Interview: Tamsin Relly on Hospital Rooms

published on 24 April 2018

Artist Tamsin Relly explains the challenges she faced in decorating the Eileen Skellern 1 mental health ward to Georgina Evans.

Artist Tamsin Relly explains the challenges she faced in decorating the Eileen Skellern 1 mental health ward to Georgina Evans.

The Communal Lounge at Eileen Skellern 1 by Tamsin Relly

Georgina Evans: Let’s talk about how you, Niamh and Tim started working together. 

Tamsin Relly: We knew each other from a few previous projects, and I was thrilled when they invited me to be involved. I’d recently had an exhibition that was site-specific with an immersive quality about it, so I think that may have caught their eye, or sparked their imagination, as to what might be possible in translating my work for the Hospital Rooms project. 

GE:  How did you choose your space at Eileen Skellern 1?

TR: As curators, Tim and Niamh were very open for us to choose an area of the ward that felt right, which almost made it harder! I think it can be overwhelming walking into a new kind of environment where it takes a while to feel like you know it intimately enough to respond creatively. At the PICU (Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit), visits had to be kept very brief, so I didn't have the luxury of time to sit and just ‘be’ in the space, to ‘feel it out’ or spend time making sketches or notes for example. Back in the studio, I worked on designs for a few different spaces in the ward at first. Then discussed the possibilities with staff, and service users, inviting them into the conversation, finding out where they felt I could contribute and where they thought my work would make the most sense within their day-to-day routine. One of the nurses was so excited about some of the potential botanical designs for the dining room. She said 'Oh I could sit in there all day.' I would say the staff chose more than I did in the end. They steered it. 'Hey we'd like it in the communal sitting room,’ they said. They got excited about having it in that space. 

GE: That's very flattering!

TR: Yes true! With a project like this though, you're coming in as such an outsider to a very particular environment, and so any encouragement or feedback from those who know it better than anyone else is invaluable.

GE: It’s lovely that you've had such a harmonious experience. Do you feel like you had to alter anything? Did you have to change your working process?

TR: There’s a duality in my practice where on the one hand, it considers the devastating impact that we're having on our environment, and on the other hand, there is a celebration of nature in all its wonder, and a call to find that place of love for our planet. I felt drawn to bringing elements of that wander into the space at Eileen Skellern 1 but I also had to work within parameters that were compliant with health and safety regulations specific to each space in the ward. For example, in most areas there should be no glass or frames, nothing that had a hard edge or that could be removed or tampered with. Even wallpaper that had been tried on previous Hospital Rooms projects, is at risk of being peeled off. Instead, possibilities included painting directly onto the walls, with low toxic paint; or printing digitally directly onto dibond – a very thin type of aluminium material that can be secured flat against the wall, with tamper-proof screws, and where we could round the corners. The dibond print is amazing, it’s pretty much scratch proof and can be wiped clean.

I’m used to working across a range of media and it’s always exciting to try something new, but I needed to get to know the tools I had to work with and let the plans evolve out of that. I was drawn to the warmth and intimacy of something hand painted but knew how – for me -  a certain freedom and subtlety of mark-making can get lost translating something into a large-scale wall painting. At the same time, I was curious about what an enlarged digital print might do for some of the images that come out of printmaking – taking a macro lens to the smallest pool of paint or mark. 

Painting onto the wall was challenging for me. Working in acrylic instead of oil is a completely different beast I’ve never really gotten to know, and scaling up in the way that I did, there wasn't a lot of room for error. I usually work quite fluidly with my materials, but in this case, I did test after test, tweaking and working with the design.

Being reminded that this is still an everyday challenge for people all over the world, I just found my heart open and full of empathy, for each person who I encountered facing these kinds of difficulties.

GE: Did you get any interaction with the patients as you were working?

TR: It varied from around three to ten people in the ward, and there was quite a volatile and tense atmosphere at times. There were also moments when it felt full of life and playfulness; there was a radio on a lot of the time, and at one point the space in front of the wall turned into an impromptu dance floor! The service users were generally really supportive of the work as it was taking shape, I was touched and encouraged by that. I remember as it was wrapping up one lady walked in and said, 'Aaaah I feel calmer already.’ Although it was testing, by the end of it, I instantly forgot all the challenges. We all felt so moved by the response. The whole ward broke out into a round of applause when the print went up on the last day! 

GE: What did you learn from the service users, from the whole experience, that you didn't expect you would?

TR: That’s interesting to think about. Actually, I grew up supporting my mum who had severe bipolar. Tim and Niamh didn't know about it when they first invited me to get involved, but throughout my childhood, my family and I supported my mum through some very challenging periods. In South Africa, I had exposure to various psychiatric care units - by taking my mum there or visiting. So I felt really moved and privileged to have the opportunity to bring something positive to this kind of environment. My mum, who thankfully is able to lead a stable and functional life now, was very supportive of me during the creative process for the project. She explained that from her own personal experience, that you can be in such a hypersensitive frame of mind that everything is heightened. Every bit of colour, or warmth, or beauty can really mean the world to someone. She described a stretch in the hospital where a small and - as she put it - a kitsch print of a tropical island, was the one piece of colour that she had access to in otherwise really bleak and colourless ward. She can still remember the image and how much, even that, meant to her at the time.

For me, having to section someone who you care about was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. It can be incredibly devastating for a family. I think for the person being sectioned, it can feel as though all of your freedoms are being taken away from you, or that everything is against you.  So, for your family knowing that a space might feel warmer and more inviting, anything that feels less restrictive and prescriptive for the person you care about, makes a big difference for everyone involved.

And so, coming (slowly!) back to your question – I guess I came to the project with a certain history which I haven’t really addressed in a while. So being reminded that this is still an everyday challenge for people all over the world, I just found my heart open and full of empathy, for each person who I encountered facing these kinds of difficulties. 

GE: It is a wonderful thing to have done.

TR: Well it was a team effort! We couldn’t have done it without the staff being supportive, accommodating and trusting of us too. And of course, Tim and Niamh, and all the artists involved - it was extraordinary watching the entire ward transform. It’s also fantastic that you're running these interviews, and inviting discussion about it. As my mum pointed out, thirty-five years ago when she first was diagnosed, you wouldn't believe how stigmatised mental health was. You wouldn't want to confess that you were on antidepressants, let alone ever having been sectioned. That shame would only perpetuate the whole dynamic of being unwell. We've obviously come a long way but I think there's a long way to go.

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