Jacob Sharpe, ‘The Hanging Badger’. Fine artist and illustrator, working mainly with vinyl cut relief printing. Themes of history, mythology, horror and folklore run through Jacob’s work; my favourite pieces are his portraits, above. For more of his work, check out Jacob’s website >> www.thehangingbadger.com.
“I was diagnosed with a mental heath condition after I left university about 8 years ago but looking back I can see myself suffering from it (or elements of it) right back to my earliest years. I am an artist and have always hoped to make a living in some sort of arty way, or even just be a bit successful at it while not necessarily making a living. I predominantly work in black and white using vinyl cut relief printing and I often make use of silhouettes in my illustrations.
Recently I ventured away from my usual creative process as a way of coping better at my ‘real’ part time job (where I can feel most trapped!). I started to draw a series of self portraits in black ink on scraps of paper at certain quiet times at my desk to convey what was going on in my head when I was struggling most.
People I work with often comment on how cool, calm and collected I seem while working but in reality inside my head and through my body I am the complete opposite of relaxed. I felt a physical need to get out what was inside, I did not start the artwork with a plan I just kept putting pen to paper until I felt I had got across how horrible things were in my head at that moment. I have found this incredibly helpful, positive and uplifting to create a representation of something you can’t really ‘see’ and can’t always describe. It is a wonderful release and I find the nastier the portrait the better I feel.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
2016, despite its infamy as a problematic and troublesome year, brought us many positives and much pleasure in the form of large scale group exhibitions, our first ‘Spaghetti School’ residency at Free Space Gallery, and working with some of our favourite comrades on exciting new projects designed to spark debate and question closed answers.
We worked as part of the Roving Diagnostic Unit (see photo, right), for Bobby Baker’s Daily Life Ltd., which saw us carrying out performances and workshops at the William Morris Gallery, Vestry House Museum and the Wellcome collection, for the Diagnosing Diagnosis symposium to accompany their latest exhibition, ‘Bedlam’. The workshops were designed to make people think about diagnosis and what it means. Our workshop, A Diagnostic Portrait of…, had participants team up to draw large scale portraits of their patients (objects in situ at Vestry House) using only character descriptors.
Our own exhibition output last year was bumper – we had a large group show to kick things off at Menier Gallery, followed by two more exhibitions in London, co-curated with The Dragon Café and Uncooked Cultures, plus a co-curated exhibition with AIMS, at the Oxford Museum and Town Hall Gallery. Over 20o artists were promoted through these exhibitions, with many of them selling work and gaining further professional exhibitions through the exposure of our shows. To date, (since 2011), we have reached an audience of over 10,000 online, shown the work of over 200 artists to a physical audience of 1,000+, and worked closely with 10 artists to mentor and support their practice.
Workshops have covered printmaking, sculpture, collage, alternative ways of drawing, and a collaboration with artist and photographer, Catriona Gray, to deliver a series of photographic mixed media workshops at Free Space Gallery, Kentish Town. The photos below show collage work, the process of lumen exposure photography, and the final outcome of combining the lumen technique with printmaking. All workshops are free, supported by the ever excellent Kentish Town Improvement Fund and Free Space Gallery. Extra support in the form of volunteers comes from Clean Break.
2017 – onwards!
First up, January 23, we have a printmaking workshop at The Dragon Café for Broken Grey Wires. If you already know the Dragon Café, you’ll know that spaces are limited, and you must be registered with them to take part. The workshop starts at 3pm.
Next, we are over the moon to be working with the young people of Snowsfield Adolescent Unit at the South London and Maudsley Hospital. Work to start in February, and while it is only open to residents at SLaM, we will report back with our artistic endeavours.
Spaghetti School will be starting again in March, and continuing in 5 week blocks throughout the year. Keep your eye on the blog for news to come!
We’ve got loads of new artists to update you with, so make sure you are following the blog and all good social media outlets (you know the ones, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) to keep up to date with who’s doing what.
Our guest artist this week is Myfanwy Dabner, from Ballarat, Australia. In this article, Myfanwy examines the ways in which she processes inspiration, the new directions and inspirations she is drawing on, as well as understanding the meaning of being a marginalised artist, and what connotations the term invokes.
“Over a month ago I was thinking about printmaking and mental illness, as a place to make art from, and to have a subject matter for Uni art school requirements.
As I do printmaking a lot and as I have mental illness permanently these were my easy and obvious choices; make prints about my mental illness.
Now after some investigation into Outsider Groups and their art forms I am looking at the art of children and the art of the mentally ill, whilst ditching a totally printmaking focus to allow art in more forms.
I go with the genres that catch me. I have gone to the art of my children, my brother and my own children’s art, my art made when ill, and just plain old improvisation and make do to make new works.
I will abstract, repeat, cute-i- fy, blacken, follow and break rules, stencil, and other endless ways to make art works. So far I have dabbled in jagged three-dimensional shapes with UV and fluorescent colours. Perhaps I will use invisible UV markers to write a hidden poem.
My work from 15 years ago was brightened with fluorescent pencils, and I have a returned desire to use them. I want to be informed from viewing the untrained, relaxed, strong, wild, gestural, naive marks of my children’s artworks. I need to loosen up.
The work I make is also influenced by mental availability, mindset, mood – the pain within, the love, the needing to form something. Generally speaking, high energy can cause some illness, it can’t always be maintained, eventually dropping into depression, getting a few weeks here and there for busy making.
In conclusion, my place to work from has not completely shifted from printmaking and mental illness but has grown to include the art of children, my children, as inspiration and that I may make art in a variety of forms.
I now also understand the term Outsider Art and the meaning of marginalisation. I am putting myself forward as acceptable with illness. Will I be only seen for my illness and thus marginalised? I don’t know yet. I do know though I am substantiating the art of the mentally ill by proposing it to my teachers as an acceptable area to draw from in art practice.
I am also putting forward the techniques of children’s art as acceptable techniques for making in art. Please enjoy the pictures, including monotypes, improvised work and art by my children.”
Visit the website site Narrator International to search and find some of Myfanwy’s short stories and poetry.
The University of Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre is delighted to be hosting four
exhibitions by local and international artists, in their new award winning gallery
spaces at a free preview evening on Friday 6 May.
Small Print International, in partnership with Leicester Print Workshop, is a touring
exhibition of contemporary fine art miniprints by local and international printmakers.
The panel made up of curators and printmakers received 631 prints from artists across the world and selected 150 images that measure no more than 100 square centimetres, including etching, lithography, letterpress, relief, screenprinting and digital prints.
Peter Rapp, ‘Sunken Treasure’
Lucy Phillips, Director of Leicester Print Workshop, said: “Small Print International
will bring the best in fine art printmaking from around the world, to Leicester. It is a
great way to celebrate our 30th birthday year and a great opportunity for us to work
with Attenborough Arts Centre in their splendid new venue”.
Whilst in Leicester, Small Print International will be accompanied by a programme of
exhibitions and events at Leicester Print Workshop, Phoenix, De Montfort University.
In addition to Small Print International, Attenborough Arts Centre presents three new
solo exhibitions. In Gallery 2 Idols and Monsters by Nottingham-based artist Nick
Mobbs, in Gallery 3 The Reliquary Project by artist Jo Dacombe and in the Balcony
Gallery Leicester Linocuts by Leicester-based artist Sarah Kirby.
Nick Mobbs’ Idols and Monsters is an investigation into the act of concealing oneself
from the gaze of others. These scenes are deliberately ambiguous; leaving us
uncertain of the nature of what confronts us. Other works are based on ‘found’
Googled photographs of celebrities and criminals covering themselves.
Sumiko Eadon, ‘Spring Beach’
Nick Mobbs commented: “It is my first exhibition in Leicester for nearly a decade and
I am excited to be showing within AAC’s new contemporary art spaces. I will be showing a group of works I have made over the last few years based on hiding figures.”
The Reliquary Project by Jo Dacombe was realised as part of a residency within the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Through the residency she has explored ideas through making, including large and small scale sculptures, drawings, photographs, mechanical devices, scans and x-rays.
Jo Dacombe said: “I’ve been tremendously excited about the new gallery at Attenborough Arts Centre and what it means for artists in Leicester.”
The FREE preview evening is open to everyone and will take place on Friday 6 May, 5.30pm – 8pm and is a chance to meet the artists and see the artwork for the first time.
Small Print International (Gallery 1) will continue until Sunday 10 July. Idols and Monsters (Gallery 2) and The Reliquary Project (Gallery 3) will continue until Sunday 3 July. Leicester Linocuts will continue until Sunday 5 June. All exhibitions at Attenborough Arts Centre are free to attend.
Mental Spaghetti founder, Marie-Louise Plum, and MS Comrade, John Hegley, were recently interviewed by Laura Barton of The Guardian. Please check out the article here – there’s some lively debate in the comments section, feel free to add your thoughts!