Dr. Trudy Meehan curates an exhibition at festival

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There is life after mental illness; there is also life during mental illness.  That is what we want to say with the paintings and drawings from the Mark Hipper-Tower Hospital Art Group that are exhibited at Eden Grove during the Festival. These works demonstrate the patients’/artists’ capacity for creativity and self expression. However, they also demonstrate their capacity for discipline and focus. The art works testify to the capacities that remain intact or are in the process of recovery despite the imposition of mental illness. When making an art work, one has to make serious decisions about the content of the art and to continue to make decisions throughout the process. These decisions include issues such as reference sources, composition, colour, materials, what to put in, what to leave out and so on. The evidence of the patients’/artists’ capacities are here for us all to see in their art works. The works do not tell us about ‘insanity’. Instead, they tell us about capacity and recovery; they tell us about the people who remain and fight for their cognitive and emotional integrity.

All of the artists presented in the exhibition are currently or were recently in-patients at Tower Rehabilitation and Psychiatric Hospital. All have families and friends - some have lost touch but still remember important people in their lives. They all had jobs of varying levels of skill and permanence – some had even started university careers. They all had dreams and hopes for their futures; they all continue to have hopes and dreams for the future.

Almost one hundred people have passed through the art group at Tower Hospital since it was started in 2009 by the late Mark Hipper (Artist and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Fine Art, Rhodes University). The people in the art group have had various diagnoses including depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, intellectual disability, psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, self harm, and personality disorders. The exhibition displays the work of 11 artists/patients. These artists represent the current core group of patients at the hospital who attend or have recently attended the group. In this group some patients have moved on to sheltered (hostel type) accommodation, while others are looking forward to discharge. Some others will stay for long-term care and rehabilitation at the hospital. Two artists have hopes of starting formal training in fine art and design. For one of the artists, the only obstacle to this dream is that of finances – ability is certainly not an issue.

The art presented at the exhibition represents just a small sample of the work done by this art group. The paintings and drawings have two main sources of inspiration: firstly they come from the artists’ inner world and are mostly spontaneous creative expressions; secondly the artists have used postcards from art museums depicting important historical and contemporary art works as reference material for their work (e.g. The Daydreamer by Egon Schiele) – you might be able to spot some of your favourite artists quoted in the works at the exhibition.

This project started as an art making group by Mark Hipper in 2009. He was supported in this endeavour by Dotun Makun (Masters in Fine Art Student). Dotun and the Department of Fine Art continue to support the project. The project was self-funded by Mark who bought all the materials and drove every week to Fort Beaufort. Since Mark’s passing the project has been funded by Rhodes University’s JRC funding and the Dean’s Discretionary Fund. Dr. Trudy Meehan, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology continued with the project after Mark’s passing and tried to honour Mark’s hopes for the project. Mark was interested in the patients’ potential to make original and expressive art. He genuinely liked and connected with the patients and he was taken with their individual stories. He wanted to help them by taking their work seriously and also by trying to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness. So this project became an art making and exhibiting project. Mark conceptualised the exhibition as a space that would function to reduce stigma by showing the skills of the people in the art group. He also hoped that the exhibition would demystify mental illness and bring the person rather than the problem of mental illness to the forefront.

The paintings and drawings will be exhibited in Eden Grove, Rhodes University during the National Arts Festival 30th June to 10th July, from 9am to 5pm daily. Dr. Trudy Meehan will present a talk about the project as part of the Think!Fest Programme on Thursday 30th June at 10am. This project has received funding from Rhodes University and printing of advertising was sponsored by Dupli-Print.