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The Way I Live with Tim Shaw and Niamh White

Tell me about you....

I am an artist and I co-founded Hospital Rooms with my partner, curator Niamh White. We live in East London with our 4 month old son, and as well as having our own practices we also run a biennial art award called the Dentons Art Prize and a social enterprise that delivers arts training to professional dementia caregivers called Making Time. Hospital Rooms is what we spend most of our time running.

What inspired you to create the Hospital Rooms?

A few years ago a close friend was sectioned and spent some time in an inpatient mental health unit. The environment she was being cared for in was shocking. It was cold, clinical and soulless and none of the people in there deserved to have to spend time in such an unpleasant place. We have found that many inpatient mental health units have these brilliant people working there, and creative and inspiring people being cared for in them, so we thought, 'Why do these units have to look this way?'. We wanted to see if we could run a project in a unit for people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia where we brought in artists to work with patients and staff to transform all the rooms with extraordinary art. We very soon realised this was something that was powerful, meaningful and valuable, so we made Hospital Rooms a charity and since then we have commissioned more than 100 museum quality artworks and programmed hundreds of artist led workshops.

Art can have a meaningful impact on mental health, how have you found patients responding to the work, what has the tangible benefits to recovery that you have observed?

There are often preconceived ideas that mental health units need to be white or beige, with very little stimulus, but we are all unique individuals who need stimulation whether we are well or unwell. Patients and staff have responded overwhelmingly positively to the artworks made for the units they are in, but we are also very aware that not everyone has to 'like' everything. The art should also encourage conversations and opinions, and be very human. There is a risk in bringing colour and art into spaces where there is usually none, but it is a risk worth taking.

So art can be transformative, is there a particular approach to creating and installing art within the hospitals you work with?

Our projects usually have around 6 artist working in one mental health unit. It should feel like the whole mental health ward is full of art and should feel like a creative hub by the end of a project. The artists we work with visit the unit, lead a workshop, go to an evening gathering with staff and patient family members, and then they come up with their idea - either a collaboration with patients or inspired by their time spent with patients. We encourage ambitious proposals and then we work with the artists and hospitals to make sure the work is safe for high risk environments, so non-dangerous, scrubbable, ligature free, all while still being as good as the artist would expect their work would be if in a museum or gallery or collector's home.

So are there projects have stood out so far?

There are a few particularly exciting projects for us. One is our project at Hellingly Centre last year. It is a medium secure unit in Sussex and the team and patients were so engaged in the project that the whole 9 months of collaborating felt like a joy. We installed a permanent video piece by Sophie Clements, a 12 meter wall painting by Hannah Brown and bird box sculptures in all the gardens, amongst other artworks. Our project at Greenfields, led by one of our project curators Natalie Tilbury, had some brilliant workshops including a live owl painting workshop led by artist Nicola Bealing. Our project at Jasmine Lodge mother and baby unit in Exeter now has a huge and incredible 12 figure wall sculpture by Julian Opie and a beautiful wall painting by Mark Titchner.

How can scent impact on recovery for mental health? I think we hope to work on a project together in the near future.

When we talk to patients about their immediate thoughts about the inpatient environment, the scents and smell of the unit always come up as something that is abrasive and unpleasant. It is such an important sense that needs to be taken into account but rarely is. Working with anatome, artists and patients and staff on how the visual and olfactory senses can be stimulated will be an important and enjoyable collaboration, and could have some far reaching legacy. It is an exciting new step for us and a great way to cement our partnership with anatome.

You have the art auction coming up with Hauser and Wirth, Tell us about the partnership.

Niamh and I actually met at Hauser & Wirth ten years ago (it must have been a very romantic place!). At the time Niamh worked on the front desk and I was a freelance art technician. This is the second time that Hauser & Wirth has hosted us in their London Gallery, and, as well as them giving us the most incredible space to hold our fundraising auction and exhibition, the support is very meaningful to us.

So taking a step into your own personal space, how does art at home support your own wellbeing at home?

Our flat is filled with art - we like to be surrounded by it, a few of my pieces but mostly work by other artists. Niamh and I both started buying artworks when we were in our 20s, and they stimulate and challenge us, and also bring us happiness.

When you’re feeling under pressure, what are your ways of dealing with it?

Making art, cooking, eating, drinking, seeing exhibitions, and mostly seeing people are the best things for me. The smell of my baby's head while holding him is the most beautiful thing and puts everything into perspective.

Who is inspiring you at present?

My sister and her friends who are NHS doctors. They don't want claps, they don't want to be called heroes, they just want to get on with their jobs. Also there are some people we have spoken to in mental health units who are being very creative in how they make the lives of the people there better.

Do you have a personal motto in life?

No. If I did it wouldn't be profound.

How do you find time to relax?

I swim.

What is inspiring you in terms of reading?

My inbox - we're starting to get lots of artist proposals in and I love reading the first ideas!

Are there inspiring artists responding in an interesting way to this new world that we should be keeping our eye on?

Susie Hamilton - she is working on a brilliant series of masked workers paintings
Sophie Clements - she is working on a collaborative painting on film animation project with dozens of patients
Ryan Mosley - I just love his paintings

What next for the hospital rooms coming into 2021?

We have the Hospital Rooms Digital Art School running with dozens of mental health units making art live along with artists every week.
We also have 6 ambitious projects in mental health units including psychiatric intensive care, mother and baby, medium secure and rehabilitation units, all starting in the coming months. We can't wait to get back to working in the inpatient units.


Written by:
Brendan Murdock,

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