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Restoring dignity to mentally ill

Date Released: Mon, 11 July 2011 14:00 +0200

A groundbreaking project by late fine arts lecturer Mark Hipper, writes DAVID MACGREGOR 

Patients at an Eastern Cape mental health hospital are reaching for the stars after the work they produced during a pioneering art therapy project became a surprise hit at the National Arts Festival.

Named after founder Mark Hipper, the irony of the acclaimed View from the Tower exhibition is that the sometimes controversial and often misunderstood - mentor of the Tower Hospital Art Group is not alive to see how much the work he initiated has changed lives.

Started in late 2009 by the Rhodes University fine arts lecturer who funded weekly trips from Grahamstown to the Fort Beaufort facility and paid for all the art materials the project has empowered normally faceless mental health patients by allowing them to explore new opportunities and identities.

And, it is not just the more than 100 participants over the years whose lives have changed.

According to Rhodes University senior clinical psychologist Dr Trudy Meehan who worked with Hipper for several months before he died everybody involved in the project has been positively affected by the experience.

There is not one of us who is not deeply moved and touched and honoured to be part of this project. Each week the group lifts all our hearts.

Thanks to hard work, focus and positive energy many in the group have evolved from nameless numbers with little hope or direction into inspired individuals keen to again make a positive contribution to society.

It has given them a sense of who they can be in the future, it has reminded them of who they used to be in the pastit has reminded them that they are more than patients, Meehan explains.

By giving the budding artists choice and treating them like individuals with skills and abilities rather than patients with deficits the project brought dignity and honour to them. All of the participants feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Instead of telling the patients what art is and how to make it, Hipper gave participants as much free rein as possible allowing them to explore their inner self using materials of their choice.

He would arrive with pencil crayons, Koki pens, paint and different sized and coloured paper and put them all down on a table - with postcards he collected from museums and art galleries around the world. It was totally the choice of the artists.

Meehan said the freedoms to make whatever art they wanted was in contrast to their everyday situation which is often very controlled and dictated.

It was really empowering and remarkable. You would think it would be chaos, but it was very calm and even boring they were dedicated, focused and workmanlike.

Working with staff at the hospital, Meehan and fine arts masters student Dotun Makun have kept Hippers dream alive after the 49 year-old artist was found dead at his home in August 2010.

Makun who came from Nigeria to study under Hipper said he had accompanied his Masters Degree supervisor to Tower Hospital every week until he died.

The Tower project was a big thing for Markhe took it to heart, it was a highlight of his life.

Makun and Meehan both told the Big Read about Hippers unbelievable magic convincing skeptical officials that the project had merit. He was inspired, he sold the idea to everybody he was the glue that got things going.

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Hipper 10: Dotun Makun with one of the artworks. 

By David Macgregor

Picture: David Macgregor

Source: Saturday Dispatch

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