We were very impressed to hear of the work being done by Hospital Rooms, where they bring artists into facilities to encourage creativity and revive spaces. Artist Katharine Lazenby has kindly explained for us how the project operates and how one can use art to both promote wellness and make a difference, through colour, thoughtful work and workshops, to those in hospital. We are committed to supporting the work of artists that help people and are amazed by the effectiveness of this project.
By Katharine Lazenby
Hospital Rooms is a charity dedicated to transforming clinical environments with extraordinary bespoke artworks, driven by a commitment to ensure that the environment within mental health care settings supports and enhances the therapeutic care service users receive. The charity commissions world-class artists who work closely with service users and staff throughout each project, collaborating to transform typically uninspiring, clinical spaces with site-specific artworks which bring joy, offer comfort and hope, and have the power to stimulate and heal. The charity works in some of the most challenging clinical environments, believing that acute mental illness and the need for intensive inpatient treatment should not deny people the opportunity to experience the arts and engage in creativity.
How it works and making site appropriate artwork
Hospital Rooms commissions artists specialising in a range of disciplines, from photography, to painting, to installation. They have worked with established world-class artists such as Gavin Turk, Bob & Roberta Smith, Mark Titchner, Julian Opie, Richard Wentworth and Anish Kapoor as well as many new up and coming artists who are building an international reputation for cutting edge art, such as Tschabalala Self, Gordon Cheung and Nengi Omuku.
The artists produce work which responds sensitively to the environments they are working in, thinking about the function of the space, how it is currently used by service users, their opinion of it and what kind of creative intervention could enhance its therapeutic impact. Each project begins with the artists visiting the ward to meet service users and staff, providing an opportunity to hear directly from those who are living and working in the spaces the artists will be transforming, a chance to not only familiarise themselves with the physical space but gain a greater insight into life on the ward and how it might be improved.
Using Experience to Create a Work that has an Emotionally Calming Impact
Often the conversations held during such visits directly inform the final work made. At Highgate Mental Health Centre’s Garnet Ward for older people with dementia and other mental health challenges, painter Sutapa Biswas invited residents to share their recollections of places they had lived or visited, gathering stories about gardens service users had once tended, exotic flora and fauna, and childhoods spent in countries abroad. Passionate about nature and interested in the presence of distant places in the memory, Sutapa channelled her conversations with service users into the immersive lush and verdant garden mural she created in Women’s Quiet Room at Garnet Ward. Her painting brings the outside in, providing a space for retreat and reminiscence, incorporating plant life from climates all around the world and reflecting the patient community’s wealth of experience.
When Yukako Shibata met residents and staff at Garnet Ward she shared examples of her paintings and small sculptures and was inspired by the diverse response to her work. Selecting a small enclosed sitting area in the ward, Yukako created a stunning abstract wall painting composed of layer upon layer of transparent colour. The indeterminate nature of the artwork allows residents to project onto it their own associations and they have described it as like ‘light’, a ‘chapel’, ‘tranquil’ – ‘it is not sky, it is not sea, it is just beautiful’.
Art Workshops as a Form of Creative Healing
Every project also includes onsite artist-led workshops for staff and service users which run for the duration of the project. These not only provide invaluable opportunities for therapeutic art-making but often generate material which ends up feeding directly into the work the artists finally produce for the inpatient environment.
Turner nominated British artist Mark Titchner made a number of visits to Snowsfields Adolescent Unit at The Maudsley Hospital before embarking on his wall painting in the ward’s Family Room. Mark met with service users and staff on a number of occasions, seeking to understand the particular uses of different areas in the unit and how various spaces are experienced by different individuals. During an art workshop with the young people at Snowsfields, Mark encouraged participants to create personal slogans and inspiring messages, exploring the impact of different combinations of words. This creative collaboration with service users fed directly into the mural Mark finally created for the unit – an incredible, intricately patterned, layered design, meticulously hand-painted and revealing the central message ‘Believe Dreams’.
Mark recently joined Hospital Rooms again, for their project at Bluebell Lodge, an inpatient mental health rehabilitation unit for men. His mural ‘Please Believe’ has transformed Bluebell’s TV Room.
Site Specific Installations
During workshops, artists occasionally use small-scale models to explore with service users and staff possible creative ideas for transforming particular spaces. At Bluebell Lodge, for example, painter and Hospital Rooms co-founder Tim A Shaw used this approach to work closely with the residents on a new design for the corridors and Dining Room. After discussing ideas and trying them out on small models, the chosen design of clouds against a blue sky was then transferred by Tim onto the walls and ceiling of the spaces. The clouds were painted in a shiny silver – chosen for the way it reflects the light and creates a more textured, dynamic surface.
Artist Rachael Champion created an immersive digital print collage for the Telephone Room at Bluebell Lodge, informed by the workshop she led for residents. Titling the workshop, ‘Finding Terraspheric Forms’, Rachael brought some wooden mock-ups of the Telephone Room and residents used collage and clay sculpture to explore ways of altering the space.
Using Vibrant Colours to Connect with Service Users
For two of their projects Hospital Rooms has worked with scenic painter for the Royal Opera House Michael O’Reilly. Following an extraordinary trompe l’oeil mural Michael created at Phoenix Rehabilitation Unit in Springfield Hospital for Hospital Rooms’ very first project, the charity commissioned him again for their project at Garnet Ward.
When developing his idea for the ward, which cares for older people effected by dementia and other mental health challenges, Michael drew inspiration from his grandma, who herself experienced dementia. While in hospital his grandma had been captivated by a stained glass window in the onsite chapel. With failing eyesight, Michael’s grandma had enjoyed the sparkly vibrant colours and bold outlines. So for Garnet Ward Michael designed a large wall painting depicting a woodland scene as though viewed through a window. Responding sensitively to the nature of the difficulties suffered by those with dementia, which often includes visual impairment, Michael used warm luminous colour and strong lines to create a clear, dramatic and engaging image. The painting is full of life with small details which attract attention and allow residents to keep discovering new things within the painting over time – a beehive, a cat attempting to catch a fish, a distant cabin and smoke curling up from a campfire. The image invites exploration, prompts reminiscence and has brought much joy to the service users and staff at Garnet Ward.
Practicalities of Creating Reflective Art Work within Facilities
The management of each project requires careful risk assessment, carried out through close consultation between Hospital Rooms, the artists, the onsite staff and service users, to ensure that all who are involved can participate safely and get the most out the project. Collaboration with fabricators and material suppliers is also key, as the artists and Hospital Rooms endeavour to identify the processes and materials which will be durable, wipe clean, long-lasting, and safe for high risk environments whilst still being of the highest quality.
Since its very first project, Hospital Rooms has been supported by the international art suppliers Colart, who have provided the charity with the highest quality professional materials from their brands Liquitex and Winsor & Newton. The donation of such materials has not only enabled the creation of extraordinary artwork by Hospital Rooms’ commissioned artists but also resourced the many workshops Hospital Rooms have facilitated throughout their projects for the service users and staff they work with. [Jackson’s Art Supplies is also now supporting Hospital Rooms.]
Using Practical Materials for Medical Facilitates
Painter Nengi Omuku thought carefully about the materials she would use to create the large wall mural in the Family Room at Eileen Skellern 1, a psychiatric intensive care unit for women. Specialising in oils, Nengi chose to use water-soluble oil paints for this project, to avoid the need for any powerful solvents like white spirit. The image Nengi created depicts an abstract blending of three figures who offer one another comfort and care. Nengi’s work often sits on the border between abstraction and figuration but at Eileen Skellern 1 she decided to move even further away from explicit figurative representation. Conscious that depictions of faces and bodies can be a trigger for individuals experiencing psychosis, Nengi decided to avoid overt references to the human body. She was also interested in showing the human body as patches of colour and geometric shapes, held together within an overall form, representing feelings of fragmentation and alienation which Nengi experienced when she moved from Nigeria to England and which she believed some of the service users at Eileen Skellern 1 might be able to relate to: ‘It came from my own experiences of dealing with challenging situations and figuring out the ways I needed to mentally adapt in order to exist’. Nengi’s great skill with this work, however, has been to create an image which communicates a feeling of unity and warmth, a sense of embrace. The figures are wrapped in a traditional Nigerian fabric called Blangidi, which is a defining feature of major family events. The figures hold one another and blend into a continuous form, the fabric encircling and intertwining with the bodies further emphasising Nengi’s overarching message, ‘we are together’.
Hospital Rooms’ project at Eileen Skellern 1 was their most ambitious project to date, taking place in an intensively managed environment which provides inpatient care to women who experience severe and enduring mental illness. Ensuring the smooth-running of this project for all involved required even closer collaboration between the charity, the artists, and ward staff and extensive consultation with innovative fabrication partners. Following completion of the project, staff agreed that it was not only the look of the ward that had been radically transformed but the entire atmosphere, for both service users and staff.
‘The addition of the art work has made such a huge difference to the physical environment and subsequently the therapeutic atmosphere on the ward and both staff and patients have benefitted greatly.’ — Rebecca Davies, Occupational Therapist at Eileen Skellern 1
‘You can connect using the art. I would always hope that, as a doctor, I consider the patient in front of me as a whole person with a whole life, not just who I’m seeing at that time. I think the artwork really reminds you of that. It prompts and ensures that you are continuing to think because it evokes conversations and stimulates things that you don’t normally get into during a normal clinical interview.’ – Dr. Sophie Butler, Eileen Skellern 1
The impact of Hospital Rooms’ project at ES1 was recognised by the National Association of Psychiatric Intensive Care Units (NAPICU) which awarded the charity and Eileen Skellern 1 Quality Improvement Project of the Year 2018, highlighting the powerful impact physical environment can have on the quality of care which service users receive.
‘This project has enhanced the quality of care provided to our patients in the psychiatric intensive care unit. It is a privilege to be part of this team, and this award recognises what can be achieved through dedicated teamwork.’ — Dr Faisil Sethi, Consultant Psychiatrist, Eileen Skellern 1
‘The service users were generally really supportive of the work as it was taking shape, I was touched and encouraged by that. I remember as it was wrapping up one lady walked in and said, “Aaaah I feel calmer already.”‘ — Tamsin Relly, on working at Eileen Skellern 1
Hospital Rooms Current Projects
Hospital Rooms is currently midway through a project at Woodlands Mental Health Unit in Ipswich, working across a number of wards and transforming spaces ranging from a communal area on a Dementia Ward to a Mental Health Tribunal Room and 136 suite, or ‘place of safety’ where individuals who have been sectioned under the mental health act are taken to be assessed for treatment.
The charity has eight projects lined up for the coming year, in variety of inpatient mental health units, including a ward for adolescents, a Mother & Baby unit, a forensic ward and a psychiatric intensive care unit. Hospital Rooms will continue to work with all kinds of different artists, specialising in photography, installation and painting. Some names to look out for are: Sara Berman, Nina Royle, Sikelela Owen, Jessica Voorsager and Tamsin Relly, who will be returning to work with Hospital Rooms for the second time.
How You Can Get Involved
If you’d like to learn more about Hospital Rooms, check out their website, which includes a blog that takes readers behind-the-scenes, giving an insight into the creative development of particular artworks, workshops and projects as well as introducing the people who help make the charity’s work possible.
On the website you can also find out how you can support the work of this incredible charity and help them to make a real difference to mental health units across the country. With so many excellent projects ahead, this is great time to get behind Hospital Rooms.
About Katharine Lazenby
Katharine Lazenby is an artist and has volunteered for Hospital Rooms over the last two years. You can find out more about Hospital Rooms by following them on Instagram or by reading other articles by Katharine on the Hospital Rooms Blog here.