Lou Stoppard: Tell me how you became involved. Was the project originally close to your heart or was it a surprise when Niamh White and Tim A Shaw brought it to you?
Aimee Parrott: I was initially very interested because I’ve worked with charities involved in physical and mental health. My mother is trained as a nurse and worked in a hospice during my childhood, so my sister and I spent time in an environment where people were unwell. As a result of this, ill health and death was something that we were used to talking about. I feel like this is slightly at odds with wider society - I think a lot of people are scared of hospitals and don’t have open conversations about ill health. When I came out of my BA I completed an artist residency in a hospice. I set up individual projects with patients based on their own goals. Not only did I witness art’s potential as a tool for expression when patients were struggling to verbalise their experiences but also the benefits of creating something completely outside of language. Creativity for creativity's sake. There was something so moving about seeing people who were coming towards the end of their life become willing to be open and learn something new at such a late stage. I also shadowed an art therapist at a hospice in North London for a year, mentoring a patient who had mental health issues. As time went on I witnessed how he used art not only as a form of expression, but as a way to cope. Through this experience I accumulated an understanding of the relationship between physical and mental well being and started thinking about how art could relate to both. Niamh contacted me because of my artist practice without realising I had a personal interest and background in healthcare so it was wonderful to get the chance, for the first time, to more closely combine the two.
LS: Tell me about the function that you think art can play within the context of a centre for people with schizophrenia or a mental health facility. You touched upon the therapeutic side of art, but tell me a bit more about that.
AP: I guess within The Phoenix Unit specifically, because the patients live there and many of them for long time periods of time with limited access to the outside world, their domestic environment is just so crucial to their wellbeing. As an artist who is predominantly making work to be displayed in a gallery space I found the shift in brief substantial, I felt a huge responsibility to create a space that held up to a very different type of scrutiny. When I first visited the ward, I noticed that architecture had been really quite carefully considered, the building itself was built sensitively to its inhabitants needs. It is very light and all of the rooms come off this one curving corridor. However, the way the rooms were decorated seemed counterintuitive, all the colours were cold, everything was very utilitarian. With around eighteen individuals living there, each with their own specific issues and particular needs, a one size fits all approach to each room doesn’t really work. The curators decided to designate each artist a space. In doing this they gave the ward a richness and a diversity that was lacking before, inevitably different people will respond to different spaces, so now they have the option of spending more time in certain places depending on their mood.
LS: There must have been a particular responsibility doing the women’s room. I believe five women were in the centre. That's obviously a very important space - what were the challenges of that?
AP: My first visit dramatically changed my approach, having initially thought I would install a simple wall based artwork I realised that it wouldn't have a significant impact. I felt the most useful thing I could do would be to try to transform the room as a whole. My aim, therefore, was to create an uplifting artwork for the occupants whilst trying to bring a warmth and softness to the room that was more akin to a domestic space. This way of starting an artwork was very much outside of my comfort zone and my normal practice. I found putting other peoples' needs first and thinking of the project as almost a design brief was quite an unusual situation for a fine artist to be in and therefore quite refreshing. I tried to put myself in the position of the female occupants, I was thinking a lot about how tethered to the space they were. I wanted to create a sort of lightness in the composition that was at odds with this fact, to make something that would stimulate the imagination, and take them beyond their physical reality whilst at its core retaining something peaceful. We were also given some guidelines in terms of what would be appropriate, for example not to make it too psychedelic. If we were using faces, we should simplify them, so I really simplified the faces of the figures in my work and made sure that the eyes were closed - I suppose so that there was a sense of rest, but also no kind of direct confrontation. They were symbolic women rather than presences within the space. But I wanted them to be natural looking, I tried to play down their sexuality, I just wanted them to just be themselves in a certain way, so that they were naked and free and symbolic all at once. Matisse has been a big influence in my own practice and early on in designing the room I looked at 'The Dance' which is composed of figures holding hands and dancing. There is such a lightness, vibrancy and joyfulness to this work. Stylistically, my finished piece for The Phoenix Unit is very different but the ability of 'The Dance' to uplift the viewer was something that I was thinking about during the project. I wanted to use the mural to focus on the potential unity of women too, I was thinking about how in contemporary society women are often pitted against one another, objectified and sexualised. I don’t know how aware any of the patients are of those sort of things, but for myself I wanted this mural to stand against those things, to portray women as comrades, as part of a community. On a practical level the project was very challenging because I’d never attempted a mural before, prior to this I’d always make work within the body's dimensions, so my larger pieces are about 2m by 1.5m, and my small pieces are more portrait size. So they’d always relate to the whole body, or to the hand, the forearm and the wrist. The experience of working on this scale has broadened my horizons, opening up new possibilities for future works. I really relished learning on the job with an unfamiliar surface and limited time frame, it made me react more quickly and pragmatically, I found it quite freeing and has since shifted my practice in a slightly new direction.
LS: One of the things that I read in the work is the intimacy. You talked a lot about the women being comfortable and at ease. Obviously this is a space where women can go on their own, away from the rest of the people, you get the sense that it's somewhere women want to go alone or with each other. Was that sense of intimacy and kinship important?
AP: Yes I think so, the ward can be a very intense place, I think that it is necessary to have a women’s lounge in there. At the time I was installing there were only five women on the ward; I think it's crucial they have somewhere to can take themselves away from the rest of the group, a space where they feel safe. I chose this space because it seemed, even in its original state, like a bit of a haven. It is quiet, and situated on the edge of the building. There are two windows that let in quite a lot of light and which look out onto greenery. When I pulled the design together, I wanted to emphasise the room's pre-existing qualities.
LS: I was going to ask you to get the responses. Obviously it's hard to put your artwork in any public place, its about how people react to it and how they respond to it - it must be particularly interesting in this case.
AP: Yes for sure. It's hard for me to say how they have reacted because during the install I was separated from the service users. I’m really looking forward to the workshops we are going to do with them, because I'll have more of a chance to get to know the people in there, as well as getting a sense of how they feel about the work. I’ve run a few community based workshops before, so I know it’s a really good chance to understand how people function both as a group and as individuals and I hope to get a bit more indirect feedback then. I think it’s important to remember this work is for the staff as well - obviously they spend a lot of time here too and this was a factor that really shaped the space I made. Primarily, I’m interested to see how people in the unit respond to the project but i’m also keen to find out how people in the wider community react to it. I think there’s still a stigma attached to mental illness, but I think the more it is talked about, the more it will be normalised and humanised and society will have more empathic responses.
LS: Do you see your involvement in this project as putting your name to a cause, a wider political issue which is about trying to communicate the importance of this kind of work?
AP: I think it seems we are still in such an early stage of understanding the brain and how it works, the causes and the potential cures for mental illnesses are little understood and at best a lot of conditions are just managed. In the UK, we are currently living through an epidemic of mental illness amongst young people - suicide is the biggest killer of men under thirty. I think mental health needs to be more widely discussed, and projects like this help to bring attention to the problem and hopefully will result in more funding for support and research. I was motivated to get involved for political reasons as well as personal ones. I feel like it’s our right to have a well-functioning NHS, and yet because of cuts and privatisation it is in crisis. Hospitals in every part of the UK are struggling, I think that a project like this a positive way of highlighting the role of the NHS and how crucial it is to preserve it. Art in a mental health ward shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, its therapeutic qualities have been long recognised and yet the project is seen as something exceptional.