“There are images of being trapped. The blue drawing is of a social situation, which I find difficult. The boats on the river in Venice are half way between the negative and the positive. The text reads ‘in pursuit of happiness’, which is represented by the garden on the right side”.
“My collage is in four blocks. Firstly, a picture that is set forever and unchanging. There are glum faces at this permanent prospect. Then there is a picture frame breaking away from everything. A bull is breaking out of the frame – its revolutionary. This represents the process of developing who I am, but it’s a slow process. If you look at historical artworks that don’t change over time they are trapped in a fixed world. The expressions of the people in this section are glum, not expressive and fixed. The flag is where I want to be emotionally and physically. It is usually very calm, but I have added the sea and a more explosive image for the top part. The background is a face, I wouldn’t mind being in that person’s skin. There is a lot going on on the inside that is not evident on the outside. I have represented this with the composite face. The star signs offer some hope. They are on a background of a body under construction.”
“I feel like the world’s racing by. And then there’s my mind being on food, hence the brain being on a food train, and the pint of beer because I do tend to drink, and perhaps a bit too much.”
“This one’s more about my paranoia and self-critical views. Both sets of police in the picture are to do with feeling like the police are against me and they just basically want to harm me. That’s because of being arrested by the police on previous occasions where they’ve been a bit heavy-handed. The man who appears to be popping out of a window and shouting in an angry way is a self critical person where I might have done something in a fit of rage and suddenly become critical of myself for doing that. ‘Pyroclastic man’ as I call him represents a quite volatile part of myself. He’s nothing like a super-hero, but something that is more a part of myself that I don’t really like. He is bit out of control, a bit explosive and when he surfaces he just has to run his course. The crowds of people represent how my mind races and bounces between different thoughts. Sometimes its hard to work out which thought I should be following. The legs are about feeling like someone’s working with the police trying to bring trouble my way. Its just frightening really, not knowing what’s going on. Now I’m thankful that there is help out there and I’m not alone. I don’t really like what happened, but I like the fact that the police opted for getting me help rather than arresting me.”
Monday 2nd February, Centre 1 January has already gone. Today Pete was in the day room with several other people. Although none of them wanted to come to the Art Project the atmosphere was nice, and friendly and I feel that people are getting used to seeing me around. Then Marvin said he would come along. He sits a bit apart from the group and if I ask him what his collages are about he doesn’t answer. I uploaded Pete’s photos to my laptop and we looked through them. He had taken around fifty pictures, including some views out of the window from his flat at different times of day. He said that sometimes he just sits there all day looking out and the photos represent mood changes. He had also taken pictures of the corner of the room when he woke up one night, and an imprint left on the carpet. We talked about moving on and I suggested that this week he could focus on imprints and impressions that last or fade and on moves that change things when taking photos. Ten minutes or so into the session a member of staff knocked on the door and delivered three new people. I gave the three new people my A View From Inside photos to look through. When I explained that the images represent people’s experiences of altered reality, one person, Jake said he would need to find a picture of a lion because he sees lions everywhere. I put some National Geographics in front of him and after a while he found a small picture of a lion and some photos of landscapes with ferns and icicles in them, which he called “jagged leaves”. Having seen my digital photos he said that the lions needed inserting digitally and I said I would take the photos home and overlay them. When I asked him if he was convinced by the lions he answered: “My body says one thing and my head says another”, and “its my body that is convinced by them”.
Another new member of the group, Richard, told me that he used to hear voices, but now they are gone. He said he didn’t want to go too much into the past, but then he told me that the voices told him to kick the family dog, which he did. The third new person, William looked as though he was holding in a lot of emotion. When I asked him to make a collage about his experience, he didn’t want to remember what had happened. So I asked him to make something about how he feels now, but that was also difficult for him. He said, “then I was alone, now I’m with people”. I didn’t ask him any more, but he cut out a black and white image of a barren landscape and various short bits of text, which he stuck onto the landscape. At the end of the session he said he didn’t think he would come back next week.
Collage is such a powerful way for all sorts of people to talk about what is going on for them. I’m excited by this process. I keep having the sense that something interesting is happening, but I can’t articulate it or connect to it fully. And there are lots of questions like, for example, what does ‘recovery’ mean?
Thursday 5th February, Centre 2 Today is already workshop number five here. I emailed the manager in the week to check that she was in agreement with me meeting patients one to one as I had a gut feeling that this was not OK, and it wasn’t. She didn’t reply to my email, but when I arrived she was in the office waiting to see me. We spoke for about 20 minutes and I tried to convince her, but there was no agreement. Five people came to the group this week. Andrea had an appointment so she couldn’t stay. She hadn’t slept and was looking anxious. She said she hadn’t taken any photos but had been thinking about what she wanted to do and I promised to get the computer/printer set up for the following week so that she could download and print things from the Internet. Last week Ronnie took the pieces of his collage home to work on further, and this week he almost finished it.
Today Jane finished a collage. She seems to be enjoying the group. She said it was the fastest hour ever today! She was keen to take a camera home, so I gave her the last one I had. She too is leaving soon. I understand why I can’t, but its frustrating not to be able to have ongoing contact with people. When I asked Neil about his collage he said it was about “the city rushing by”. I didn’t have enough cameras to give him one to take home but he said he will take some pictures on his Dad’s camera. A new guy, Kevin stayed for a while and I showed him some pictures. He looked through the magazines, but said he couldn’t find any pictures that were relevant to him. He then said that what happened to him was a one off and not long term. I had a sense from this that he wasn’t ready to face whatever it was, or to try to represent anything about it yet. Paul finished his first collage today. He had also taken a camera home last week and we looked through the photos he had taken, discussing which were most interesting. He said: ‘People get a lot of grief for mental health – we might not be “normal”, but we are normal.’
I couldn’t sleep after this workshop – I was thinking about all the different people that attend the centres, and how they represent a complete cross section of London society – all sorts of different ages, genders and social and cultural backgrounds. Such interesting things come out of working visually. I was thinking about people who cut themselves and wondering if that is a kind of self-reinforcement of abuse they have suffered in earlier life. I would like to have the opportunity to work with Jane on this, but I don’t think I will be allowed to. There is something interesting here about corporeal inscription of trauma, and of repetition.
Mon 9th February, Centre 1 There have been quite a few changes. Marvin has been discharged, and also Robert, who was, however, there in the morning meeting. I managed to catch him quickly as he came out to say goodbye and asked him to sign a consent form so that I can show his collage. He returned his camera, but hadn’t taken any photos. As last week, it seemed as though no one would be there for the group, but again there were four people, all men. Ian arrived just as we were starting, he had come in specially for the group. I felt I needed to be giving everyone attention all at once, but as each had different needs that was quite difficult. Jake was at the hospital having tests again this week so he wasn’t there. Pete didn’t stay long as he had arranged to meet his mother and was in a hurry so he was agitating for attention. We had a quick look through the photos he had taken this week. He had taken one of his bedroom door a crack open so that just a thin sliver of orange light was showing which I really liked. He will be discharged soon, so I asked him to sign a consent form, and arranged to meet tomorrow to have a more careful look through his photos. I realised it may be better to allow him to find his own way of working rather than suggest things as when he is working more intuitively the most interesting things happen. Maybe my input is more in the edit?
Richard was there today and seemed quite bright to start with, but when I started trying to get him to think about what he was doing he became tense and silent. He couldn’t remember what he had been doing the previous week, or why. About half way through the session he left to go for a smoke, but said he would come back the following week. There was a new guy, Alex in the group. I gave him a very quick introduction to the ideas and he got on with looking through magazines for images. When I had a chance to talk to him again he had cut out quite a few bits and pieces. Then he said that he had done an Art Foundation course, but had got into drugs, which had led to him being hospitalized. He is an in-patient at a hospital somewhere and coming to the centre during the day. Ian returned this week and seemed in good spirits – more confident than previously and a bit more trusting. He said: ‘I feel like the room I’m in is vast and I’m a small thing; I get physically hot; I feel like I’m going through a tunnel, diving somewhere, I hear voices like a crowd around me saying not very pleasant things. I used to paint. Now I feel like getting angry, but I know I mustn’t’. After we had talked he decided to cut up his collage and rearrange it, using some words as well. He hadn’t been able to take any photos in the week as the camera I had given him wouldn’t work. I was a bit annoyed with myself for not checking it properly, but anyway I gave him a different one this week.
Thursday 12th February, Centre 2 The new manager was in the office when I arrived and told me who was around and not and who is leaving soon, which is most of the people I have been working with. She told me that a member of staff was going to sit in on the session today. I asked why and she said that it was just to see what we do so they can tell other patients, but it felt I was being subject to surveillance. I brought up the subject of 1-1s again and she said that she is meeting with a senior manager tomorrow and would discuss it then. In the lunch room Ronnie and Jane both came over to sit with me. Jane told a long story about her history as a part time alcoholic. She was wearing short sleeves today, showing cuts up both arms. I felt quite flattered that they had both chosen to sit with me.
I had bought new inks for the printer in the art room and fitted them, but the printer still wouldn’t work. Paul was in the art room working on a pastel drawing when I got there. He said that he had taken some more photos in the week. Its hard to remember why he is here as he seems so much like any other young guy. Today was funny, when I opened the drawer to get people’s work out there was an envelope in there addressed to Paul. It turned out to be a Valentine’s card – there was much noisy speculation about who could be from. This set a rather chaotic tone to the afternoon. No one got much done today. Because another member of staff was in the room I was able to leave and I set Andrea up in the computer room looking for images she needed for her collage on the Internet. She had tried to take one or two pictures on the camera I gave her this week, but they were very out of focus and we couldn’t print them, so I took them home and printed them there for her for next week. I asked her how she could make photos that speak about her experience directly. At first she was unsure about how she could do that, and then she came up with the idea of trying to represent feeling shaky and unstable, which I really liked. Today was Ronnie’s last day. I had little chance to discuss his ideas with him. He just stuck a line of text across the top of his collage today, but he stayed and seemed to be enjoying the chat and being in the group. At one point he went off for an assessment with the doctors prior to leaving tomorrow. He seemed quite shaken when he got back and said it was like an interview with a panel of people, but then he relaxed back into the group again.
Jane was going to work on her collage and add an image that represented her darker side next to the girl in the garden, but I suggested that she did this in a new collage, which she agreed to, but then didn’t. She had brought in some family photos. I saw a picture of her as a boy with her grandmother that she said she liked a lot, and some pics of her as a teenage boy with her aunt. She said she hadn’t taken any photos the past week because she had had a bad week and had been very low. She said she’d been shouting in the middle of the road because she’d been lost. Today she was cutting out glamorous women, saying that some of her friends were very glamorous and that when she went out she looked exactly like the woman in one of the photos and got chatted up by men a lot. Her original persona as a boy was very shy and timid, Jane is in between, and a third, female, persona is the outgoing one. Then she said she was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. She signed a consent form and made a point of writing on it that she didn’t mind being identified in any work I made. She will be around for one or two more weeks – I asked her to take the camera again this week and she said she would take photos. I gave Andrea a better camera as she was having trouble focusing with the one she had. Neil wasn’t sure what to do this week, he just kept talking about things rushing past him, and then settled on looking for a man standing whilst things were in motion around him.
There was a fun atmosphere in the room and quite a bit of laughter, but in terms of the project today felt quite hard work and not very productive. I’m so unsure about what I am aiming for – at one moment I think this is a good thing because it will lead to something new and unexpected, but then at others I lose faith and wonder what I am doing all this for.
Monday 16th February, Centre 1 I arrived a bit early and was chatting with the centre manager, who was interested in what we had been doing. I showed her the collages, which she really liked. I felt quite reassured by this. Marvin was still around today, Pete was there for the last time; Alex was there and Jake was back from a week in hospital. Ian wasn’t there, he was on a training course. Two new people also joined the group. Marvin came in to the art room whilst I was showing the manager the collages. I got his out for him and he started work. He is on the third one now – they are very beautiful – the pages packed with images– but he still refuses to talk about them, saying they’re just random, but I am not so sure. I also asked him if he wanted to talk to me 1-1 and he said no, but he did sign a consent form. He said I could keep the collages, and seemed pleased when I said I thought they were beautiful.
Jake arrived late because he had to see the doctor. He still sees lions everywhere. I showed him the little composite picture I had made of the bits he had cut out of magazines and he freaked out slightly – he took one very quick glance and then didn’t want to look any more as it is exactly what he sees. The lions, which are like ghosts, come when he is stressed. They are distressing. He had an epileptic fit the other day and saw a lot of lions just before that. He also reads things into the bare branches of trees, which to him look spiky and evil. He took the composite image away to show his family. He doesn’t know why he sees lions – he said maybe because they are a symbol of strength…?
Alex had trouble remembering what he was doing and asked me what I had asked him to do the previous week. When I reminded him he started to stick down some images on paper. They looked a bit chaotic. A glamorous young black woman was there for the first time today. She said she was a dancer. I explained what I wanted people to do, and then she worked vert fast, but without a lot of attention to what she was doing. She didn’t want to listen to any suggestions about how to assemble her collage and seemed generally quite angry. I didn’t push her as its her first week. The other new person, Michele, looked at my previous work, then said that she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go. She didn’t want to take her coat off. She actually stayed until the end, but didn’t do anything apart from browse through magazines. Everyone seemed a bit low energy this week, and the group ended a couple of minutes early. Jake and Alex both said they would take photos on their phones. I wonder if they will remember?
When I got home there was an email from the new head at Centre 2 asking me to call her. She said that she had spoken to the senior manager and that they had decided that I could not meet with patients 1-1. I asked if I could do it with a member of staff in the room and she seemed to agree to that. Every project has its uphill struggles.
Thursday 19th February, Centre 2 – Quite a lot happened today. When I first arrived there were no staff around, and only one patient I recognized in the day room. I went to see if the printer in the art room was working (it wasn’t) and then Paul came in. As I went into the office a woman who had been lecturing everyone in the day room started shouting and a member of staff calmed everything down by moving all the other people to the Art Room. So when I returned to the Art Room there were lots of people in there, several of whom were new. It was a bit early, but I thought I would talk about the project in case anyone was interested. In the end nearly everyone stayed: Paul, Neil, and Kevin and four new people. Kevin said something about going round in circles – I thought he meant with looking for images, but he meant that was his experience – that everything was going round in circles, and then there was a big explosion. With help from another participant he managed to find two pictures of explosions and I encouraged him to create a circle. I asked if there were any people involved, and he said no, no people. A lot of people seem to be reporting problems because of isolation.
I talked the new people through my previous photos. As before, when I mention that some of the subjects are voice hearers that acts as a catalyst for people to start talking. One new man said that he has Bi-Polar and that when he is manic he buys too many things, and not the right things – he needs bread or eggs and buys tins of tomatoes for example. A young woman called Anya said she hears the voice of an older man just beside her head. He’s not nice and tells her to commit acts of violence towards other people. She said she often can’t be amongst people because of what he is telling her to do. And Cathy, who suffered from depression, and was put on medication that made her ill, and she gained several stone in weight. She had previously had anorexia, so this was difficult for her. She cut out an image of a scarecrow, saying that is her self-image. Neil had a look online for some images of police raids and violence to represent the jumble of thoughts he has. I had printed out a selection of Paul’s photos for him and asked him to make a selection from these, and put them into a series to tell his story. He was a bit hesitant at first but then he got into it and came up with a workable selection. He also wrote a clear account of the progress of events that led to him being in recovery to go with the photos.
How do I process all of this?
Monday 23rd February: Centre 1: Its Monday again and time for another workshop. I never have time to think in between. When I arrived there were no patients around at all. I spoke at length to the two male nurses, who were very friendly and happy to give me background info on some of the patients. Jake’s keyworker said that he was keen to go back to work, but the lions were preventing him. He talked quite a lot about Jake’s situation, and said that he was a very unusual case as most people who use the service do not have visual hallucinations. He said that mostly he uses techniques to distract Jake from the lions. I felt quite pleased that I had been able to get him to start visualizing them, and hoped that it might help. When I told the manager about this she agreed that it might help him to confront them
Then I saw Alex, he was in a rush as he was moving from one sheltered accommodation to another. Ian was not around – he is being discharged this week and he has a camera, so I asked his keyworker to ask him for it back. This high turnaround and people’s external commitments mean I don’t see them very much. Michele was also just going home – apparently she has been avoiding participating in any of the other activities. There were only two people today: Marvin, whose last week it was, and Jake. We talked mainly about the lions. He hadn’t taken the composite image I had made for him the previous week out of his pocket. But today he decided he could look at it. He said that he is more able to control the lions now. “Sometimes when I am in that frame of mind I freeze, but this week I have pushed myself past the boundaries. Before the lions appear I start to feel awkward, things start to change, and I have to be quick to stop it progressing. My vision changes, my perception becomes evil. Its been going on for about 3 months now.” I thought Marvin wasn’t listening, but then he suddenly said: “The Lion’s Den”, which made me smile. We looked at the composite image I’d made: Jake said he liked it because the lions are subtle, that works because only he sees them – he sees several different ones at once. His body reacts even if his mind rationalizes that they are not real.
Thursday 26th February: Centre 2 Every week something unexpected happens! Paul was still there – his last week, and Andrea was back. Jane is about to be discharged and was not there as apparently she is not very happy. She still has my camera (!) When I got to the Art Room there were two women there – a young black woman and older white one. I wasn’t sure who they were – on first appearances the older woman looked like a therapist and as though they were having some kind of meeting – the table was covered with their things. We started to talk and it turned out that both were patients. The older woman said that she is a “professional artist” and had reservations about doing art therapy. I reassured her that what I do is not art therapy, and showed them both my book, which they liked. Then the group started to arrive and the older woman looked a bit phased and said she wasn’t ready for that and left. She came back in once or twice, but not to join us. Neil spent almost the whole session cutting out an image of armed police that I had printed for him the previous week. He said: “If only I could psychologically cut the police out when I’m getting those thoughts in real life”. This week he came closer to planning his collage, and seemed to be beginning to focus on being selective about which images he wanted to use and which not. Cathy didn’t come to the group at first, but when I went to get her from the day room she seemed glad to be joining us. She has a lot of physical health problems, but I think the art-making could be helpful for her. She took a notebook (one of the only people to!) and started writing a list of the feelings that she wanted to represent. She is working slowly, just collecting images at the moment. Andrea was in a very upbeat mood today, and I noted how much better her energy was than a few weeks ago, when she was exhausted before the hour was up. Today she was very talkative and positive. I complemented her on a bracelet she was wearing, and she said that she had bought it for herself a couple of days ago in response to directives from the psychologists that she should be good to herself, something, she said, was not easy for her. This week she had done “the most homework ever” as she put it. She had cut out a lot of pictures of mattresses from an Ikea catalogue, and had taken some photographs, which I was excited to look at. I uploaded them to the computer – most of them were very over exposed and out of focus photographs of individual frozen peas! I felt slightly disappointed, but also quite amused. Then Trisha explained why she had taken them –to go under the mattresses in her collage to represent her sensitivity.
Monday 5th January 2015: Centre 1 I made a schedule for 4-week cycles of workshops which I presented to the centre manager today. We discussed some of the practicalities of “handover”, which means that staff tell me anything I need to know about likely workshop participants before I work with them, and I also feed back to them anything I have observed afterwards. We agreed that I will now start the first workshop cycle at this Centre on 19th January as their schedule needs to be reorganised. This is a bit disappointing, but after emailing Centre 2 it looks as though I will be able to start my first workshop there this Thursday.
Wednesday 7th January: Centre 2 I attended a community meeting today so I could reintroduce myself before tomorrow’s workshop. The meeting was relatively short, but had a very nice feeling, with one patient taking the minutes and another chairing. Several people seemed interested in participating in the art workshop the following day.
I’m feeling slightly nervous about how to introduce my ideas and explain what I want to do. At the moment I’m not sure how to talk to people and what I can ask of them.
Thursday 8th January: Centre 2 Today was the first workshop. One of the staff gave me some background info on all patients and their risk factors. Initially eight people came to the workshop, but two men and a woman left after a short while. One man didn’t understand what was going on at all, one decided it was not for him, and the woman said she was shortly to be discharged so she didn’t see the point in getting involved. Of the other five the two men were quite silent. Two of the women talked a lot! Firstly I showed the photographs from my previous project and asked people to pick one and “decode” it – a couple of people did a good job of that. I moved things on quite quickly because I was worried about boring people, but should maybe have spent longer on this? There was some interesting conversation whilst people were cutting pictures from magazines, but it was difficult to tell what they were thinking. The workshop lasted about 1.25 hours. There was an awkward moment when someone asked for the lights to be turned on (they only work with an obscure key that is kept on another floor – obviously people do not turn lights off!), and I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t allowed to leave the room whilst people had scissors in their hands. Luckily one of the women in the group came to the rescue and went to get a member of staff for me. I won’t turn off the lights again! One woman asked me a lot of questions and she and another woman were making nice but rather intrusive personal comments.
Usually the art activity at the centre is purely for therapeutic reasons, so there is not a lot of direction to the work. How do I find a way to get people to think of the activity a bit differently? It’s difficult to know how to situate myself with people – I want to relate to them differently than the regular staff do, but I’m not sure where to set the boundaries. The Art Therapist has a policy of not revealing anything about herself, but that wouldn’t feel quite right to me. Today was just a start, but I think I’m going to need to work one to one with people. People hint at some interesting things in the group, but I don’t feel I can ask anything very personal in front of the others. Working in such a structured environment brings quite a few new challenges!
Tuesday 13th Jan I spent a lot of the day reading Louis Sass’ ‘Paradoxes of Delusion’ – a great book, and thinking about what I really want from the project and what I want the final work to do – questions that are not easily answered at this stage. I am aware that I need to think carefully about the relationship between the form and the content of the work – how do I avoid being too rational and literal and at the same time avoid making something that is just meaningless chaos!?
Thursday 15th January : Centre 2 Arrived around 1pm for the 1.30pm workshop and spent some time chatting to Paul. Only three people came this week, but the session felt better – calmer and more focused than the previous week, although there no one made much progress with their collage.
This week I think people got more out of the workshop, but I am not at all sure how it will feed into any ideas for my work. It’s difficult to do stuff and be reflexive at the same time. Some of the participants’ attention span and tolerance is pretty short, so I feel I need to speed up the process somehow. And I still feel that I need to meet with people one to one. I thought maybe I should take note of very small things that people say and do, then I realised that’s an anthropological approach – to be avoided!
Monday 19th January: Centre 1 My first workshop here. Many of the people I had met before Christmas had already been discharged. A couple of new people who said they were coming along didn’t turn up. I guess I need to get used to inconsistency. In the end there were three in the group – Marvin and Robert who I had met previously, and Vicky, a girl who had just started at the centre. Overall the workshop went well – everyone looked quite carefully at my previous work and the examples of artists’ collage that I brought along. I gave out notebooks and saw Robert writing in his after the end of the session. He is young and very articulate, but he made it clear that he didn’t want to reveal much about himself, and he even hid the pieces he was cutting out. But I have a feeling something will happen with him if he comes back. Marvin talked about having visited the Turner exhibition at Tate Britain the previous week.
Today I was pleased with the way things went, although I feel unsure about what will happen. It really is a new process, and I am learning as I go. I think its better when there are only a few people. I’m still feeling my way with how to ask people to reflect on what has happened to them without rekindling a lot of distress.
Thursday 22nd January : Centre 2 This morning I finished putting together a powerpoint of works by other artists to show people to inspire their own photos. I put the more abstract, bland ones at the beginning and more challenging towards the end so that I could avoid showing these if anyone seems very sensitive. I re-tested the cameras I had bought on ebay and found that two don’t work. Uh. Today the workshop was good. Each group session seems better than the last. Four people came this week and everyone concentrated and worked well. It’s slow, but I have to get used to that. I was concerned about Paul this week – he seems a bit uncertain about what he’s doing and how to express himself visually, but he took a camera. Rebecca attended for the first time. She has been around at the centre, but hasn’t come to the the project yet. She has some design experience and seems very confident, but I think she feels that making collage is a bit beneath her. Another woman, Andrea has some lovely ideas for translating feelings into images and was very enthusiastic about taking a camera home, but she works slowly and says she is tired after a few minutes.
Verena joined us today. For a while I wasn’t sure that she would do anything as she seemed very wary, but then she started cutting out pictures of birds and animals, and stayed after the end of the group to finish her collage which, she said, expressed things that she didn’t usually talk about. She then agreed to ‘decode’ it for me. I was really excited to see how working with collage like this could enable someone to tell their story so quickly. But then I wondered if this is the kind of thing that usually happens in standard art therapy, or if it really is particular to my way of working. Lots of other people also said interesting things today – Rebecca talked about soft focus as a metaphor for isolation, drifting, and lack of direction, fog. Paul was interested in the image of a strong beam of light, and light falling on things. Andrea also liked lack of focus – and how it alters the presence of the person – playing with how much the person is present in the image – she said she is interested in visibility and presence in general.
This was a surprising day. Meeting Verena really brought home to me the need to keep an open mind on first meeting someone. First impressions were of someone childlike and withdrawn, but on interacting with her I soon realized that she is fiercely intelligent and is, in fact, studying towards a PhD. And this week I learned that Paul is at the centre because of a suicide attempt. I wonder if that knowledge influenced the way I read his uncertainty today? In many different circumstances ordinary (or not so ordinary) behaviours take on a different meaning when you know something about the person. One thing I am beginning to learn is to expect the unexpected each week.
Monday 26 January: Centre 1 I couldn’t see Robert or Marvin at lunchtime and was worried no one would come to the group, but in the end there were four men. Pete, a new man who had recently arrived at the centre, was very positive and started working quickly on a narrative collage. Robert said: “the image needs an element of abstraction because you are representing an internal, subjective world that is not always going to seem as though it has an order for others”. Ian talked about complexity, confusion and chaos. He said that when the world becomes twisted and confusing, therapy brings order, and cut out an image of tangled neurons from an article about Schizophrenia. Another woman came briefly, but she didn’t really understand what was going on and she left. Pete, Ian and Robert all started to talk about their collages. Marvin has made several collages, but didn’t want to say anything about them.
Someone told me that for a lot of people being at the Recovery Centres is a process of learning to access “stuff” that is buried. Sometimes people seem fine on the surface – their pain is well concealed. I’m not allowed to look at anyone’s case notes, not even people who are long gone, but I’m interested in the language used there, for example: euthymic – in a balanced state, neither hyper nor depressed; slept through the night; agitated; settled in mental state; agitated when needs not met immediately… This makes me feel uncomfortable – how is this reconciled with how people actually feel?
Thursday 29th January, Centre 2 The group was very mixed this week – Paul and Andrea are on their third session and had taken a couple of photos each on the cameras they took home. Andrea was enthusiastic about the group in the lunch room before we started, but she kept saying it made her tired. Verena worked out that the PC keyboard from the computer room would work with the Mac in the Art Room, and set it up, but then we couldn’t get the printer to work. Today Jane said she would never be happy, and then the whole group had a rather philosophical conversation about the nature of happiness. Rich turned up unexpectedly – I think he came especially for the group. I suggested he cut the pieces of his collage out more so that they are not all square, so he took his folder home to do more cutting. A new young man joined today. He said he had feelings of paranoia and thoughts that the police were going to break through the walls of his house. He was looking for photos of police in the magazines I had brought in, but he couldn’t find any. Verena was upset because another member of the group was repeatedly making offensive comments about her nationality. It took me a minute to realize, but by then she had walked out saying she needed to “get some air”. I felt a bit helpless because I couldn’t leave the room as everyone had scissors. Later I was happy to see that Verena came back. After the group we spent some time talking and things felt OK again.
Today I was again reminded that its easy to get carried away with the therapeutic aspect of what we are doing and forget to be reflexive. What I do notice though is that in some way I recognise a lot of the problems people are reporting. This is good in many ways, I think it helps me to understand a bit what they are going through. But there never seems to be enough time to process what I’m observing in the group or analyse what happens. And people stay for only a short time – as soon as I start getting to know someone they’re gone.
In the middle of the night I started thinking about dance steps and slowing down or dissecting the dance into a series of stills, like a stop frame animation. I didn’t know why, but it could be interesting to dissect moving images of people so that every tiny everyday movement becomes very significant.
“The penguins are my dad and mum hissing at one another. The small penguin has fallen on its face – that is me. The two adult penguins represent abuse. The child ends up flattened in the middle, earth flying everywhere. The other penguins in the background are obscured. They represent normal society. The little one can’t connect because of the big penguins. No one takes any notice, and there is no consideration for the little one. The big black arrow points towards a frog and a lizard. This is the consequence of the abuse. The frog is me, trying to hang on to a wire with one arm. The lizard is the protection for the frog. The little one is not stupid. Whist growing up it develops protection. The frog is hurt and leaves a trail of blood that gets bigger. The frog is close to the heart of the protective lizard. The lizard and the frog are two parts of the same character. The chick grows up into two people – one emotional and hurt, the other intellectual and protective. The Dinosaur trying to get up after many tries can eventually fly. The supporter is watching. The dinosaur becomes what it was meant to be – a musician playing in the grass. It is such a hard struggle for the support system – they can celebrate after this success. (This is a projection into the future). The support system is what got the central character to the place where it can be itself, the musician in the grass. There are two colours in the arrow pointing to this success because it is about co-operation between the support worker and the central character. The final two images in the sequence are of a goblin – first laughing happily, then sitting back and sleeping in a chair made of marshmallow. This is the support system finally able to rest”.
Mon 1 December, 2014 Now that everything is finally agreed so that I can go ahead with the residency (it has taken over a year of negotiation) I am visiting each centre once or twice before Christmas as a way of getting orientated before I start the workshops. By way of introduction I gave an artists talk at one of the centres today. About a dozen people attended, including a doctor and member of staff. I spoke for about 30 minutes about my work –some people seemed quite interested, but I’m not sure that many of them saw the relevance of what I was talking about to them. A couple of people even fell asleep. A young woman arrived at the talk just as I was finishing. She said that she is interested in photography, and also in writing. She stayed behind when others left and we looked through some photos that she had taken. I talked her through some of my photos, and she spoke a bit about herself – she said she feels isolated because she feels that her family and friends want her to be more “normal”.
It’s all a bit unknown as I have no formula for this, but I think giving talks about my work is the wrong way to do things. How do I find a way of working that is both therapeutic for the people involved and will give me some material to make work from? What can and can’t I show people? What can I expect of them?
Thursday 4 December, 2014, Centre 2 I was due to give a talk to a group at the other centre today, but I mixed up the time and arrived after the group had started. Not a good start, but it worked out all right in the end. Two staff and seven or eight clients were sitting around a circular table when I arrived. There was no projector in the room, so everyone huddled onto one side of the table and we passed the computer around. I felt the talk went better this time, at least no one fell asleep. I spoke for around 20min, then people started to ask questions, mostly about confidentiality. One person in the group was looking very skeptical throughout my talk, but then when the group was finished she started to ask questions and said that she wants to participate. Other people expressed some interest, but she was the most keen. Then I left the group to go and sit in the day room so that they could continue discussion without me. One man came and sat with me before the group had finished. I greeted him but remained silent, and he started to talk about how beneficial he found art therapy. Then he told me that he had been a GP. Its interesting how he suddenly seemed to slot into a different box in my mind.
Still not quite sure how to do this, but I need to prepare material to show people and to fix a time in the week for a regular group meeting.
Tuesday 9th December I had a meeting with the Art Therapist who had helped to finalise the terms of my residency and get it started. We discussed the logistics of the residencies; the need for consent forms and why I have to confine my work with people to the time that they are attending the centre, which is usually only for a few weeks. The staff have decided that the best way for me to work is to run a weekly workshop that will become part of their regular timetable.
I’m beginning to become clearer about how I want to work with people. I think collage might be a good way to go, showing people some of my existing artworks, discussing these and then asking them to make photos or short videos on their phones. Today the art therapist pointed out the need to be vigilant because of the high percentage of people who commit suicide, or attempt to. This is a little daunting. We talked about the need for me to report anything that worries me. On one hand I will feel bound to do this, because it would be terrible if something happened and I had seen the signs but not reported it, but on the other hand I feel that aligns me a little too much with the regular staff.
Thursday 11th December – Centre 2 I arrived at the centre during lunch hour. As usual all staff were busy, but I managed to accompany one of them for a brief walk to discuss the logistics of my being there. She talked about ‘safeguarding’, and whether I would need an alarm, and even suggested I work with the door open. Risk factors like people expressing an intention to harm themselves; mentioning abuse against them; or violent behaviour in the room should all be reported.
I felt a bit uneasy about this, because it will place me in an institutional, or at least unequal, relationship with the people I am working with, and that’s not what I want. But then I am new to all this, so I feel I have to listen to staff and be aware.
I will start one workshop next week, but then it will be Christmas, so will have to start properly in January. I am worried that many of the people that I am beginning to get to know will be discharged by the time I start again. After the walk, I went to sit in the lunch room and had a long and very nice conversation with Jane, the woman who had been skeptical when I introduced the project. She seems very open and easy to talk to. Another young woman approached me – she was admitted to the Crisis House a week ago. She has some background in theatre and was very enthusiastic about joining the art project. Paul, a young man who was at my talk last week and has just graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Theology also seems interested in joining the project. Another woman who was angry and was shaking when we spoke also said she would like to come along. I talked through some of the images from my previous project with each person and they seemed to understand what I was trying to do. Someone, I think it was Jane, even said she wondered what she would put in the room if she was one of the subjects of that project. I then decided that this may be a good starting point for the first workshop – to discuss my existing images and then ask people to make collages of what would be in their rooms. Gradually people drifted away, either to medical appointments or home, so I left around mid-afternoon.
Friday 12th December – Centre 1 Another “orientation” day where I joined different groups all day just to get a sense of how the program at the centre works. I joined the Film Therapy group this morning. We watched half a rather sentimental 1950s film about nuns saving children in WW2. After that I went on to the Creative Writing group in the art room. A lot of people were there, around 10 patients and 2 staff. Each person was given an A4 sheet of paper with “prompts” on it like “it can feel like a struggle when”… “I have a dream that…” and 15min to write something. This seemed to me very difficult and I would have been inhibited, but everyone wrote non-stop until the time was up. They then read their pieces one by one, some were poetic and creative, others descriptive and straightforward, but in general this seemed to me to be a very beneficial process – everyone wanted to say something and no one seemed to be afraid to write down their thoughts/feelings/experiences. I arranged with the centre manager to do one Art Workshop next week, and then to start properly in January. Everything seemed fine and I felt as though I was beginning to be a little more accepted into the team. In the afternoon I joined the “walking” group. Although it was cold and threatening to rain quite a few people came on the walk. I realized that this was a very important activity when I overheard someone saying that he found it difficult to go out in public alone. After the walk we sat outside a café drinking coffee and the group felt very convivial. There was some nice conversation and a supportive atmosphere, then some people drifted off as we returned to the centre.
Monday 15th December Today I had a message that there was a problem with my contract and so I would not be able to run workshops this week after all. So I spent the day emailing Occupational Health and HR and filling in health forms as those I had completed previously were now over 6 months old and therefore out of date. Sigh.
Thursday 18th December A couple of days and a lot of insistence later new health checks are completed and my contract is finally in place – just in time before the Christmas break. I now have my NHS badge! I have started to buy cameras on ebay, and also stationery, glue and scissors for the workshops. And I’m collecting magazines from everyone I know. So I’m ready to go in January.