Though research shows that the interior design of mental health units can help relax patients and erase the stigma of disease, many hospitals lack the resources to make improvements. Curator and art consultant Niamh White and artist Tim A. Shaw are using their connections and expertise in the art world to help fix that. Their project Hospital Rooms is connecting artists with a hospital in London to refurbish its mental health ward.
“It first started when I visited a close friend of mine who has been admitted to a mental health unit,” says Shaw. “It’s such a cold, clinical place to recover when you are emotionally, emotionally sick. [Niamh and I] work with galleries and museums and collectors to make inviting, stimulating, hopefully intelligent exhibitions all the time, and we thought, why not apply the same idea to a place that is very clinical?”
White and Shaw, who have worked together for years on a number of art and gallery projects, found a partner in London’s Springfield University Hospital, an institution White describes as “very forward thinking.” The project focuses on the hospital’s Phoenix Unit, a residential psychiatric unit for people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Between the two of them, White and Shaw recruited 10 artists of varying disciplines, including the Turner Prize-winning collective Assemble and renowned British photographer Nick Knight, to create original, site-specific works that can be enjoyed by the unit’s patients.
For the artists, White says, working within the safety rules of the hospital was more of a challenge than a burden. Each artist went to visit the hospital to see the spaces and talk to administrators about their needs and restrictions. Paint needed to be wiped clean and made sterile, hard corners had to be avoided, and no screws or other potentially dangerous objects could be sticking out of the pieces. Since hanging artwork that could be taken off the walls wasn’t allowed, the painters in the group had to get creative.
The British painter Michael O’Reilly adapted his experience in stage design as as an apprentice scenic painter at the Royal Opera house to paint a wallpaper mural in one of the common rooms. What looks like 3-D paintings pinned to the wallpapered wall are in fact painted on. The painter Aimee Parrott painted an enormous Matisse-like painting in the women’s lounge and redecorated the room with flame-retardant curtains and potted plants. The artists Mark Power and Jo Coles wallpapered the walls of the visitor room with photos they took of the surrounding town and forest, bringing the outdoors in.
Other projects came out of a specific need the ward had. Assemble, for example, is in the process of creating a wooden notice board that will show all of the activities available during the week. “It was born out of conversations with occupational therapists about making time there meaningful,” says White. The therapists stressed that making a schedule and feeling productive were keys to improving the mental health of many of the patients.
For his part, Shaw created a gallery in one of the common areas that will eventually host workshops and display the works of the patients in the unit. He says he designed it using all museum-quality standards and techniques, taking care to give the patients the same service as if they were visiting a gallery outside of the hospital. “From the very beginning the hospital was encouraging that valuing space could equate to valuing people,” he says. “If you create fantastic environments and maintain them, then they will value the spaces they are in.”
The project is on track to be fully installed on June 24. White and Shaw collaborated with South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust to commission the artists and hope to expand the project to other hospitals in and outside of London.