Bringing World-Class Art, and Wonder, to Mental Health Patients

LONDON — The artist Sutapa Biswas has works in the Tate collection and was the subject of two major retrospectives last year. But, she said recently, one of the highlights of her career was a piece that few people will ever see: an abstract mural of a night sky in a London psychiatric hospital.

Commissioned by the British nonprofit Hospital Rooms and finished last month, the deep blue work depicts a cascade of falling stars and covers an atrium wall at Springfield University Hospital in South London. At moments when mental health patients could be feeling trapped, Biswas said in an interview, her mural might “give them a sense of wonderment, a bit of hope.”

Biswas has work in the Tate collection and was the subject of two major retrospectives last year.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
She worked with technicians in October to create the hospital mural.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
Biswas was inspired by a Giotto mural in the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, Italy. Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Art therapists and early-career artists have long worked in Britain’s psychiatric hospitals, running classes and painting murals to aid patient recovery. Hospital Rooms takes that to the next level by commissioning internationally famous contemporary artists — including Anish Kapoor, Tschabalala Self and Julian Opie — to produce art for display, often on high-security wards. Most artists also run workshops with patients to involve them in the creative process.

Founded six years ago by the couple Tim A. Shaw, an artist, and Niamh White, a curator, the organization is turning British psychiatric wards into spaces that could rival some museums.

At Springfield this year, Hospital Rooms is undertaking its biggest project yet, commissioning 19 artists — including Biswas, the painter Hurvin Anderson and the multimedia artist Harold Offeh — for a new building that is scheduled to open next spring. Hospital Rooms is “reintroducing humanity to spaces that are actually quite frightening,” Biswas said.

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That didn’t mean simply creating calming décor, though, White said: It was important to not patronize patients by dumbing down. One work at Springfield, for example, is a puzzling collage by Michelle Williams Gamaker that depicts an ape overlaid with clusters of fruit, flowers and Greek statuary. “If art matters anywhere, it matters in these spaces,” White said.

A section of “Company Amongst Ferns,” a mural at Springfield by the painter Alvin Kofi. “These places have to feel like home,” he said.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
The Hospital Rooms founders Tim A. Shaw and Niamh White. They had the idea for the nonprofit after Shaw visited a friend in a dull, unwelcoming psychiatric hospital.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
“Hope for a Better World” by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Ilori, in a Springfield atrium.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

The idea for Hospital Rooms came just hours after Shaw first visited a psychiatric ward. In 2014, one of the couple’s friends tried to take her own life and was admitted for treatment at a London hospital. When Shaw went to visit, he said, he was immediately struck by “how inhumane” the ward felt. All the walls were painted the same dull white, and there were only a few tatty posters for decoration.

“It felt like the environment was doing the complete opposite of what you’d want it to,” Shaw added. “It’d make you feel unloved and unwanted.”

Once they had the idea, it took almost two years to convince a hospital to work with them, Shaw said, with some hospital administrators raising safety concerns. The artists were easier: Shaw and White emailed some they knew, and messaged others out of the blue. The couple could only offer a nominal fee — a few thousand pounds, at most, paid with funds raised from donors — but Shaw said most artists they approached agreed to take part after they were assured the project aimed to create “intellectually stimulating and challenging work.” (Hospital Rooms pays for the artists’ materials, as well as technicians to install the works.)

Now, Hospital Rooms has more secure funding, including donations from some major art-world institutions. In April, Hauser and Wirth, the commercial gallery, committed to raising 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) for the organization by 2025 through regular auctions.

In interviews, some of the artists involved said they had personal reasons for taking part. Biswas said she felt a duty to help Britain’s National Health Service at a time when it was suffering from funding cuts. Alvin Kofi, a portrait painter, said he knew people who had been treated in institutions like Springfield. “These places have to feel like home,” he said.

Technicians putting the finishing touches on “Connections,” a mural by Harold Offeh.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
“Springfield Eternal,” a work by Michelle Williams Gamaker.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times
Depictions of the night sky made by Springfield patients in a workshop that Biswas led in August.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Yet the barriers to installing art in psychiatric wards are high, Shaw said. Hospital administrators vet everything to ensure it does not pose a patient safety risk, or contain triggering images.

The installation of the works, and running of the workshops, can pose challenges too. In some psychiatric settings, patients are not even allowed to have pencils, which pose a risk for self harm. Yet many Hospital Rooms projects require paintbrushes, power tools and other potentially dangerous objects. Getting permission from hospital administrators required a lot of negotiation and form-filling, Shaw said. A patient once tore a print by the photographer Nick Knight off the wall, hours after it had been installed, Shaw said, although he added that the charity quickly learned to fasten works in place with stronger glue.

To stop any cash-strapped hospitals from taking works down to sell at auction, Hospital Rooms tells them that artists will not authenticate anything for sale. “The value of the work is quite an interesting idea within that space,” Shaw said, because each piece was simultaneously “worth a huge amount, and nothing.”

Shaw has made several Hospital Rooms murals himself, and said that some of the patient distress he witnessed while working on them used to make him wonder if he was doing the right thing. “I’d think, ‘Isn’t this ridiculous?’” he said: Painting seemed like a trivial activity when people were in crisis. Now, he had no doubts, he said, because hundreds of patients had told Hospital Rooms that art had helped in their treatment. “I’m totally convinced by the value of it,” he added.

Biswas installing her work at Springfield. Hospital Rooms was “reintroducing humanity to spaces that are actually quite frightening,” she said.Credit…Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Biswas said she was also sure of the benefits, and had heard similar feedback from nurses. In 2017, she painted a tropical landscape in a ward for women with Alzheimer’s, and was told afterward that patients chose to spend much of their time in that space, because they found it so soothing. “I find it really profound,” Biswas said, “that these works provide a sanctuary space, a space of hope and a space of connection.”

A few weeks before she began work on the Springfield mural, Biswas went to the hospital and led a workshop for five patients with obsessive compulsive disorder, partly to show them a design and get their feedback. In the session, Biswas showed them how to paint a night sky, and the patients spent an hour carefully making their own scenes, brushing blue, yellow and red paint across thick paper, and using stickers for stars. “Oh, that’s gorgeous,” Biswas said to one patient as they worked. “I love the energy,” she said to another.

Annalise, a patient who asked The Times not to publish her last name to protect her privacy, said she loved the paintings and murals on the ward. “In here, you can be very trapped in your mind,” she said, but art was “a distraction, it’s expression.” She sat back in her chair and admired her work. Once the paint was dry, she said, she would put it on the wall in her room.

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