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Curating Art in a Mental Health Setting

Artist Credit: Mural by Anna-Maria Amato and Natasha Connell

My experiences in the mental health service, and my experiences as an artist, have led me to develop new ways to engage people in artistic activities. In 2011 I graduated in Fine Art, having used the mental health services for several years. I found there was a place for it in areas outside of the white cube-type galleries and found myself in a position to utilise both experiences to contribute to the wellbeing of others.

Having used the social inclusion ‘hope and recovery’ project, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in my late teens, I became involved in the art gallery in the building. The hope and recovery project was led by the ethos that social inclusion was a major factor in recovery and to progress in de-stigmatising diagnosis by offering ways for people to engage in social activities and their community. After the project closed, the gallery continued to occupy the space, and as curator, my role involved utilising the space to benefit people who used the SLAM (South London and Maudsley NHS Trust) service. The ethos that was developed, highlighted that the gallery was art focused, rather than on illness or diagnosis. People involved in the gallery are all artists, and therefore the space is open to anyone in the local community and beyond, whether they used mental health services or not — inclusion is still at the heart of the space.

During my work I have discovered the role of a springboard for consideration, conversation, and curiosity. People grow when they are connecting in meaningful ways and art is a great catalyst for this exchange.

A turning point for establishing a connection between looking after my mental health and letting it feed into my work, was when I followed my passion for the stories I found in songs, and started a lyrics discussion group. It was set out like a book group. We would listen to the song and read the lyrics. Thoughts, ideas and musings would bounce around the table. One week the song suggestion from the group was ‘Many Men’ by 50cent. The discussion went in many directions, from social divisions to 50cent himself, his business endeavours and the nature of fame and stardom.

Following Covid and the attack on the arts, with the degradation of the value creative skills have to offer, I designed a course revolving around the transferrable skills that art gives to people. The course, titled ‘Art Can’, explored problem solving, critical thinking, communication and team work, writing and attention to detail.

The most dynamic class was on communication and teamwork. Rather than instructing and delivering tips on skills, I set up discussion points, which generated feedback. Participants felt their understanding and appreciation of art had been broadened and the class had been positive for their wellbeing. The discussion points were arranged as a ‘peer mentoring’ session between participants. This set up highlighted the value of each person’s contribution.

Artist Credit: Ana-Maria Amato

The class on writing, prompted participants to write a letter to anyone or anything about art. I asked them to consider the voice they were using as well as the addressee. The process used to develop the material for the letter, explored what art meant to participants and what or why they wanted to communicate it.

There are many benefits to the various courses and projects I run in the space. The main endeavour, however, is to display the artists’ work. In the act of showcasing their art, they are being brave, and their creativity takes on a significance to them outside the creation of it. It generates a channel of communication, not necessarily verbal, which is a step out of isolation.

At present, the gallery is working on a well-being map of South London, where people contribute the name of a location which has a positive impact on their mental health. It could be something like a particular tree, your favourite coffee shop or a section of your local library. This project is helping me develop an understanding in regards to how people use places, to contribute to their well-being, and is making me consider how the gallery can develop in the future as one of those key places.

Having experienced and seen the potential of art to improve the mental health of individuals, I feel that finding new ways to engage different people will expand the scope of art activities beyond those who think getting involved in art is simply about being able to draw a picture.

Artist Credit: Ana-Maria Amato


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