Interview: Niamh White and Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

published on 5 October 2016

Curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw, co-founders of Hospital Rooms, discuss their work in furnishing hospitals with high quality art.

Curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw, co-founders of Hospital Rooms, discuss their work in furnishing hospitals with high quality art.

Tim A Shaw transformed the Communal Dining Room into the Phoenix Gallery

Lou Stoppard: Tell me how the concept for Hospital Rooms came about.

Tim A Shaw: In part, it was because we both know people who have suffered from mental health problems. After visiting a friend who was sectioned at a mental health hospital, I thought it seemed like a difficult place to be recovering in; environment is so important if you’re feeling physically and emotionally unwell. So Niamh [White] and I spoke to a non-exec director of a hospital, with a very basic outline of the idea of making artwork a big part of a mental health unit. From there we had a meeting with the medical director at Springfield University Hospital, who is really forward thinking and gave us the go ahead. We started with The Phoenix Unit but as the project developed we discovered there was big scope for doing something much bigger and having lots of artists taking on a variety of different spaces.

LS: You're focusing on mental health, rather than physical health. Is that just because of the personal experience you described?

Niamh White: Mental health is quite specific because its associated with a lot of stigma. We felt that there was potential to use artwork as means of showing value in places, and therefore value in the people who inhabit those spaces - that is really important to us. If you have a physical ailment, say you break your leg, it's very easy to talk about - you'd rarely feel isolated. But mental health is a whole different realm, both socially and politically, and so I think addressing it with really high quality art work and design and really tackling those places with a lot of thought and consideration is so valuable - it's about valuing people and tackling that stigma.

LS: There are so many people in the creative arts - artists, designers, writers and so on - who have quite publically struggled with mental health issues and there's a lot of talk about the link between mental health difficulties and creativity. Was that part of your thinking as well?

NW: Definitely, in the fact that people who we've known that have used mental health services have often been incredibly creative, very artistic people. It's easy to glamorise this parallel between mental health and creativity, and I think our stance is that people are creative despite their mental health difficulties, rather than because of them. The service users that we've worked with have been incredibly receptive and have had hugely intelligent responses to the works. They have been making incredible artwork of their own as well. I do personally think there probably is a link - I think if you are artistic already, and you're visual, and you are sort of sensitive to environments because you have a special interest in the arts, then perhaps you are impacted by events and environments more. But it's a wider issue, and a complicated one.

TAS: I think this issue is part of the reason why so many artists have been involved in this project. We're unknown as a charity, or we were when we started at the Phoenix Unit, but all these people, all these artists have obviously been touched by mental health problems before, whether themselves or through friends or people close to them. Everyone was very sensitive and thoughtful of the people they were making their work for. It became a project not just about the artist themselves, but more about the recipients or beneficiaries of their artwork.

LS: How did you go about approaching or commissioning the artists?

NW: We had a lot of considerations in terms of safety, security, hygiene, but we also wanted people who could consider space in a holistic way. We're not just talking about creating objects, we're talking about space configuration and how to make something durable that will work for the actual space as a whole. So we looked at people who were able to think about it in that way. We also wanted variety. We never tried to dumb down any of our environments - we don't try to be sympathetic and we don't try to make it simple or easy, because we feel like it does a disservice to our beneficiaries. We want to make work that will cause conversations and reactions and still be sensitive to everybody's needs. There's a really wide variety of eleven different artists involved in the Phoenix Unit, so that meant if you loved one thing you may like another less, which is great. One person might have a dynamic conversation with another because they have different reactions. We wanted artists who would be challenging and give new perspectives on these spaces. How can an environment be therapeutic? Or, how can it aid recovery? How can it make people valued?

LS: The contributions are not purely decorative. A lot of the artists have made very useful objects to enhance activity in the space, such as the notice board created by Assemble. Tell me about that thought process.

TAS: When we started this project we really didn't have a concrete plan of how we were going to go about it, all we knew was that we wanted to have lots of site visits and we wanted to bring as many of the artists down to the space as often as possible to meet the service users and the staff. It's because of those visits that everything changed and developed. Everyone obviously had their own ideas before the project properly started about what they wanted to do, but then they responded to the visits and moved their ideas in different directions. Assemble changed their minds a few times and it was actually after talking to the occupational therapist a few times that they came up with the idea of making something inspired by this notice board that was a key point in the planning of the week. They were motivated by the idea of giving people a meaningful life on this unit. Also, Aimee Parrott has made a mural in a space that's just for women. We were really keen on having at least some of these artists try and make the places more domestic. Before the project began all the rooms had a similar feel, even though they were called different things and were quite bright rooms, they all looked the same - there was nothing that differentiated them. So she really took that on - she made handmade curtains, as well as the mural. She chose the plants, rearranged the furniture - she made a very domestic space. And in a way, it was a different way of approaching artwork - it's artists making spaces, rather than doing what they normally do. And actually, some of the artists made work in a very different way than they ever have before, which was really exciting to be a part of.

NW: I think that also came out of the very strict environment of this particular unit. It's a secure unit for people with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, and there are lots of regulations regarding safety and so on. Artist Michael O'Reilly realy took on board that we couldn’t frame anything for these reasons - we couldn’t have typical art objects per say in the rooms. He took on the quiet room and basically painted a domestic scene using tromp l'oeil directly onto the wall - it looks like there are pictures on the walls and posters and beautiful wallpaper but in fact it's all really flat - it's wipe clean, it's hygienic. It's a really wonderful and thoughtful response for what is quite a difficult brief. 

LS: How much did you involve residents and staff during the refurbishment? Was it a collaborative process the whole way through?

NW: Completely. We put a really heavy emphasis on co-production, so the artists worked with the clinicians, the psychiatrists, the occupational therapists, the staff on the ward, and the service users as well, to be guided by them. Because they can obviously come up with ideas, but they need to be informed by everyday life on the unit - making work functional, making it last, all of those things. Co-production will be a big element of what we're doing going forward with new projects, especially with workshops where we are asking people what they want to do, what they want to see. We're also including artists who have spent time in mental health units, or who have used mental health services, so that we can really get to the bottom of solving problems. I think, curatorially, the project is very much gearing towards cross-community dialogues where you come up with productions for solutions to social needs - that needs a lot of voices involved.

TAS: Physically, we had to spend time planning exactly what sort of materials artists were going to use in advance, because they all have to be safe for the service users. But more broadly, every service user and artist had a different approach. Gavin Turk worked out how it was going to be done in advance and planned how it had to be implemented exactly but then other artists, like Michael O’Reilly were on site for so long that their ideas were changing the more he was speaking to service users. In my case, in my capacity as an artist, I took on the dining room and made the Phoenix Gallery, which is a colourful space that has lots of coloured boxes that become frames for the service users' artworks made in our workshops. That idea came about through our meetings with the service users who wanted to make their own work and have it shown somewhere. It's great for people to be able to show it - people like the fact that they're being valued, that people are interested in what they're making. It's not just about the giving or commissioning of artworks, it's about helping people and encouraging them to be creative and have the opportunities and materials to make work themselves.

LS: Were you ever surprised by any of the residents' responses or reactions to the artists' work?

TAS: We learnt very early on not to second guess anyone, which is something that you should probably know anyway! We thought there would be certain artworks we would have to explain more and would be more difficult to take on but everyone was so overwhelmingly open to receiving the works and having us on site - we were genuinely quite worried we would disturb them! Take the Gavin Turk piece; personally I thought it was very minimal and quite conceptual, so might be difficult to start with, but actually people just loved that piece. They love it because the graphics are attractive - it's opened up lots of things and there's one service user who's obviously quite touched by it and has made her own work for the first time based on that piece. So we really learnt to be open and realise these artists are doing something really special.

NW: Lots of the artworks are very open to interpretation. It was wonderful having the participation of Nick Knight, especially after working for Nick and Charlotte at SHOWstudio for four years and learning so much from them. Nick's imagery works so well within the unit. Lily has this wonderful uplifting energy and Pale Rose counters this as the ink falls towards the earth. These works were a source of incredible inspiration for service users, staff and indeed the other artists. They also were crucial in helping us to capture our wider audience's imagination and enabled us to convey our message of the value of assigning museum quality work to mental health units. We were so proud that the two places you could see Lily at one point was the National Portrait Gallery for the Vogue 100 exhibition, and the Phoenix Unit. This was such an incredible gesture and elevated our project no end.

We want to create a movement to bring these ideas to the fore - to spotlight that mental health has been absolutely pushed to the side. It's underfunded, it's sidelined, it's stigmatised.

LS: On that note, tell me a little bit about future plans. How do you want the project to grow?

NW: We've just started a second project, and that's at the Recovery College at the Springfield University Hospital - the same location where the Phoenix Unit is. The building was quite run down and they're having redevelopment on site in a few years time, so we had the challenge of trying to revitalise the space - it just need a bit of love. So we've painted the entire outside of the building and we're programming four workshops with the students at the college to do things like painting, collage, drawing, photography. The Recovery College does an incredible job - they run courses for people who have used mental health services, so they might have experienced self-harm, eating disorders, schizophrenia, even things like domestic abuse. They run sessions for developing confidence, understanding diagnosis, learning to stay well and support yourself. So it's for people who are incredibly strong and are acknowledging that they have faced this illness and are taking active steps to manage those things. The staff often have experienced mental health services so they offer a well informed insight and provide an incredible support. But unfortunately they're in a building that is in need of redevelopment, so we're just looking at how we can form a place to reflect what happens in there. I think if you walk into a building you can kind of align how much a society values you with how that building appears, or is maintained – are there flowers, is there nature, is there clean and good space? We want to make it into a space that is uplifting and inspiring. And that’s kind of what we want to continue to do - find spaces that are in need, find the ones that really need to be rejuvenated, where staff and service users are working together to support themselves through mental illness, and support it through therapeutic environments.

TAS: The important thing to us is making sure we take on each space individually and we approach it in the same way we did our first project, which means we go in and see who is going to be benefitting from this and align it with that and not to make it necessarily about us, or just the artists. It should be about the people who are living or are service users in each specific unit. That's the way we want to continue.

LS: I imagine there is a desire from both of you to expand far beyond London, because in London there are so many amazing museums, galleries, public art spaces. Whereas often in different parts of the country for those without mental health difficulties, it's very hard to have access to museums and galleries. Is that something you'd like to engage with?

NW: Yes, absolutely. We're already talking to different hospitals around the country - we're absolutely keen to grow outside of London. At the moment we're quite small and we're starting out, but we have big dreams, we envision policy change. We want to create a movement to bring these ideas to the fore - to spotlight that mental health has been absolutely pushed to the side. It's underfunded, it's sidelined, it's stigmatised. We want to be leading the way towards changing the way it's viewed and we feel that artists have a wonderful ability to do that.

LS: You implied it there - I imagine that the end goal isn't just making say ten hospitals look more beautiful. How do you envisage bigger things, like policy change, happening?

NW: I think part of it is about really communicating the fact that there is this need - that there are a lot of mental health units that survive and provide good services but are in buildings that require refurbishment, at the least. They need to be rethought and revalued to reconsider what makes a therapeutic environment. What is a multi-sensory space and how can that be conducive to care? So I think it's about bringing that need to the forefront to show that those spaces aren’t good enough. We already have great support from Arts Council England, the Morris Markowe League of Friends and help from companies like Colart, who give us supplies, but we're always looking to be raising the right kind of funding and getting the best partners that we can. We want to be bringing mental health staff, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and really importantly, people who have lived experience of mental health issues, on the journey along with us. It's so important to be continually informed by their experiences and to really transform these spaces.

LS: How can people help?

NW: Spread our message or volunteer - we're always looking for additional help. Fundraising is also important - we're looking for new ways of bringing money in to make more projects happen. Whether you're running a marathon, doing a cycle, doing a swim - think of us! And then if artists are keen to be involved with what we do, we encourage people to always get in touch.

TAS: It's just the two of us running it at the moment but we're hoping that in the next couple of years we'll have lots and lots of projects going at the same time and spreading the idea.

LS: Thanks and well done!

Interview by:



Interview: Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist and co-founder of Hospital Rooms Tim A Shaw talks about the influence of the project on his work and collaborative practice.
Image Gallery

Gallery: The Phoenix Unit

27 September 2016
Artists including Gavin Turk and Nick Knight transformed The Phoenix Unit at Springfield University Hospital as part of The Hospital Rooms project.
Image Gallery

Gallery: Eileen Skellern 1

18 April 2018
Take a look at the works created for Eileen Skellern 1, a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit for Women at Maudsley Hospital.
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