that their approach is simple and obvious: provide a safe and respectful space for people to talk (if they want to) and to listen / be listened to. This is, of course, an oversimplification (for example, this alone cannot account for the amount and variety of objects of artistic excellence produced in our building) – yet it captures an aspect of ‘patient centred’ recovery (the treatment of a person as a person) that are foundational, achievable, yet rarely well implemented. This basic approach to supporting those undergoing mental ill health is recognised as ‘working’, backed up with evidence, and is ‘implemented’ in many NHS interventions – yet it so often goes wrong due to the assumption that this is simple. The language is appropriated and reproduced, but the social relationships and structures are not themselves changed – the metrics of success/failure remain. It as if we believe that we have stopped playing a game of chess if we transform the shape of the pieces, yet continue to follow the same rules. This response is understandable from the view point of an under-staffed and under-resourced NHS, for appropriating language without altering the structures that give meaning to this language is easier and cheaper than the alternative. The metrics can continue to be gathered; the patients processed.
Art Angel, in part, is so successful for they do not shy from the hard work of creating and maintaining the structures that enable people to develop and live as autonomous individuals amongst other such individuals. I have been encouraged to flourish through working alongside and with others to support their flourishing. Together we have created and maintained a diverse (in every sense of that term) community of equals who pursue individual and collective work of the highest standard, yet we all started as broken humans. Part of the ‘hard work’ done here is financial – meaningful work requires meaningful materials. Part of valuing individuals, and valuing their work, requires giving them access to valuable materials. The work of Art Angel requires materials, people, and space.
Over the last six months I have been given a further opportunity to develop as a member of the Collective Project. This project has supported me in developing as an artist and a person. By gifting us studio space available for three days a week I have been able to begin working for longer periods of time, and on projects of greater scope. I was unsure as to whether I would be able to return to this form of part time work (with the difficulties I now find in everyday living – domestic chores, traveling etc.), but the approach Art Angel have taken have allowed me to learn that I can make greater demands upon myself without succumbing again to debilitating mental ill health. This, and exposure to different artistic techniques, medium, and styles, has grown my range, ability, and confidence. Importantly for me, through the support of the other members of the project (especially the staff and volunteers), I have realised that with the right structures in place around me (most importantly, not being in an environment hostile to my wellbeing) I am capable of pursuing work of greater complexity over a more sustained period of time, and that I am capable of communicating these ideas coherently and (relatively) clearly.
Prior to this project my GP had been informed by my (aforementioned) psychiatrist that I was no longer in need of support for my mental health – that I had already been treated, and that the related behaviour I was expressing needed to be accepted as part of my diagnosis. This behaviour included violent and uncontrollable tics, where I would strike my face, head, and body with full force whilst trying to communicate. I think you can imagine the barriers this present to my engagement with others, and the constraints that this would place on me in finding meaningful work. I believe I was essentially being discarded as human-waste, that I was being told to accept my place beyond society. As this project comes to a close, I have just successfully found supervisors for PHD research. I intend, in time, to teach again. During the project I delivered a paper at an academic conference at Cordoba university. I have just had a proposal accepted for inclusion in a book. Human beings remain malleable and adaptive whilst we remain alive. Where much of our society constrains, Art Angel supports and enables us to grow in positive and meaningful ways.
Images: Tamara Richardson