Nearing The End – June-July 2015

Monday 8th June : Centre 1 
One of the nurses was in the office when I got there. He was a little stressed because Paula was not well and had been at the centre threatening people with razor blades. She was not there when I arrived, but he said I should keep away if she comes back and notify someone to call the police. Later, during the workshop, I heard sirens, and when I asked about it in the office I was told that Paula had been taken to hospital. I felt sad that she was having to go through that. When everyone came out of the weekly meeting I went into the day room to try to recruit people for the art project. I may have been a bit hasty as there was a lot of emotion in the air, and some people didn’t feel like coming to the group. A couple of others said they’d like to come but couldn’t. Jake and Arthur were both keen to work on their collages, as was Steve. Just as I was preparing things in the art room a woman I haven’t seen before came in asking if she was too early. There were two other new people today, both young women, Fatima and Kourtney. Later Fatima’s keyworker told me she had suffered both sexual and emotional abuse as a child. She is currently homeless and estranged from her family. There was very little outward sign of trauma, except when I asked her for her opinion of one of my photos, and then she looked terrified. Moira worked very decisively on her collage, cutting out squares and arranging them on a large sheet of paper. I suggested she look at the images of artists’ collages because I thought this might help her think again about the squares, but she said she didn’t want to in case they influenced her decisions. At the end of the afternoon she had arranged all the pieces she had cut out (which were predominantly black) in a kind of loose grid on the paper, which actually looked very interesting. I asked if she wanted me to photograph them so she could remember next week where they went, but she said no, she might want to rearrange them then.

Jake seemed very well and was pleased with the way I had cut the windows out of his photo for him. He took great care with this third collage as he had with the other two, placing eyes behind the slots I had cut out so that they filled the windows in the image. It seems like progress that he is now able to look at and work with a photo of a place where he has seen eyes, when previously he couldn’t look at the same photo for more than a few seconds. Jake asked if we could have some music on as all he could hear was the sound of cutting. I fiddled with the CD player for a bit, and then Fatima suggested that we could play the radio through her phone. Arthur finished his collage about 20min before the end of the group, but agreed to wait until everyone had gone to talk to me about it. In the workshops his responses are minimal and he gives the impression of someone who finds communication difficult. I was quite surprised when he gave a long and very heartfelt account of his situation and his beliefs, clearly explaining how these are indicated in the collage.

Monday 18th June Today I had a meeting at a residential centre where people spend up to two years in recovery from prolonged episodes of psychosis. The manager was very keen to have me work there, which would be great because I would have longer with particular people. But on meeting one or two of the residents I wasn’t sure they would understand what I would be asking them to do. But then am I being too prescriptive about what the project is? At one moment I am excited and enthused about what I am going to make, the next I feel overwhelmed and ‘at sea’. How am I going to make something meaningful?

Visiting this place made me think about how much easier it is to relate to people with certain behaviours in an institutional setting than on the street. This is interesting in that it reflects the perceived need for safe social structures within which we can form our identities and positions in relation to those we see as ‘Other’ to ourselves. I’m not sure I want to write again, but there is something to be written on the subject of what we call ‘madness’ and monsters.

Monday 18th June : Centre 1 Today the manager told me that there would be a new art therapist starting soon and if I had plans to leave she could timetable her into my slot, although she wasn’t insistent that I should leave. I suggested finishing at the end of July, which she seemed happy with. But it will be difficult to leave now that I feel like part of the team. For example, this morning one of the Occupational Therapists was keen to talk to me about one of her new patients in a way that seems to acknowledge that what I do here is helpful.

There were a lot of new people in the day room today, and some people I expected to see were not there. Arthur came into the Art Room briefly to photograph his collage then left. Jake wasn’t around, but turned up later to finish his third collage. Kourtney was there. She was a bit impatient today. I kept saying to her ‘don’t stick things down until later’, and she kept saying OK, but then she stuck them down anyway, and later regretted it. She had to start again twice, but I think she was enjoying the process of sorting out how to make her collage. She chatted quite easily and seemed more comfortable in the group than she did last week. Moira came to the group again. She was quite quiet, but she did make one or two incisive comments. I’m a bit afraid to ask her anything about her work as she seems so private. I hope she is going to be willing to talk to me about her collage when it’s done. A young woman called Amy wandered into the room a bit before it was time for us to start. I told her she was too early and she said she would go and listen to her ipod for a while and come back. When she returned she seemed disorientated and took a while to settle. She wanted to wash her hands, then she wanted to go out for a smoke. Initially she had trouble remembering what she was doing, and I wasn’t sure she had understood, but once she started a collage she completed it quickly and briefly talked to me about it. Her explanations were sometimes logical and clear, although she did lose track of what she was talking about at times and went off on a tangent about pigeons. She mentioned drugs quite a bit. She seemed to be drifting and rather lost – I wondered if she would regain her sense of reality if she really comes off the drugs. Another new person was a young woman called Zaria. She was keen to talk about her own experiences of psychosis when I showed the photos from my previous work. She started collecting images for a collage, but I didn’t see what they were. There were also two men in the day room who came to try out the art group. A big guy called Paul was quite receptive and started a collage, although he said he was going to have to look at home for some of the images he needs. Another man called Harry joined us briefly, and listened to my introduction, but he said that the images I was showing didn’t make sense to him. He said that if he was to try to represent his depression it would be with an image of a dog pissing up a tree. I said that would be OK, and he looked a bit confused. He joined in some discussion and leafed through magazines for a while and then left. I had seen Steve in the corridor and he said yes when I asked if he was coming in to the art group, but he didn’t turn up. When I was leaving I saw him sitting in reception waiting to see the doctor looking very distressed and a bit tearful. I clumsily asked if he was OK, to which he said ‘not really’. I said ‘sorry’ and he said ‘that’s alright’. I felt like I had got that wrong. Its difficult to know how to express concern without seeming patronising or unhelpful.

Monday 29th June: Centre 1 There were quite a lot of people in the day room again today, including a few I didn’t recognize. About half said they would come to the Art Group. Since I was last here I had received Valerie’s little book from the online publishers. I was able to phone her to get her to come in and collect it. She came immediately and gave me a little hug. She seemed in quite good spirits and asked if we could be in touch again at a later date to work on her photos for exhibition. I said that I would call or email her. Seeing Val made me a little late going into the art room, and when I arrived eight people were in there, including Nadia, who had said she wasn’t coming. But she didn’t want to work on a collage, and continued to work  on her pencil copy of an image of a bird from a book. I wanted to ask her to work on the collage or leave, but in the end I allowed her to stay in the hope that she might revisit the collage. Today the weather was very hot and Nadia was wearing short sleeves, showing lots of small cuts up both arms, both fresh ones and scars. She had some interesting ideas about how Kourtney’s collage should look, but I couldn’t persuade her to work on hers. Kourtney began working on her collage, but then she seemed to lose confidence in it and/or concentration. She said that she didn’t want to be specific about what happened to her, either by communicating it visually in the collage or by talking to me about it. She wasn’t sure that she would come back to the group. Zaria seemed very clear about what she was doing, but spent most of the group time in the day room searching online for just the right images as she was unable to find these in the magazines. Jake was not sure what to do now he’s finished his third collage. I suggested be might want to move on to the second phase of the project, taking photos and writing short texts to make into a book. He has agreed to take some photos during the week.  A new guy Matthew joined us and worked on collecting images for the duration of the group, but he didn’t like the photos I showed him and he didn’t say much. Paul was there again. At first he had some difficulty recalling what he was intending to do with his collage, but after laying out the images he reconnected. Steve returned today after a difficult two weeks of being in and out of the Crisis House and a spell in hospital with pneumonia. He seemed to be in good spirits, but insisted on drawing and then cutting out bits of his drawing to include in the collage. Nadia seems to have introduced an element of rebellion into the group!

A young woman who said she is due for discharge from the Crisis House this week arrived a little late. She was quite difficult to communicate with, and seemed slightly on edge. Although she briefly mentioned some of the events that led to her being at the Crisis House, she didn’t want make her collage about those experiences and instead created a rather random, chaotic collection of pictures of things she likes. She left slightly before the end of the group and took this away with her. When I asked here about what led her to be hospitalized she said: “I was wearing the wrong kind of clothes. My mum found me laughing to myself, I wanted to bake a cake and I couldn’t.” There were one or two people out in the garden who haven’t been to the group for a while. I was just leaving, feeling that this had not been a very productive week, when I saw Luke in reception. He has been discharged early so that he can spend time at home watching Wimbledon. He gave me a typed text he has written to look at and then said I could photocopy it, although he said I mustn’t use it for anything. He also said that I am the first person to see it as he hasn’t shown it to his psychologist because he didn’t think s/he would be interested.

In general I am beginning to feel that its time to move on now, to stop the workshops and find ways of working one to one with people, but then each week something interesting happens I feel that I can’t quite finish yet.

Monday 6th July: Centre 1 I saw one of the staff in the office and he told me that the new art therapist is starting next week. He also said that there had been some feedback that my group was too directed. I think I know where it came from – my comment to Steve last week about incorporating drawing into his collage, combined with Nadia doing her drawing in the group, but when I mentioned this to Moira she immediately said “it wasn’t me who said that”, and then we had a chat about her plans for more collages. It seems that some people were under the impression that I am setting “rules” that I am not setting at all, so I managed to dispel that rumour! It doesn’t really matter, but it is good to have cleared things with Moira. She has agreed to possibly talk to me next time I am in. Just before the group was due to start most people were sitting in the garden in the sun. Moira was there, and said she was coming, but needed a bit of time after the previous meeting, which seems to have been quite heavy. She finished her collage of black squares today, and has ideas for two more. She wants to make an image of everything spiralling into a kind of vortex, but said she needed advice on how to do this. When I hinted that she could have started with that she said that in previous weeks she wouldn’t have been ready to think like that. I did feel I could talk to her more this week, although when I asked her what she does (for work) she said “nothing, I hit a wall”. I didn’t ask any more.

Last week Kourtney said she may not come back to the group, but today she returned and reworked her collage. She removed a couple of things, and started filling in the gaps. I think she is getting the hang of it a bit more now. Fran was also sitting outside, and was in quite a different state of mind than I had seen her previously. She seemed very fragile and uncertain. One of the staff said that she was having trouble with noisy neighbours and was struggling to sleep. She said she might come, but didn’t and I saw her key worker ushering her away in a way that suggested she was not feeling so good.

This made me think how, at the recovery centres, people can just be what/how they need to be, without judgement. This is very special, as I know from my own experience that when you are experiencing a trauma you just want people to be accepting and not put any demands on you. 

Jake was watching Wimbledon, but he tore himself away to come to the group, although he didn’t work on a collage today. During the week he had taken some photos of buildings that disturb him. It seems a big step forward that he can do this, but he still didn’t want to look at the pictures for too long. He said he is preparing to be discharged so sadly there may not be time to make a book. Steve arrived a little late. He seemed well, and said that his new medication was helpful, but he also said that he lacked inspiration today, and left the group early. He said he was anxious to know how much longer he would be at the centre and whether there will be somewhere to move on to.

Two new guys joined today – Martin, who was sitting in the dayroom when I arrived. He said he had to meet with the doctor and I thought that was probably an excuse not to join the group, but then he came along and started a collage. And Rob from the Crisis House, who was sitting in the Art Room when I went in. He was very chatty, and responded well to my View From Inside photos and the artists collages I showed him. He made two collages in a very short time, but his attention span is quite short and he left a little early. He said he was hoping to be discharged to the day centre soon.

Looking back at the beginning of this blog I realise that I have come a long way since the project started in January. Now I feel much more confident about what I’m doing. When I started I was a bit nervous and I didn’t know what to expect, for example I wrote: “I want to relate to [people here] differently than the regular staff do, but I’m not sure where to set the boundaries.” I’ve since learnt that patients at the Centres are just people, and now I approach them like I would anyone else. 

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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.