Art, Power and the Asylum: Exploring the Adamson Collection

‘Retaliation’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

 Art, Power and the Asylum: Exploring the Adamson Collection

“What is the value of art created in the asylum, who does it belong to, and how should it be used?”

Three questions, relating to the mainly anonymous artists of the Adamson Collection, recently posed to the general public and contributors from the fields of art, mental health, libraries and ethics.

We gathered at the Wellcome Library’s intimate Reading Room in July, for three seated discussions, to answer these questions. Organised by the Wellcome Library and Adamson Collection Trust, speakers included Dr David O’Flynn, Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, Beth Elliot, Director of the Bethlem Gallery, and Marc Steene, Director of Pallant House Gallery, and artists and makers with lived experience of mental health distress.

©Adamson Collection Trust

The first discussion concerned creative control – who owns the art, how should it be used, and by whom? The second covered whether artists should remain anonymous or be named. The third straddled the ‘A Word’ – is the work made in asylums ‘art’, or ‘medical record’?

Together, we attempted to tackle both the overarching questions as well as the minutiae that sprung forth whilst discussing each far-reaching topic. The debate was cyclical, paradigms constantly shifting between patient, artist, clinician, context and setting.

While answers remain complex, and ideally dealt with on a case-by-case basis, particularly within the Adamson Collection, the debate also helped to make great strides towards how art made by contemporary marginalised artists in the modern world should be handled, and, most pertinently for Mental Spaghetti, in this ‘age of the internet’.

 About the Adamson Collection

The Adamson Collection, curated between 1946 and 1981 by Edward Adamson at Netherne Hospital, currently holds about 5,500 objects, including drawings, paintings, ceramics, sculptures and works with other media.

‘The Tear’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

“Diverse and original, the collection holds a great number of works by female artists, including late sculptor Rolanda Polonska. Parts of the Collection were shown at major international exhibitions of Outsider Art, including two at the London ICA (in 1955 and 1964) and others in Egypt, Canada and Israel.”
– Wellcome Library

It is important to note that Edward Adamson was an artist, not a clinician. His involvement with Netherne and its residents was first initiated when he was a visiting artist giving lectures.The collection started circa 1946, when Adamson was given some drawings on toilet paper by one of the closed-ward patients. In 1948, Adamson was awarded a full time appointment as Art Director. Adamson continued to work at Netherne until his retirement in 1981.

Netherne was finally closed in 1994, due to dwindling patient numbers, and later redeveloped. What remained of the Adamson Collection was recovered by Dr David O’Flynn, psychiatrist and Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, who housed the collection in the closest of quarters – his own personal storage space – until an agreement was struck with Wellcome Library to become custodians of the work.

The Heart of the Matter

This article is written from Mental Spaghetti’s standpoint. Included are quotes and provocations from other participants. To retain a level of impartiality we have kept the speaker anonymous, unless the speaker has gone on record elsewhere, in which case we will attribute a name to the comment.

1. Creative control: who owns the art, how should it be used, and by whom?

Primarily the art belongs to the artist.

Should the institution or individual take ownership of the artwork? Does the copyright position change if art objects are viewed as property of the institution? Did Adamson keep the artworks because it was one of the scant possessions residents were allowed? If the individuals asked for their artworks, were they allowed to keep them? Who benefits from the art and the archive?

The artwork was made in a liberating environment, described as ‘an oasis’, that encouraged artistic ownership and license by giving each artist a studio space, much like in a traditional college setting. The work was made in its purest form – art brut – by mainly untrained hands. The intention was not for the art to be sold as a commodity or inspected, digested and used as medical record. It is known that Adamson did not select artworks to be displayed in the art room, he did not want to encourage favouritism.

The art should be used as it was intended – as art. How do we know what the intention was? Adamson, as previously mentioned, was not a clinician, he was not pathologising the output of the individuals he worked with. Although some of the art was analysed by other Netherne therapists, in an attempt to see patterns in colour schemes or symbolism in subject matter, thankfully we have moved beyond making assumptions such as “schizophrenics make poor colour choices” or that depicting blood equates a predilection for murder. Adamson played a huge part in moving away from those practices in art therapy.

In the case of materials used and on whose property, often, like places of work, anything created on site, any materials purchased by the staff, is property of the organisation. In some cases this even extends to intellectual property. The example of ownership of patient and clinician co-authored medical records was given, that there is an argument that the organisation provided the materials, therefore own the notes. Surely this is the perfect catalyst for mental health art practitioners to create meticulous contracts protecting the future ownership rights of inpatients and service users?

What in the event of the artists’ death? If there is no instruction for how the art should be used, in what context, and by whom? We can learn many things from how the Adamson Collection Trust handles the work of their artists. Best endeavours have been made to trace back living relatives. It would be invaluable for art organisations and trusts, going forward, to have access to guidelines written on the back of their experiences, from recovering the collection to negotiating its new home at the Wellcome Library, and everything in between. Should any custodian or trust should be arranged for an artist, decisions regarding when, where and how to show the art and represent the artist should always remain in line with how the artist would have wanted.

2. Should artists should be named, or remain anonymous?

We started the debate with a provocation on the the power of naming; pet names, nick names, being called by only your first name, or your full name. Different names, different meanings.

If your parents call you into a room by your first name, it’s usually a lot less fearsome than being called in by your full name. Does that analogy underline the argument against using an artists’ full name? Possibly, but it can equally be looked at in a different way.

Using a first name only smacks nursery school, team building weekends, Ministry of Justice regulations, and tea time at the basket weaving centre. It’s infantilising and patronising. Using a full name gives that person a stage, a more rounded identity; its formality is aligned with professionalism, commands respect, and is as good as a title or the letters after the name.

On the other hand, the art itself is the communiqué to the world, meaningful as a window to peer in to and take something away from. It brings people together, art is a tool for discussion, escapism, understanding and disagreement. In that sense, the art becomes bigger than the artist.

‘…But All He Does Is To Dig Out My Heart’ ©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

Why do we need a name? Furthermore, why do we need a name if we have no back story on the artist? It is notoriously difficult, due to privacy restrictions, to trace back deceased artists from asylums. I argue that naming an artist helps us to build a visual image of them in our mind. Accurate or inaccurate, it puts a face to a name. A name allows us to form a figurative representation, a way to remember that artist, what we’d imagine they’d look like, what their interests were, how they lived and what they saw and did.

Adamson wrote the artists’ names on the back of their work. Some of the patients chose to write their names on the front. Are we to to interpret this is a sign of consent? Does not naming the work encourage one to view it as clinical content, to dehumanise the artist, turning their output into data. As one participant commented, “They were anonymous in life, don’t they deserve to not be anonymous in death?”

If you’re of the view that naming an artist is a breach of confidentiality, how staunch you are in that opinion dictates a) whether you should even be taking part in the discussion, as there is no where for your view to go, and b) removes agency from the artist in exactly the same way. To name or not to name – two cheeks of the same backside.

The discussion was, at times, fitful and impassioned, new ideas and opinions jumping out as the topic volleyed back and forth. Above all discussed, what resonated loudest to me, in terms of loss of agency, was the process itself; having the discussion was where I most acutely felt that uneasy feeling of discussing what’s best for someone like they aren’t actually there, though they are. Oddly enough, like a ward round.

3. The ‘A’ word – is the work made in asylums ‘art’, or, ‘medical record’?

How should the collection be defined? Should it be attributed to Netherne and containment? One belief is that the collection is essentially political and subversive. Edward Adamson had a strong anti-discrimination agenda. Should this conversation be continued, and should the art be used to this day in a political context? Does exhibiting the artwork behind the toughened glass of a museum in the art world jepoardise its subversive potential?

So, is the work made in asylums – or, to bring it in to the modern day, in hospitals or as out patients – art or medical record?

“I find the question irritating – I would like to know in whose interest the question is asked, and what are the consequences of deciding one way or another? What hangs on the ‘A word’? Privacy and consent are important. Is the question being asked because there is a subliminal, or even overt, concern about privacy and illness?”

The above comment from an artist and fellow traveller of the ‘mentally interesting’ highway. I choose to call the individuals ‘artists’, not ‘makers’, not ‘patients’. I do not mean artists with a capital A, they are not being unwillingly put on a pedestal, but they are making art and are therefore artists.

Another contributor, a disabled artist attached to an arts organisation, currently exhibition in central London, put forward the notion that all art is record of suffering, pain, anguish, joy and elation.

It doesn’t take containment to express deep depression or malaise, the wish for escape or transportation to another place. Is it perhaps unhelpful to create distinction between artists who lived in an asylum, and those who were at liberty? Does the expectation of liberty colour the art you make? Everything we see colours our art, social, political backgrounds, so it goes without saying that would have influence on work made.

There is a fear of art, a fear of the original, the power and danger. That fear drives us to categorise and contain art. Containment and categorisation, putting things in boxes, describing things, making them more digestible.

©Adamson Collection/Wellcome Library

I think of one young artist I know, who makes incredible trash sculptures, festooned with fairy lights and coloured glass. This particular artist sits somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Whenever I discuss his work with others I am in constant turmoil about whether the prefix the word ‘artist’ with ‘autistic’ or not.

Would someone not on the autistic spectrum make the similar artwork, aesthetically? Probably. Would he want me to put his output in the margin of autistic artist? Does his autism play a part in his artwork? Of course, but, still, how should I represent him and his work?

Or is the categorisation for the sake of selling and adding value? Is it a tactical move to give the art works value, and whose interest would that be in? Artworks from high security hospitals sell out within seconds of being announced. Is this not the sensationalisation of high profile patients to make a bigger profit?

We know that work from the Adamson Collection will never get to market, it is one of the protective measures that the trust has taken to ensure pieces are not sold and passed around as its value increases.

It was suggested that perhaps what we need is a new approach to taxonomy. The location, context and intention of the art can straddle more than one arena, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one presented in one context or another. These artworks can be seen as art, social history and medical record all at the same time, the compulsion to make art, and self definition being key. The work can be seen as all things in one place, or divided into different things in different places, but explanation and context is of utmost importance.

Above all, work created by any individual, that is visual or can be described with formal elements such as line, form, pattern, shape and texture, is art. Primarily that is the essence, the artist or maker is a conduit for the art to be created. Whatever other taxonomy you attach to a physical piece of visual art, it is, at its heart, art. My final thought on all three subjects is to handle people and art with care and sensitivity.

Further Reading
Click here for a more comprehensive biography on Edward Adamson.
Visit the Adamson blog, Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways, here.
For more information about the Wellcome Library, click here.
To search the Adamson Collection at the Wellcome Library, click here.

A selection of Adamson Collection images, housed at the Wellcome Library.

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TAIESEID

TAIESEID: A Multi-media and oft (accidentally) installation artist with a working practise on mental health, specifically with an autobiographical focus on anorexia and borderline personality disorder.

A recent Fine Art graduate from Liverpool School of Art and Design, I have just undertaken my first international residency at Arts, Letters & Numbers in New York, USA.

I am also a recovering anorexic and bulimic, and current sufferer of borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression. I have spent large portions of my life in inpatient mental health facilities and my practise focuses on mental health and, mostly, anorexia.”

See more at http://taieseid.com.

 

ARTIST SEEKING EXHIBITION SPACE! READ ON…

“I created the installation ‘Heterotopia’, which focuses on anorexia and the in-between living. It is a sound and film interactive piece, which consists of a 3/5 sided space panelled with reflective silver materials and a ‘squishy floor’.

The film and audio is 9 minutes long, with a 5 min gap between rolls to allow people to explore the squishy floor become ‘comfortable’ before the piece starts. Size wise, it is perhaps the end of a room or even a corridor would work so long as the floor and back wall and ceiling could be completely covered and the two sides left blank for reflections.

Below are some stills from a recent showing of Heterotopia at the Tertium Quid exhibition at the Arts, Letters & Numbers Institute in NY. “

If any of you readers with a suitable space out there think Heterotopia might be appropriate for your programme, please contact Taieseid via her website.

Art Opportunity: Reflected Realities, Birmingham

The Arches Project is a place that offers a platform for creative talents of all disciplines, to gain experience and exposure to become employable within their industry, by showcasing the work in an exciting and unique space within the Birmingham art scene.

We are currently seeking work for an exhibition called ‘Reflected Realities’, which aims to explore the differences between what people think and see.

We are looking for works that are sculpture, installation, collage, mixed media, 3D and 2D work.

The deadline for submission is 21st April 2017 and the exhibition will run from 9th June 2017.

 We would really like to involve artists who have experience with mental health and can therefore offer a unique perspective of their own reflected reality in a creative way.

To apply, see poster, below.

Susan Mary Gratwick: New work, explained

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Nelson: Colonisation, Consequences | ©Susan Mary Gratwick
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Algorithms | ©Susan Mary Gratwick
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The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding the Leviathon – Homage to William Blake

All words and images, ©Susan Mary Gratwick.

I first saw William Blake’s painting, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding the Leviathon, way back in 2007, on a visit to a workshop in the Tate Britain. The image would not leave me. I saw the writhing bodies squirming in and out of the labyrinthine form of the Leviathon, the sea monster, the nearly naked form of Horatio Nelson standing on the back of a crouching black man. And I thought of all the suffering of these different peoples all around this planet of ours, in order to create wealth. Even the Tate itself, purveyor of art to the masses, would have not existed but for slavery, based in and on the sale of sugar, again based in and on the Slave Trade.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“The statement means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object. The direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object. Forces always come in pairs – equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs.”

This is Newton’s Third Law of Motion, and I wonder if this can be applied to actions in political and economic history, such as Slave Trade. I don’t know, but I question it. It somehow feels as if we have built our civilization on moral quicksand, almost as if I had personally murdered someone in order to have the standard of living I now have. William Blake’s tempera painting, with the ‘spiritual form of ‘ Horatio Nelson, the loci of British courage, heroism and valour, standing on the back of a crouching African, reminds us what happened, ‘lest we forget’.

 “Firstly you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil”
Horatio Nelson to a midshipman aboard the Agamemnon (1793).

I had been thinking about how Great Britain became wealthy in the first place, how this was via the slave trade, and how Horatio Nelson defended this power on the world stage. Slavery created great power and wealth for the powers that were [and are] so, in order to become a world power, to create wealth, someone benefits and someone loses. Slavery, devoid of morality, was a logical means of creating wealth and it was of course morally unsound. To see another human being as a lesser mortal was expedient. Wealth creation on that scale based on logic, rational and expedient thinking –  see today’s algorithms which control movement of capital in the stock exchange – but is immoral, as the consequences on the planet and human life and living standards of the ‘ordinary man’ are not part of the equation. Morality is not part of an algorithm.

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Alone, stands she weeping | ©Susan Mary Gratwick

I love icons, they emanate something directly to my heart. I can deconstruct Christianity, see how it has been and can be used as a tool of politics and control, yet, Christian icons bypass the literature somehow.

I think of the dark side of Christianity and I think of the young girl from Nazareth, who, by a trick of history became a focus of veneration throughout the world, and, imagine that if she actually existed, she might just look on and weep.

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Bird Pecking My Heart Out | © Susan Mary Gratwick

I think that this painting is about fear.

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Alone Stands She Falling | ©Susan Mary Gratwick

This is a ‘What am I?’ painting and is just showing a physicality, and this one wonders what she is doing and where she is going.

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‘Fish or Snake? That is the question, whether ’tis./Stasis’ | © Susan Mary Gratwick

Again, she is wondering what to do…

‘Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?’

I think that the fish represents Christian ethics and values and the snake, knowledge.

I look at the world today, at our cultural values, codes of ethics and the confusion therein. There seems to be a criss-crossing of multitudinous interconnections, inferences, influences, and so very much history and I wonder about it all.

Fenna Berry

We were recently contacted by Fenna Berry. Loving what we saw, we took time to go through her tumblr page. What we found astounded us – not only for the sheer amount of work on show – but for how accomplished the various styles and mediums are. From fine art painting, Manga-influenced comic narratives, design, to traditional and contemporary illustration. We urge you to not only look at our favourite selections here, but also take a look for yourself at Fenna’s tumblr page – she’s a ball of pure creative energy.

“I am Fenna, a conceptual/expressionist/surrealist artist, born in the USA in 1995. I am a self taught artist living with schizophrenia, using art as an outlet for therapy. I consider myself disabled because of my diagnosis, and do not work or go to school.

I make art nearly every day. It is one of the only activities that makes me feel safe and keeps me from panic. I truly cannot use my words to emphasise the importance of this. I’m not the best at saying stuff without specifically being asked questions  on specific things. I do not plan what I make, it just happens. Then I look and say “Wow, look at that” and repeat the process forever.

I currently reside in central Texas. Most of my works are made using surrealist techniques such as automatism. They are created with a highly personal concept in mind.”