Over the past few weeks in May preparations have been underway for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival 2018! As part of a long-standing collaboration between Glasgow Life, Leverndale Hospital and Human Geography at the University of Glasgow, we all came together in Glasgow Museums Resource Centre to engage with a range of objects up-close and to hear stories about their making.
The Pod selected for the tour was Number 16, which houses the Art Extraordinary Collection. Art Extraordinary in a unique collection of Scottish ‘art brut’ creatively composed by Joyce Laing, the first art therapist in Scotland. Having worked with the collection for six years alongside Tony Lewis (Curator of Scottish History) and Claire Coia (Curator for the Open Museum), I was excited to see what the visitors from Leverndale would make of the collection.
Three artists and a selection of their work were chosen for the tour. Mrs McGilp, whose brightly coloured landscape paintings depict a fantasy garden world away from her hospital environment, was an obvious choice as her work connects beautifully to understanding the everyday experiences of living with mental (ill)health. A further selection was that of Flora Johnston, a shell artist from Lochdar in South Uist, and thought to be one of the last practitioners of demotic Celtic art. Flora’s creative flair for decorating walls and a bus with her captivating shell art captures the beauty and escapism in making. Finally, an artist named Willie McP was selected by Tony for his intriguing sculptures of human faces that have a rare ability to connect across time and space. All three artists highlight the significance of communicating through compulsive making and signify the joy and imaginative escapism it can bring. Visitors from Leverndale were shown the objects up-close in the Pod and stories that I had created from my research into the collection about the artists and their creative practices were shared amongst the group. Many of the visitors were fascinated by Flora’s shell bus and intrigued by the mystery surrounding both Mrs McGilp and Willie McP. Like most ‘outsider artists’ we know very little about their lives and their experiences and yet their art remains, somehow speaking to us from across the centuries.
Story resources I produced for the tours around Pod 16
After the tour we all returned to the art room to have a cup of tea (and a Tunnocks Tea-Cake) and to try out some making of our own. Sarah Wilson, an artist working with Glasgow Life, had devised a range of activities inspired by Flora’s shell-art, Mrs McGilp’s paintings and Willie McP’s sculptures. Visitors explored the materials as we chatted about the objects that we had seen. Faces were carved, shells were stuck into clay and postcards were painted, reflecting the creative inspiration that viewing the Art Extraordinary collection encouraged.
A selection of the artwork produced in the sessions at GMRC.
A key purpose of this visit was for the Leverndale participants to choose objects from the collection for their own exhibition entitled ‘Fresh Ideas and New Directions’ held at the Recreational Therapy Department at the Hospital as part of the SMHAFF. Items from all three artists were selected and all made their way to the exhibition. The event was a wonderful display of the power of creativity and the hopeful possibilities that art making, in all its forms, can generate for individuals experiencing mental ill-health in different times and places. Mesmerising artwork adorned walls, doors, ceilings and garden spaces of the Unit and the soundscape of laughter, conversation and singing filled the room.
Examples of the art on display in Leverndale Recreational Therapy Unit from the show ‘Beginnings’.
Many people came to view the Art Extraordinary work on display and questions were frequently asked about the artists and their making practices. Flora’s shell art attracted a great deal of interest and the mysterious qualities to Mrs McGilp and Willie McP led to numerous fruitful discussions about interpreting the pieces. A quiz devised by Claire encouraged visitors to engage in more detail with the Art Extraordinary objects and their stories and to potentially win a prize! Watching people point, read, look and discuss the objects up close outside of the museum environment is an exceptionally rewarding process and so much can be learned from these visitor interactions.
Examples of the Art Extraordinary collection on display in Leverndale Recreational Therapy Unit.
Throughout the past month this series of collaborations has further inspired and enthused my work with the Art Extraordinary collection. Working with Claire, Tony and all the amazing individuals at Leverndale generates new ideas about what work the collection can do in the world and what it has to tell us about mental (ill)health and creativity. We are all looking forward to continuing the conversations!