Winding Down – May 2015

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Monday 11th May : Centre 1 When I arrived I was surprised to see Ingrid in the day room, sleeping on the sofa as she had been discharged. Apparently she had come back just for two days. Last time I saw her she was keen to work on her collages and photo book and to meet and talk about her work, but this week she was sleepy and indifferent. She didn’t have any enthusiasm or energy for working on the ideas that we had agreed two weeks ago and hadn’t brought her work along with her. I asked if it was something she might come back to and she said she didn’t think so.

I had arrived early to meet with Valerie, but she wasn’t there. Then she phoned. I didn’t speak to her, but she left a message to say that she had fallen over and hit her head and she wouldn’t be in this week. So I sat in the Art Room and worked on something else for a couple of hours. Whilst I was there I could hear someone playing the piano very beautifully. I met Luke in the corridor. We shook hands. I asked if he was coming to the Art Project and he said that was what he was waiting for. He was very inquisitive and interested in my View from Inside photos and kept thanking me for showing them to him. He didn’t seem to know how to go about making a collage about himself and only cut out a couple of things. I think I might have discouraged him as I said I didn’t know how the two images he had cut out and put together related to him. He didn’t mention it, but I later found out that it was Luke who had been playing the piano.

When I went into the day room only Jake, Selina and a new girl were in there. Jake came along to the Art Room as usual and continued working quietly and meticulously to finish his second collage. He said he would take photographs in the week of places where he sees eyes. He also said he still finds it difficult to look at the original composite image I made of lions – I suggested he destroy it, but he didn’t want to. Selina was a bit unsure about what she wanted to do. She seemed quite unfocussed and said that there is a lot going on for her at the moment, but she started to cut out some pictures. Nadia was painting her nails blue. She asked if she could work on her own paintings, and I told her that there is another time in the week when she can do that. Having said she wasn’t interested in making a collage, she tore out dozens of magazine pages, but she didn’t do anything with them. This week Steve stuck images down in an apparently random and chaotic way. He said he thought the collage would be finished next week. I asked and if he would be prepared to talk to me about it and he said he would. Alex was not back so today I took his first two collages home and photographed them, along with Jake’s finished one of eyes.

Thursday 14th May, Centre 2 Whilst I was in the office a young woman knocked on the door asking if she could come to the art group even though she was due to have a meeting with staff. I verified that was OK and she looked pleased. Once in the art room she seemed quite quiet, but that may be because the group was large (ten people today) and other people were more immediately demanding attention. It feels ironic that now my weeks are numbered (I have two more left) the group is more popular than ever, and a lot of new people are joining. One of the staff told me about Eric – a Chinese guy, who has some trouble in social situations. At first he wasn’t sure about the photos I showed him, and then he started to ask about the different elements, and to tell me about himself. He said that he wanted to shut himself in like the lady with the newspaper at the windows because three of his family members had died recently, and that he had lost his job and “got crazy”. Once he had finished looking at the photos I explained what I was asking people to do, and then he said he needed to go to the toilet and didn’t come back. His keyworker said he didn’t think Eric was ready to start processing what had been happening just yet.

Luis was in the day room and was keen to come to the art group as usual. He said he wants to finish his collage on Monday so that he is ready to talk to me next week. He seemed fine, but at the end of the day I was talking to his keyworker in the office and he said that Luis had been having a hard time with flashbacks. He mentioned something about sexual abuse and Luis’s mother being murdered in front of him.

At lunchtime Scarlett was playing table tennis in the day room with a new woman, Sue. Both of them came to the art project. Sue was very clear about what she wanted to do. She started on the left of the paper, and was working right to left chronologically through her life. She said she hadn’t met her mother until she was six, and that time was very difficult and dark. Scarlett seemed more robust than last week. She showed me some photos on her phone of arrangements of objects that she had made at home to try to express how she is feeling and what has been going on for her. Her collage is quite detailed and looks promising. Last week she took it home to work on, but didn’t do anything. This week she took it again.

Whilst I was in the dayroom watching Scarlett and Sue play table tennis Verena appeared. She said that she had just been readmitted to the Crisis House. She was wearing a bobble hat and a short-sleeved t-shirt that showed the extent of the scars on her arms from cutting. She came to the group and sat at the table for a while, but when it started to get crowded she moved to the side bench. She said she thinks people see her as some kind of exotic exhibit. She started on a collage of animals, with an image of a camel and some cars, which she took away with her.

A young woman called Eva came down from the Crisis House about half way through the first hour of the session. She seemed angry, and quite aggressively wanted quick answers to everything. But after a while she calmed down and started working on a collage. She was not very satisfied with her work and talked about her dreams and about everything being in a mess. She was referring to a period of psychosis when she said: “I would make Tracey Emin’s bed if Tracey Emin hadn’t made it… I have too many ideas. It feels like my dreams were meddled with and my identity got lost.” She was cutting out an image of a baby being circumcised to put in a fridge. When I asked about that she said there had been some abuse and “I can decide to eat or not eat to get away”. She was struggling with the composition of her collage, saying it wasn’t messy enough. I turned some of the elements round so that they were at different angles and she seemed happier with that. She was speaking very intensely and quickly so it was difficult to remember without making notes, which didn’t seem appropriate in front of everyone, and I was already aware of giving her a lot of attention and turning my back on the rest of the group for too long.

Ron had new glasses this week, so he could see a little better, but he was still complaining that his eyesight was not good and it was a strain to work on his collage. Today he cut out some think pink lines, which he said were boundaries to keep the logos in (or out, I wasn’t clear which), but I didn’t quite understand the logic as there seemed to be logos on both sides of the lines! Raymond arrived a little late and sat next to Verena at the bench, apart from the rest of the group. He asked me if I had brought back his first collage (I still have it at home) but promised I would bring it next week. He said he wanted to photograph it and I took that as a good sign. Last to arrive was Harriet, who came in just before the official hour for the group was over. Luckily I had already decided to let it run as long as people were interested, which turned out to be just over two hours. This was the fourth time I had met her, and she looked completely different again.

Monday 18th May: Centre 1 Today I woke up with a streaming cold, so am a bit out of it. I arrived a little late for a 1pm meeting with Valerie, but luckily she was in a very good mood. Her keyworker was in reception when I arrived. He said he wanted to talk to me, so we had a quick chat about times and I promised that I would keep meetings with Val to next week only, but that we may need two. He seemed fine with that. She had written a lot and we spent an hour and a half working through her texts, editing and ordering the fragments we had selected to make a book. The time went quickly and Valerie was the one who pointed out that it was almost time for my group to start.

Jake started a new collage today using as a background his own photograph of a location where he had seen eyes at the time the phenomenon first appeared. This seemed like a step forward as previously he had found this photograph too disturbing to look at for any length of time. At the end of the day he asked me if I could bring in a scalpel for him because he wanted to cut out one of the windows in his photo – I can imagine how the staff might react if I did, so I said I would take it home and do it for him. Then he said he wanted twelve of them cut out. Selina took a while to get settled. She was a little bit edgy today and didn’t seem to want to communicate much. Steve completed a collage today and talked to me 1-1 about it after the group had finished. Last week he had stuck a lot of images down seemingly randomly, this week he stuck pieces of black paper all around and sometimes over the other images. Both visually and in words he described some dark experiences.

Arthur seemed a lot more confident than when I last saw him two weeks ago, but still not completely comfortable in the group. He made good progress with his collage today, but he too seemed a little edgy and quiet. He was sticking down mostly words. Today was Fran’s first day at the centre. She gave the impression of being confident and at ease and chatted to me about using lemon and honey for my cold (my nose was running like mad). When I showed the artists collages she looked at the composite photo of hands by Man Ray and said that was exactly what she needed to express how she feels. It was also Rashid’s first time in the group. He took a little while to understand what was going on, but in the end he started to cut things out of magazines. He asked for a piece of paper and started assembling pictures of dogs and people on one side, a roaring leopard in the middle and some less positive images on the left side. He hadn’t cut anything out very accurately and I tried to point out that he might not need parts of some of the images, or the writing in them. Suddenly it was 4 o’clock and we needed to finish. Steve stayed behind and talked to me about his collage and answered my questions. Alex still hasn’t reappeared – I meant to ask about him but didn’t get a chance.

Next Monday is another bank holiday so I’m going to run the project on Tuesday morning instead. I’m not sure there will be very many people, but its better than nothing and I can see Valerie afterwards.

Thursday 21st May: Centre 2 As usual when I arrived there were not many people around. Then Verena came in. She said she wasn’t able to stay for the group because she had an appointment, so we agreed to have a quick talk beforehand. We only had 15 min. We went to the art room, but there was someone in there, so Verena suggested we “go out for a smoke”. She wasn’t wearing her hat today and I noticed a big open wound on her forehead. I asked her about it – it’s where she banged her head against the wall when she was anxious. She told me that she is slowly becoming resigned to the idea that she will need help for the rest of her life. I wanted to ask a lot more questions, but there was no time.

When I arrived in the art room Eva had completed her collage from last week and started on a second one. They were spread all over the table. This week she seemed a lot less troubled than last week. She had written a testimony about her illness in big blue letters. She said that because she can use the ‘correct’ language to describe what is happening to her the doctors fail to see how unwell she is. When I arrived a young man was also in the art room working on a drawing. I explained that the group was about doing something particular and gave my usual introduction to the project. He didn’t make any effort to start on a collage, and I thought this might be because he didn’t know where to start. Eventually he explained that he was afraid it would “open a can or worms”. Towards the end of the group time he started to join in the conversation. Then I asked him if he would search for an image on the internet for one of the others because I thought that would engage him more. He looked scared and said he wasn’t good with computers, then he mumbled that he couldn’t read or write either.

Harriet arrived a little after we had started the group. She hovered just inside the door for a bit and then sat flicking through a magazine. Eventually she got out her collage, worked to tidy it up, and then started on a second one. After about 40 minutes she got up and left saying that she was going for a drink of water, but she didn’t return. I was concerned that something had upset her. Later I saw her again, she was fine and we had a 1-1 meeting to discuss her collage. She told me that she is afraid to reveal anything about herself.

This project is really forcing me to take people as I find them and to forget any assumptions I might make about anyone – how do I create work that puts the audience in this situation as well?

Tuesday 26th May: Centre 1 This week was another Bank Holiday Monday, but I was able to move the group to Tuesday morning. When I arrived there was no one around, staff were in the morning meeting, and the day room was empty. Then Marvin appeared in the corridor, with a long beard and rips in the back of his jacket. He was very extrovert – he couldn’t remember my name, but he did remember that I run the art group and he said he would come along. He shook my hand and held on to it for a little too long. He was full of questions and was warm and jolly, making jokes and witty observations – very different to his usual reserved persona. In the art room I started to get out the magazines and Marvin was flipping through making comments  about some of the pictures. He said he wanted to start another collage, but he couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a minute or two and asked if he could go and make a coffee. He left his watch and a pamphlet on the table and was gone for ages. When he came back he asked if he could open the door to the garden, then he went out and was standing in a corner talking to someone that I couldn’t see. As soon as I spoke to him he responded perfectly rationally, but he seemed to be experiencing more than one reality at a time. Later staff said that he shouldn’t have been at the Centre today, and had been admitted to hospital.

An older lady from the Crisis House joined us after a while. She apologized for being late. I gave her my intro – she didn’t seem very interested in my photos, although she said she was an artist. She also said she had been a nurse. She was generally quite angry and slightly resistant to the idea of making a collage, but after a while she settled in to it. Then when I suggested it would be better to use cut out words than writing on the collage with felt pen she became very angry and walked out. (She later apologized).

After the group I met with Valerie to review the progress on the book we were making together. When she arrived she was complaining of a number of physical ailments, but she cheered up when she saw the work I had done on the design for her book and we managed to agree on an overall sequence and some details on wording.

Thursday 28th May: Centre 2: Last one As I was going in to the building Luis was coming out. He said that he would come back to finish his collage and talk to me, but he didn’t. He hasn’t signed a consent form, so I reluctantly left his collage in the drawer when I packed up my things. There were a few people in the day room when I arrived, but only Harriet and Sue that I recognized. I did mention the art project to one or two new people, but it didn’t really seem worth encouraging anyone new to join for the last session, so in the end it was just Harriet and Sue who came. Harriet seemed in a good place today – she was confident and talking easily and seemed calmer than I had seen her previously, although she did have some trouble remembering what it was she was doing with her collage. She started work on a second one, and agreed to me taking her first collage away to photograph. Sue worked hard to finish her collage, and then talked to me about it (with her keyworker present).

In a way I was glad that there were so few people in this last workshop. I packed up the folders and the printer. After the workshop I went into the office to say goodbye and one of the staff handed me a card and a box of chocolates from the team. I was very touched and gave everyone who was there a hug. The receptionist lady was also very kind when I handed back my door entry card – she said something about time going very quickly. I finished the workshops here because the manager requested that I should. Staff at Centre 1 are happy for me to carry on there, so I will continue the blog for one more month…

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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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