In Detail – April 2015


This month my notes are very long and detailed. I have tried to edit them, but so much of what happens is so interesting (at least, I think so) it’s difficult to cut it down very much. 

Thursday 2nd April : Centre 2 The manager was in the office when I arrived. She wanted to tell me about Robbie, a tall and quite big guy I had not met before, who she said could be very intimidating. She offered me an alarm to take into the art room. I asked whether Robbie was physically violent and she said no, so I didn’t think the alarm would be necessary. When I went into the day room to get people for the art group Neil was making a cup of coffee and Anya was exclaiming about him taking three sugars. I made a joke about him losing his teeth. He then announced that his front teeth were already false because the original ones had been knocked out by security guards in McDonalds. Later, in the group we were talking about the fact that he will be discharged next week and I asked him if he felt ready – he said that he was going to go in to a detox programme. Everyone looked surprised. He often refers to his drinking, but never smells of drink or appears like someone who drinks excessively.

Robbie came into the art room with the others and once I had got them settled I sat next to him and did my usual introduction, showing him some of the View From Inside photos. He started to calm down a bit, but then he started to insist that we, and I in particular, should read some passages from the Book of Daniel, about the end of the world. I asked if he was religious and he said he wasn’t. The manager had warned me that he could be confrontational, so I was prepared when he started staring at me very intensely. He kept saying he wanted to come to the centre tomorrow (Good Friday – it will be closed). He was talking very fast about politicians, technology and all sorts of other things. I asked him one or two questions about himself, which he answered non-committally and with an expression that said “keep away”. I finally managed to get him to start looking through magazines for images – he said he wanted to look for horses because there was a dark horse and a red horse coming (this was something to do with the Daniel text). Then he found a microscopic photo of a beetle’s leg in one of the Scientific American magazines. It did look a bit like a picture of the sun with strange little figures crowded around it and Robbie started loudly insisting that it was God with all his minions gathered around. My attention shifted to Neil, who wanted to look for pictures of dark trees to put in his collage along with the bits of housing estates. Robbie fell silent. He didn’t find any pictures of horses. After a while he got up saying he needed the toilet. He didn’t come back.

Tuesday 7th April, Centre 1 I have a cold, so today I was feeling a bit vague. When I arrived the receptionist told me that Valerie was asking for me – I suddenly realised that I was supposed to meet her at ten thirty – it was now ten fifty. Oh no. She was in the day room and wasn’t very pleased with me. To make matters worse I hadn’t brought my computer, so we had to use one of the consultation rooms to look at the photos she had taken this week. She is still on crutches and showed me some bruises on her arm where she had fallen.

It’s Easter and the group is meeting on Tuesday instead of Monday, so I wasn’t expecting more than one or two people today. But in the end there were six – three men that I know, and three new women. It was a lovely sunny day and I opened the door to the courtyard because the art room was boiling as usual. I asked Jake if I could have a copy of the photo that he had taken on his phone of windows by the canal– he said that the picture was quite hard to take because then the windows were “freaking me out”, but now when he looks back at the photo it just looks “normal” and doesn’t trigger any reaction in him. “Its just what it is”. He is working on a collage of an office and inserting eyes everywhere. The lions seem to have completely disappeared, now he just sees eyes when he is anxious.

There was some confusion with Patrick, who thought I had said that I would print out some images he had sent me. Luckily I then remembered that I had printed a little silhouette of a tree for him to insert into the face of a character in his collage, but there were two other images he wanted. After the group finished I was able to find them online and print them in the day room. Alex still hasn’t managed to get his most recent photos out of his phone, and today he worked rather slowly on his latest collage. He said that he might not be here again after today as he was going to pick up some new medication at lunchtime, which he hoped would completely get rid of the voices he hears. But then after lunch he came back to say that the doctor wanted to monitor him and he would be around a bit longer after all.

Three new women arrived and I gave them my photos to look at whilst I got the others set up. They all looked a bit blank until I started to explain what they were looking at. Ingrid, the youngest of the three, was able to understand very well and identified with the image with a lot of different monitors in it. She described almost exactly the feelings that the person portrayed had described to me. She also said that she was familiar with making collages, and set to work quickly and confidently. She is not normally able to come to the centre on Monday afternoons, but was keen to continue with the project, so I suggested that we meet one to one next Monday morning, which she seemed happy with. The second woman was very quiet, her energy seemed low, and she said: “it’s difficult with depression”. But with some encouragement from others she started collecting some images. The remaining person was a young African woman who continued working after everyone else had left because she wanted to finish a collage documenting some traumatic experiences from her past.

As usual, today was completely different than I expected.

Thursday 9th April : Centre 2 As soon as I walked into the day room Neil announced that he had let himself down again and hadn’t taken any photos this week. He will be discharged in the next few days so it was his last chance. Margaret was in the day room. She said she couldn’t stay today, but she will come next week, and talk to me then. She wasn’t looking very well. Lee was also in the dayroom and said that he would come along to the group. A man I hadn’t seen before was making a cup of coffee. Just as Lee said that he might be interested in joining us one of the staff came in and introduced the new man to me. He is using crutches, so I waited until he had sat down and then tried to explain the project. He said that he had dome some drawings, but he didn’t like them. Not because he wasn’t skillful enough, but because he didn’t like the subject matter: himself. But he said he would come and have a go at making collage. He stayed for almost an hour and then got up to leave, saying he had done “nothing”, but actually he had cut out a page of grey with the word timeless on it, and had also cut out a clock. Whilst looking for images he mentioned that he suffers from depression. When you know the context a simple combination like that can seem profound.

Raymond was in better spirits than I have seen him previously. I noticed that he was using his damaged arm (last time he didn’t seem to be able to move it at all), but still, the collage he made today was very negative, he said “I feel like I’m an empty shell, a hollow person.” I offered him a camera to take home, but he said he already has one. Today Neil finished his third collage, and he was clearly proud of it. He said he could see the second collage on his wall, but when I asked if I could keep it in case I can exhibit it he agreed and also seemed pleased with that. I really hope I can make at least one exhibition of the work happen. Ana Sophia managed to come to the group today, even though she has a regular external appointment on Thursday afternoons. Her keyworker brought her along just as I had finished doing my intro for someone else, so I went through it again. She made a very proficient 3D collage that was like a little theatre set. I forgot my glasses today, so I was worried about not being able to see what people were doing, but it was only really a problem when Lee and Ana Sophia wanted to show me their artwork on their phones. Lee showed me a new photo of architecture that had been rearranged to make a face. He acknowledged that, like his other photos, this one is very controlled and that working like this is a kind of defence mechanism.

Monday 13th April : Centre 1 Today was the busiest day so far. When I arrived Ingrid was waiting for me in reception, so I hurriedly picked up the keys and we went into the art room. No time for a catch up with staff. She talked through her collage and then I asked my usual questions. The experiences she described are quite extreme, and yet she is an articulate, intelligent young woman and responded to my questions calmly and clearly – at times like this it is difficult to reconcile what people are telling me with the persona I can perceive. Valerie was also waiting for me, so I ate my sandwich quickly and went to get her. She had taken quite a few new photos this week, some of herself from the back using a timer. We looked at my suggestions for ways of putting together her previous photos, but I’m not sure if we will use many of these as the work is now going in a more interesting direction. I was just finishing with her and Alex came into the art room, I looked at the clock and saw that it was now time for the group to start. Alex started by watering the plants that were on top of the plan chest, and then sat down to work on his collage. Then another young man I hadn’t met before arrived introducing himself as Derek. He seemed quite confident and said that he had done an art course. I gave him my usual introduction and left him looking through magazines as Iris, an older lady who had been sitting in reception, came in. She has a walking frame, so I moved some chairs and got her seated. Then three women I hadn’t seen before walked in and sat at the far end of the table. There was a slightly tense air in the room now, but anyway I asked them to move up to sit near Iris and started on my intro again. When I said that I was going to ask them to make collages about themselves, two of the women got up and left saying it wasn’t for them. Paula, who stayed, was more positive, saying that she had previously made and exhibited some “modern art”. People kept on arriving – Michele came in and carried on quietly with her collage. Jake arrived unusually late, he had had a meeting with his key worker, and two more new people also joined the group. I wasn’t sure if one of them would stay as she seemed a bit unsure what to do, but she started looking through magazines and then cut out a whole lot of different faces, which she stuck down in rows. In each case she had just cut a square around the head, but when I asked her if she wanted to cut round the heads a bit more she said no, she wanted it just as it is. I said I was intrigued and wanted to ask her what it signified, she said “later”.

Thursday 16th April : I was away for a symposium and exhibition opening today, so no group.

Monday 20th April : Centre 1 Today Ingrid showed me sixteen collages that she had made over the weekend. We spread them all out on the table. We both like the idea of making them into a book, and I suggested she writes some words to go with them. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about which ones should go together and then agreed on some “homework” for the week, which is to rework a few of the collages, and to start on some short pieces of writing. We had just finished when I heard an uneven step coming along the corridor, which I knew must be Valerie. She burst into the room looking very upset. For a moment I thought it was because I didn’t come and get her as soon as I had finished with Ingrid, but it turned out that she had been in a meeting with staff and was very upset that they had diagnosed her with Personality Disorder. She burst into tears. I tried to calm her a bit, and then we looked at the photos she had taken this week.

At lunchtime Alex was lying spread-eagled over a chair in the day room, fast asleep. But then just before the time for the group to start he came into the art room looking quite energetic and cheerful and got out his collage to carry on. I gave him scissors and glue and went to look for other people to join us. I am getting a bit more confident about leaving people with scissors now, if they are people I know. Jake, Paula and Michele all said they would come, and a young guy called Arthur shook my hand and said he would join the group. Just as I was finishing the intro for him a young Asian woman came in. I started to explain to her what I was looking for, and she said “oh like a storyboard” – she said she is an artist, and works in design. But she seemed less able to connect with the portraits I was showing her than Arthur was, and was not so committed when it came to looking for images. Every so often I looked over at her and she seemed to be frozen – sitting completely still and looking at nothing. When I spoke to her she came back to the present, and then some time later drifted off again. As it was her first week I didn’t ask her anything.

Jake worked quietly away on his collage of eyes again. I asked him if he would be willing to have a go at taking some more photos and he said that he didn’t want to because when he was hallucinating he wasn’t thinking about taking pictures, but about how to deal with the images. I tried suggesting that to take a picture of the place might be a way of gaining power over the hallucinations, but he didn’t like that idea. Alex was working well on his third collage, so I left him to it for a bit. Then he announced that it was finished, so we looked through the photos that he had taken during the week. There were about seventy, but they were all a bit random. I held off saying anything much today, but we agreed to meet before the group next week, so if he seems well I might try a bit harder to get him to think about subject matter then. He said he didn’t think any of his collages were any good, and that perhaps that medium is not for him – we should talk about that as well! Paula came in a while after the group had started. She said she thought the collage she had made last week was finished as it had all the elements that were needed to tell her story. I asked if she would talk about it and she said she was embarrassed, and I said ‘if there is no one else in the room?’ She said that would be OK, so we arranged to talk after the group.

Monday 27th April: Centre 1 Ingrid’s keyworker was in the office when I arrived, and I mentioned that she had made sixteen collages the previous weekend. At first she said that I shouldn’t encourage that and should try to calm down Ingrid’s energy, but then she thought again and said it might be a good channel for it. Ingrid was waiting for me in the day room as usual. This time she hadn’t done anything new, but brought along some previous photos for me to look at, so I didn’t have to deal with the problem of not encouraging over-production. We talked about how she could make a photo book about the difference between her experience of being her and other people’s perception of her. However, she is being discharged soon, so this may be the last time we will be able to meet. When I saw Valerie she was very enthusiastic about the edits I had made to the arrangement of her photos, and had written some texts to go with them. We played around with putting these together. Then it was time to go and round people up for the group. Jake was printing out some more pictures of eyes to use. His collage is getting more subtle. We both agreed that some of the eyes he had stuck on at the beginning didn’t work. He is now trying to match them more with the architecture of the room. When I said it was starting to look like a still from a surrealist film he looked quite pleased! Michele arrived late, and then after about five minutes asked if she could go for a cigarette. She wasn’t really concentrating, and when I said I thought there might be some story there, she said ‘oh really? I don’t think so’. Arthur came along at the start of the group, but then said he couldn’t find his folder and left again saying that there was something else he wanted to do anyway. I think the folder was in the cupboard, but he suddenly seemed to feel uncomfortable when he got into the art room. He said something about not being able to remember, but I wasn’t sure what he meant.

A new girl, Selina, who had appeared at the end of the session last week said she wasn’t sure that she wanted to join the group, but then came in shortly after we had started. For the first twenty minutes or so she was chatting and giggling with another new woman, Shirley, who was a bit defiant and quite negative when she came in, although after a while of looking for images in magazines she became more focused. She then said she couldn’t find what she was looking for in the magazines, so I suggested she do a google search in the day room. She was gone for a long time, but eventually returned with two prints of dragons. She said that these are what she sees when she is ill. An older lady, Gloria, who had been once before, worked enthusiastically on her second collage today and seemed to enjoy the process a lot, although she didn’t seem to have any understanding of what I was asking people to do. She cut out a row of dogs, and an animal fashion parade with mice and other little furry creatures dressed up. She pointed at them and said ‘animal couture’ and looked at me. I couldn’t help smiling. The last member of the group today was a man I recognized, but couldn’t remember why. He introduced himself as Steve and reminded me that we had met before Christmas. He said that he is now back and in the Crisis House. He talked about how difficult it is for him to find that he is ill again so soon after his last recovery – usually he gets seriously ill every five years or so, but this time its only been four months. I asked if he knew why that had happened and he said yes, but he didn’t elaborate.

Thursday 30th April: Centre 2 When I arrived there was a young woman sitting at the dining table in the day room, and I just saw Raymond heading out of the door. Luis was the only other person I recognised and I almost thought I might have to cancel today’s session due to lack of people, but in the end it was a busy and very intense afternoon. Expect the unexpected again! Scarlett, the young woman at the table she said she liked collage and would come along. Luis said he needed a minute to go out and think, and that he would be along later. I got his folder out ready for him. Then an older man called Ron arrived in the art room. I hadn’t seen him before. He set to work cutting out logos from fashion magazines. I was intrigued and he said something like “this is what caused my problems”. I asked him what he meant and he said he would prefer to talk to me in private once the collage is finished. Scarlett was next to arrive and she spent ages looking very carefully at all my photos and then picked two that she said she identified with strongly. She hinted at having psychotic experiences herself. Then the door opened and a man strode into the art room as though walking onto a film set. I had seen him outside smoking when I arrived– he was dressed as though he had just stepped out of a Western, with the hat, fringed jacket and boots and a lot of jewelry. Once he was settled he turned out to be quite a serious and gentle person. He said his name was Larry, and he too spent a long time looking at my View From Inside pictures and then started working on a collage. I didn’t really look at what he was cutting out, but I noticed it was all cut in indiscriminate blob like shapes, so I got out the examples of artists’ collage to show how you can make things work together by cutting out carefully. He liked the photos, but I don’t think he really got the idea. At some point Luis came in and started assembling his collage. There are buildings upside down, and half a man in a suit upside down with an upside down bird on his head and his tie at right angles to his body. He said it was all about his world being upside down and all mixed up and the bird was flying towards the ground to try to save him by grounding him. I asked him if he would be willing to talk about it when its finished and he agreed. I said I thought the collage was beautiful and he seemed proud.

Then Raymond arrived. He said he was having a bad day and sat apart from the rest of the group. He went to the drawer to get his work out, and I could see him rummaging around. I told him apologetically that I had taken his first collage home to photograph. I thought he might be upset with me, but instead I noticed a glimmer of pride. This week he started arranging yellow circles around a small piece of paper. Towards the end of the afternoon I said ‘at least there is some sun there this week’, but then he told me the collage was about how everyone else sees the sun, but for him, on the inside, things are dark.

The door opened again a woman called Rhona came in. She had a box of coloured pencils and a drawing in her hand and she seemed very troubled. She wanted to continue with her drawing rather than working on a collage, so I said that was fine, but could she sit at the side apart from the group. Later, I asked her if she wanted to join us, but she refused, saying she didn’t understand anything. Then after a while she asked what exactly it was we were doing, I explained again and she got up, ripped up her drawing and joined the table. She started to browse through magazines, and I asked once or twice if she wanted scissors, but she said that she was still looking. Then she did start to cut out one or two things and gradually became more communicative. Her transformation over the hour or so she was with us was amazing. Scarlett was very focused on her collage and was making light and witty remarks, but then she became quite tearful as the process was bringing up a lot of emotions for her. Rhona suddenly got up and gave Scarlett a big hug, saying that she reminded her of her daughters. This seemed to be a turning point for Rhona, she became much softer and more open and started talking more to the others in the group. Everyone agreed that tears are good, and Scarlett stayed for a while longer. Someone was talking about how difficult it is for men to cry, and I said we should start a crying group. This made Scarlett smile through her tears. The atmosphere was nice, and felt very supportive.

Then just before we were due to finish two more people arrived – a young woman all dressed in blue with a beret on. She seemed very tense, was frowning a lot and her movements were angular. I asked her name, and then it dawned on me that she was Harriet, who I had had such a long conversation with last week. She was almost completely unrecognisable – the style of her clothing was different, she had makeup and glasses on, and her hair was covered by the beret. I got her folder out for her and apologized for not recognizing her. She said ‘a lot of people say that I look different all the time’. She spent a long time intensely looking at the pictures she had cut out previously and, although she did respond when I spoke to her, it was clear that she didn’t want to communicate. The group went on for nearly two hours today, everyone was working away and so many people came in late, I just let it run until people wanted to leave. An older man wandered in very late. I explained what we were doing, but I’m not sure he understood and I didn’t encourage him to start anything because there was no time. He was from the Crisis House, and after a while someone came in looking for him. Apparently he had come to the art room without letting anyone know where he was. Larry stayed until almost the end, but then had a phone call, which he took outside, then he came back and said he had to go to a doctors appointment. He was looking quite proudly at his collage and said he was beginning to get the hang of what to do. He said he had really enjoyed the group. I told everyone that I would not be there next week, but please remember to come back the following week. Scarlett took her collage away to work on at home and by the end of the (prolonged) session Harriet was more relaxed and talkative, she carefully cut out and the elements of her collage and was starting to assemble them.. Rhona very thoughtfully offered to take Martin back upstairs. She seemed like a completely different person than when she had come into the room. It was quite an intense group today but everyone except Raymond seemed to leave happier than when they had come in. I felt a bit panicky that I only have three weeks left. There are several new people and one or two existing ones that I would like to get to know better and to record conversations with – I only hope there is time before I have to leave. I was exhausted when I got home.

In a way it will be good to get some distance, I feel so caught up with the process of the workshops and the people that I still can’t imagine how I am going to make something of this experience.

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Alexa Wright

Alexa Wright works with photography, video, sound and interactive digital media. Her practice often exists at the intersection of art and medical science. Alexa’s work has been shown widely, both nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include: 'Slippage, The Unstable Nature of Difference', Chester University Gallery (2015); 'Crafting Anatomies', Bonington Gallery, Nottingham (2015); 'Hybrid Bodies', PHI Centre, Montreal (2014); 'Archisle Photography Open', Jersey Arts Centre, St Helier, Jersey (2013); (honorable mention); 'Portas Abertas', Fórum Eugénio de Almeida, Évora, Portugal (2013); 'Digital Aesthetic 3', Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston (2012); 'Born in 1987: the Animated Gif', Photographer’s Gallery, London (2012). Alexa is Reader in Photography and Visual Culture at the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her single-authored book, ‘Monstrosity the human monster in visual culture’ was published by IB Tauris in June 2013. Funded by the Arts Council, Alexa is currently artist in residence at two Mental Health Recovery Centres in North London, UK.

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