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The Art of Healing: Hospital Rooms. Interview with Tim A Shaw, Niamh White, and Sutapa Biswas.

Updated: Apr 1




By Amanda-Jane Reynolds

@iamajreynolds









Michaela Yearwood-Dan, Northside House, Social Hub. Photography by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms.



For years I thought art was accessible, or at least easily accessed. But after discovering Hospital Rooms, it has become clear that large groups of people who would really benefit from creative access and environments were missing out.


But there are two inspiring creatives who are single-handedly changing that, Tim A Shaw and Niamh White. The duo created the charity Hospital Rooms in response to visiting their friend who was sanctioned. This visit revealed to them that wards and mental health facilities were in desperate need of change, and art.



Tim A Shaw and Niamh White, Photographer Jennifer Moyes.


Tim A Shaw is an artist and one of the co-founders of the arts and mental health charity Hospital Rooms. He studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, and has exhibited widely. Along with Niamh White, he runs the Dentons Art Prize, and Making Time which is a social enterprise that delivers arts training to dementia caregivers. Other recent projects they have worked on together include curating a series of public sculptures for Braintree in Essex. He authored ‘Draw & Be Happy’, which was published by Chronicle Books, Octopus and Ilex.

 

Niamh White is a curator and one of the co-founders of Hospital Rooms. She studied Art History at Goldsmiths, and has curated a wide range of exhibitions in galleries, museums and the public realm. Niamh has a track record for securing significant funding for arts and culture projects that have wide-reaching social impact.


Hospital Rooms is an arts and mental health charity that commissions extraordinary artworks for NHS mental health inpatient units across the UK. They have worked with artists and mental health service users for the past 6 years and have commissioned more than 150 ambitious artworks for mental health units and led hundreds of workshops, in person and online.


Their vision is for all people in mental health wards to have the freedom to experience extraordinary artworks and they believe in the power of art to provide joy and dignity and to stimulate and heal.


Andy Harper, Salus Ward, Torbay Hospital. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms, photography by Dom Moore.


Hospital Rooms have commissioned an ever-growing collective of internationally renowned artists to transform clinically white hospital walls across the United Kingdom. Hospital Rooms have reshaped these spaces by injecting uplifting, inspiring murals and artworks, and hosting workshops with the artists and hospital communities. One of the many artists who have partaken in such major projects is Sutapa Biswas, who was interviewed in Issue 2 of this magazine, and has now been involved with two facilities throughout the charity’s 6 years of bringing art to some of the most challenging mental health settings. In 2017, Sutapa painted a mural at the Garnet Ward in the Highgate Mental Health Centre, and more recently on an atrium wall in the Springfield University Hospital, which was completed in November 2022.


I spoke to Tim, Niamh and Sutapa about the Springfield University Hospital project, and the impact Hospital Rooms has and continues to have on the mental health community.





A-J: I believe that everyone has in some way encountered our ongoing mental health crisis, whether that be personally, through a family member or a friend. It is completely inspiring that you and Niamh kickstarted Hospital Rooms after visiting your close friend in a mental health hospital.

Could you tell us about this experience and how you initiated the first hospital transformation?



TIM: A very good friend of ours was in a mental health unit after a suicide attempt. The environment was bleak – white walls, patronising posters, stark lighting. Sadly, over the years we have seen many mental health wards like this, and this is a huge problem across the country. The environment she was in felt hostile and unloved, and this can reflect back onto the people who are cared for and treated in these spaces. After the first visit to see her in the unit we had the idea to initiate a project to do something about this.

A year and a half later, after many attempts to convince a hospital to let us in, we got out first chance at a unit for people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia called Phoenix Unit at Springfield Hospital in South West London. We raised the money we needed, convinced 11 artists to work with us, and spent the next 9 months working with the artists and the unit community to transform the ward with artworks. We registered Hospital Rooms as a charity almost immediately, and never looked back.


Yinka Ilori, Atrium Detail, Springfield Hospital. Photography by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms.


A-J: Not only are you bringing art to hospitals but the art of renowned and internationally recognised artists. How do you approach selecting the artists involved in each project, and how do you then match them to the hospitals for the site-specific works?



NIAMH: We think really carefully about the artists we’d like to work with on each project and there are many things that we need to take into consideration. Firstly, we spend time in the mental health service we will be working in. We begin to grasp how people encounter the spaces and how they use them, we learn about the people we are working with and something of their experiences, and we gather information about their aspirations of working with us. Based on those conversations and our own interaction with the spaces, we invite a variety of artists who might have some shared experience and understanding of that particular community.

We also look for artists who already have a participatory element to their practice, be it through teaching or community work, who are accomplished with materials and can work to a tight brief in a clinical setting and will be sensitive and empathetic in this very complex situation.

Of course, we provide support in all these areas and all artists bring different expertise and nuance to each project.



Alvin Kofi, Public area, Springfield Hospital. Photography by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy Hospital Rooms.


A-J: Since 2016, what challenges have you had to overcome to get Hospital Rooms to the point it is now?



TIM: The challenge to start with was convincing any mental health trust to let us do a project in one of their wards. They are places that are risk-averse by default, and patient safety is of course a high priority. This means that leading art workshops, and people coming in from outside and working closely with people in inpatient wards, and then installing artworks (often over extended periods of time) using tools, and creating ambitious works was something we had been told was ‘impossible’ many times.


As we have completed more and more projects safely, there is now a real demand for our work, and we have all the new challenges of fundraising for and running more ambitious and large-scale projects.


France-Lise McGurn, Northside House, Social Hub. Photography by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms.


A-J: There is something incredibly intimate about commissioning these works in spaces where few people will experience them, compared to Galleries or Museums. What has the impact of these works been on the patients and hospital staff?



NIAMH: The resounding impact that these projects have is on peoples' sense of self-worth. We repeatedly see how difficulties with mental health, encounters with the mental health system and being held in spaces that are run down and dilapidated can have a deep-seated effect and really dismantle a person’s sense of efficacy and ability. Through these projects, we bring world-class artists, beautiful artworks and amazing creative opportunities that can be transformational for people, leading them to learn this about our projects as they have unfolded and see this in action.


Paul Morrison, Airlock Entrance, Askew Ward, West London NHS Foundation Trust. Courtesy of the artist and Hospital Rooms. Photography by Damian Griffiths.


A-J: With such great success since 2016, and the Springfield project being your largest one yet, what does the future hold for Hospital Rooms?



TIM: We have a number of exciting projects planned, including one in a child and adolescent mental health service in the Midlands, one in a whole new build series of wards in Norwich and one running across two sites in Cornwall. We also want to make sure every inpatient in a mental health ward in the country can access our Hospital Rooms Digital Art School and use art materials we supply, and we have big ideas for our continuing partnership with Hauser & Wirth Gallery.






A-J: You have described the inspiration for your mural All Around Me, My Gathered Star’ within the new Springfield Hospital to be Giotto’s mural in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. What drew you to this inspiration, and what connections do you see to your mural?



SUTAPA: Giotto’s mural was certainly one of the inspirations for my piece. Since early childhood after arriving in England aged four, I found myself having conversations with the moon and stargazing. In part, it was by way of a desire to commune with my grandmother who when we left for England, had stayed in India, west Bengal. I was very close to my grandmother and being very young, couldn’t altogether understand where she was geographically. Somehow reaching out towards the cosmological sphere became my private way of communing with my grandmother in the hope that somehow, she could hear me. In encountering Giotto’s mural, I felt especially drawn to the ceiling space and the cosmological sphere it seems to represent. As a concept, the cosmic space that lies beyond earthly dimensions is part of the Indian culture I had inherited through my parents, and it is that sense of wonderment in the wider cosmos which I had wanted to explore in ‘All around me, my gathered star’.


Sutapa Biswas, Atrium, Springfield Hospital. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms, photography by Damian Griffiths.


A-J: Throughout workshops during your collaboration with Hospital Rooms, you have had the opportunity to work alongside patients as well as hospital staff. What do you feel you have gained from these more intimate, personal experiences?



SUTAPA: The workshops are a very important aspect of the process of making the final work I feel because they are intended to create a space for dialogue through shared learning, and out of which the artist is hopefully able to draw upon in terms of their final piece. In my case, there were three very poignant things that emerged from the workshop that really resonated. Firstly, the idea of how we experience art through the physicality of the space/context in which we encounter it. As my mural occupies a large wall within one of the atriums, I was keen to draw attention to a sense of gravity in looking upwards. I also felt deeply that I wanted to create a space for quiet contemplation and wonderment. Thirdly, I was keen to discretely embed (with permission) the voices of participants in my workshop. Having a long-held interest in the taxonomy of language, I was able to achieve this in a simple way by placing the first letter of the names of my workshop participants within the circular spheres that feature in ‘All around me, my gathered star’.


Behind-the-scenes install image of Sutapa Biswas, Atrium, Springfield Hospital. Courtesy of Hospital Rooms.


A-J: As someone who has visited a ward to see family myself, I understand the impact of these sterile, dull environments. How did the room feel to you before and after the mural?



SUTAPA: I made my mural whilst the atrium space was literally still being completed and constructed around me. Despite this, working on a scissor lift looking downwards from a height of around 60 feet, or from the ground level looking upwards, one still had a sense that my mural was transforming the physicality of that space. Having revisited my mural since the site was completed, it’s easy to see that whilst the building itself in its design is fabulous, the artworks bring the space to life in a different way. Without the artworks, I feel that the space would be quite sterile. What the artworks achieve is to create important spaces for reflection, of comfort and wonderment for patients, visitors, and for the staff who work there.




A-J: Back in 2017, you painted another mural for Hospital Rooms at the Highgate Mental Health Centre within the Garnet Ward, in particular the Women’s Lounge. Your artistic practice has put women's unheard narratives at the forefront throughout your career, how important was it for you to directly impact and uplift women who are suffering?



SUTAPA: It is the case that I am very often drawn to women’s unheard voices within my art practice because I think we can learn a lot from women’s experiences. We form at least half the population. Creating spaces for women’s narratives is imperative if we are to redress the erasure of women’s rich oral histories.


In the context of Garnet Ward, this involved creating a mural in the Women’s Room - a small, dedicated space for its female patients. My mural drew on some stories of those female patients in the ward at that time focussing on flora and fauna and places they recalled through their experience of the botanical world and of gardening. This felt particularly relevant as Garnet Ward is situated in part of the hospital where there is limited access to vistas with gardens or any greenery. Most of the windows look out onto brick work. Creating a mural of a lush forest within this interior space was a way to bring the garden that was missing outside into the inside space of the room, but also a way for the women to reconnect with significant memories and experiences in their lives. Staff in Garnet Ward shared that they would also take their breaks in this room because it offered some welcome and calming respite for them from what was at times challenging work. I was informed by staff that the ‘Women’s Room’ after my mural was completed, was unofficially renamed ‘The Kew Gardens Room’. This delighted me.




A-J: Has working with Hospital Rooms influenced your views on community within the arts?



SUTAPA: Yes. But it has specifically influenced my appreciation of the power of art within the context of hospitals – especially perhaps in relation to supporting mental health and the well-being of patients, visitors, and staff.




Hospital Rooms is a truly important charity. Tim and Niamh have a clear goal in mind and have executed their ideas with respect and understanding. Sutapa Biswas, who was carefully selected and invited to work with Hospital Rooms, has employed her cultural knowledge and experiences with patients into the consumingly large-scale and transportive mural ‘All Around Me, My Gathered Star’ at the Springfield University Hospital.

I feel the power and importance of these projects personally, as I have experienced a mental health ward in its stale, dull state. My older sister was sanctioned up in Scotland and the environment was so caged and icy, it felt cruel to leave her in such an unloved environment. Having read and spoken with the artists and creatives involved in Hospital Rooms, it is clear they have a passion to put an end to these environments and bring about a new standard in the designing of mental health facilities.



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