Interview by Erin Stair, MD, MPH
Greetings, everyone! Recently I had the pleasure of doing an interview with artist Tim Shaw and curator Niamh White, the founders of Hospital Rooms.
The mission of Hospital Rooms is to “bring world class art to mental health hospitals.” I randomly stumbled across their Instagram account and was blown away by some of their art projects. If you follow my blog or read my book Manic Kingdom, I write a lot about how the holistic approach to health includes optimizing one’s environment because we are sensual beings intimately connected to our surroundings. My mind mimics my surroundings and vice versa. In Manic Kingdom, I write about the drab psychiatric units devoid of color and nature, and question how folks can heal in such an environment. This isn’t a new issue. In the early 1800s, the Quakers recognized it was a problem and under their “moral treatment” approach to mental illness, created small facilities in the country with an emphasis on art, nature and aesthetics. They created flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and focused on the buildings’ interior colors and design. Moral treatment included other holistic approaches to healing, like dance and art therapy, and the Quakers had remarkably high recovery rates. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. In the mid 1800s, the medical establishment and states took back control of asylums, and due to an increase in patient volume and a desire to cut costs, the aesthetics of asylums was no longer a a priority.
Tell me how you got started and what inspired you to start Hospital Rooms?
I’m an artist and she’s a curator. Going into one of these units for the first time was quite shocking for us. That happened because a very close friend was sectioned, and we went to visit her. We got to see that space quite a few times, and we found it really unpleasant. Then we just sort of had an idea: Let’s see if we can do a project. Let’s see if we can use our expertise and contacts to put together an exciting project in these mental health units. And it went from there. It did take us a year for anyone to give us an opportunity to do a project in their hospital. There was one medical director who said she had a unit for schizophrenic patients and asked if we could do a project. That was the start of the charity really.
When was that?
In 2016. We first visited the unit, and then the project took 26 days.
When you go into a unit, you have a vision. Do you get any patient feedback ?
Yes absolutely, that is integral to the production process. The artists we work with should be integrated with the community before they choose anything. The idea is that the artists see the space, meet the staff, meet the patients and get a sense of the space. Then they go away and have a think about what they’d like to do. Then they come up with an idea for a practical arts workshop that they can lead within the unit. That’s another way to spend more time telling the patients about their art and inviting them to offer their ideas. What would be useful , functional, helpful, appropriate…and then once that happens, the artists go in again and think about what they’d like to do. So it’s not like a patient says “We want a tree” and they get a tree, it’s more that they’re trying to be informed by people’s experiences as well as clinical expertise.
So when the artists are in there, are the patients just going about their day?
The patients are involved with the arts workshop but not with the instillation of the artwork that is permanently installed in the units. The main reason is that they should be really high quality, durable, and meet all the compliance issues around being in a clinical space.
I looked at your website and the artwork is really great. Your projects aren’t just paintings, are they?
No, it’s a mixture. We try to use a big range of artists for each project, which is why we have 6-10 artists for each project. We get a good variety that everyone will like. But we do have quite a lot of painters, partly because the painters work really well. Painters usually work on site, so they can be there for a few days or weeks. We’ve had quite a few artists who’ve been there for 3 weeks straight, every day, working on a painting. We have a lot of photographers and we have very conceptual artists who create pieces that make you think. We have to work with them to make sure the materials they’re using are safe and not going to cause any harm.
Do you only work with psychiatric hospitals and clinics ?
Yes, only in mental health. We are specifically a mental health charity, and we always work in locked down psychiatric units, so most of the patients that we work with are under section according to the Mental Health Act, meaning they can’t really leave. We think it’s all the more important that that their environment has some sort of quality to it, especially since they can’t choose to be there.
Can you share any feedback from patients or healthcare workers that stands out?
We’ve had lovely feedback. Patient wise, people have said things like, “This is remarkable, I feel like I’m sitting in a park.” We once created a massive landscape scene with a scent of pine, and a patient said, “It doesn’t feel like a hospital, it feels like Buckingham Palace.
I think that’s a bit steep…
We had a very difficult week installing a project. An artist was painting in a communal space and people were particularly agitated that week, but once we installed the painting in the room, patients stood around and burst into applause. While that was happening, there was a really caring moment where one patient says to another patient, who was in a lot of distress, “Sit with your pain and watch the artist work.” The artwork can be great for starting conversations like that. There’s one amazing doctor who we work with, and she has told us that the smells, color and texture of one of the spaces are very calming for the patients.
You mentioned Pine. I’m a huge fan of aromatherapy for mood. You are able to add smells too?
She basically put together scents and oils. It’s just a spritz, so you have a pine scent in that particular space. It’s not in the walls.
How many spaces have you worked on since you started?
We are on our sixth project, and we are just starting a seventh, forty individual rooms. A project is a whole unit, so each one has different rooms.
Do you have any ideas to branch out internationally?
Yes, definitely. We are based in East London, but we want to do projects in places like Turkey, the US and South America. It takes us a little while to realize a project. It’s a big undertaking, but it’s something we want to do.
To learn more about Hospital Rooms and donate towards their efforts, please visit them here.
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