Interview: Tim A Shaw

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler .

No-one has got the same ideas about what’s a healing picture.

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: I feel like it’s pretty obvious what I want you to talk about, Tim!  You're not only one of the co-founders of the Hospital Rooms project, but also an artist in your own right. Tell me about it.

Tim A Shaw: My work in Hospital Rooms is about creating a space to exhibit works by the patients or a way of finding a collaborative piece that I can make with the patients. There are often artists from the projects who collaborate quite closely. Harold Arthur, for example, made photographic works that were beautiful rainbow patterns during a workshop. A lot of our artists spend time with patients before they actually make the work and it’s not just informed, but it’s an intrinsic part of the artwork too. It’s important that we have someone who is going to have a really collaborative room or space within that unit, a common thread throughout all of our projects. So the work I make within the project is quite different to the one I might be exhibiting elsewhere.

LJW: The wider concept of Hospital Rooms is to create new space and a new way of inhabiting that space, taking the idea of the way that a museum or a gallery is looked at and placing that in a clinic. How much do you think your knowledge and background of curatorial practice, and the concepts behind gallery curation have been applied to Hospital Rooms?

TAS: It’s been incredibly important, and it’s important that Niamh and I have some of the same skills, but also some opposite skills. Between Niamh being a curator and me being an artist, we have a lot of experience working with museums, galleries and collectors. It has been really important to take a lot of that knowledge, a lot of those practical skills , and putting them towards these hospital projects. I think part of the problem of putting the art within these clinical spaces is that they're treated as such, and what we don't want is to make what people see as hospital art. At the same time, they're not museums either. We also often talk about the idea of the spaces as a home as well. It depends how long you stay in a mental health unit but if you're staying there for years and years, does that space become something that’s very close to becoming a home, and how do we treat those spaces like that?

LJW: Currently you're working on three different units; Garnett Ward, Snowsfield and Eileen Skellern. Each ward caters to very different patients with different needs. How have you distinguished curating and creating for each ward?

TAS: It’s the first time we've worked in an adolescent unit, a unit for older people and a psychiatric intensive care unit, so we did as much research as we could. At the same time, we knew we were going to learn a lot on the job, and we did spend a lot of time getting the artists together with the staff as well as the patients so we could really understand what it’s actually like being on those units. The great thing is when we next do a psychiatric care unit project we'll have a bit more insight into it. But every place is so different. When it comes to making work for those units, when you're working on an adolescent unit, it feels like you could be a lot more collaborative with that project. We had a workshop where I worked with young people, and together we designed what the space should look like, how the walls should be repainted, what things should go in there. And they came up with some ideas that I would never have come up with. In the psychiatric care unit there are many more issues about whether people would be happy. People in that unit can be really unwell, and it sometime it could be hard to create something to be enjoyed by everyone. It was more a case of finding backgrounds that have a positive effect on the space they were going to occupy.

LJW: There is work in the project that one wouldn't necessarily describe as healing or meditative. There are pieces that are challenging and provoke discussion, conversation and reaction. Tell me a bit about this.

TAS: No-one has got the same ideas about what’s a healing picture.  Julian Opie's  choice of five very large black paintings of birds to go throughout the corridors, including a four and half meter black duck, is quite a brave one for a psychiatric intensive care unit. There’s always the option, if something were to be upsetting or triggering, to take it down or paint over it but that hasn't happened so far. That piece in particular has been so hugely popular. One patient said she wanted to stay with the birds because they make her feel safe. I think you can't second guess how people will react; if we were to be too safe and say, 'we always need to know that this is a soothing image', then we'd end up with quite boring environments.

LJW: How have you found that the way you approach your own practice has been influenced by the Hospital Rooms project?

TAS: It’s difficult not to be influenced by working on these projects and partly it’s because the responses that I get from them are very different from the art world ones. They’re often very honest and very direct and very sobering and also incredibly useful. And also it makes me rethink why I am making work in the first place. I'm so interested in where work is seen at the moment, and my current exhibition at Griffin Gallery is about  creating the idea of a home space, and how we treat those kind of spaces. And that all comes with the way we treat working with Hospital Rooms 

LJW: I really remember a sense of claustrophobia, looking at your work at Griffin Gallery. Was that piece influenced by your work with Hospital Rooms?

TAS: Yes. I think it was. That exhibition is called 'Refuge'. I created a 60ft long, reduced height space. There was quite a warm atmosphere, and it was also populated with these paintings and collages and neons all representing faces. That piece came as a result of my Tourette’s Syndrome that afflicted me since I was young, and having recently developed very severe claustrophobia as a result of it, almost like a tick, which no treatment has been able to cure. It was about exploring the ways that your mind can deal with these situations. Sometimes that can be through af creative process, sometimes through medication, but also it could be through creating some kind of psychic, imagined space, to transport yourself to; and I like the idea of making an actual physical representation of that. There’s definitely a very strong link to Hospital Rooms there.

LJW: Has the Hospital Rooms project made you think again about art as a concept?

TAS: Yes, it has - and even the way I'm making work has become much more varied. The most important thing is, we don't see Hospital Rooms as distinctly different from running our own practice. And I see that just as much as my creative practice is making a painting or an installation piece within a gallery, or some other place. When I’m speaking about the projects that I’m working on, it’s often about spaces that aren't necessarily a gallery. We're often working outside of the gallery and finding new ways of infiltrating new areas. Hospital Rooms has been a really big part of making that the priority for me.