Art world transports patients
World-class artists bring beauty and expression to those staying in psychiatric hospital
Artist Sutapa Biswas has works in the Tate collection and was the subject of two major retrospectives in 2021. But, she said recently, one of the highlights of her career was a piece that few people will ever see: an abstract mural of a night sky in a London psychiatric hospital.
Commissioned by British nonprofit Hospital Rooms and finished late last year, the deep blue work depicts a cascade of falling stars and covers an atrium wall at Springfield University Hospital in South London. At moments when mental health patients could be feeling trapped, Biswas said in an interview, her mural might “give them a sense of wonderment, a bit of hope.”
Art therapists and early-career artists have long worked in Britain’s psychiatric hospitals, running classes and painting murals to aid patient recovery. Hospital Rooms takes that to the next level by commissioning internationally famous contemporary artists — including Anish Kapoor, Tschabalala Self and Julian Opie — to produce art for display, often on high-security wards. Most artists also run workshops with patients to involve them in the creative process.
Founded six years ago by couple Tim Shaw, an artist, and Niamh White, a curator, the organization is turning British psychiatric wards into spaces that could rival some museums.
At Springfield this year, Hospital Rooms is undertaking its biggest project yet, commissioning 19 artists — including Biswas, painter Hurvin Anderson and multimedia artist Harold Offeh — for a new building that is scheduled to open this spring. Hospital Rooms is
“reintroducing humanity to spaces that are actually quite frightening,” Biswas said.
That didn’t mean simply creating calming decor, though, White said: It was important to not patronize patients by dumbing down. One work at Springfield, for example, is a puzzling collage by Michelle Williams Gamaker that depicts an ape overlaid with clusters of fruit, flowers and Greek statuary. “If art matters anywhere, it matters in these spaces,” White said.
The idea for Hospital Rooms came just hours after Shaw first visited a psychiatric ward. In 2014, one of the couple’s friends tried to take her own life and was admitted for treatment at a London hospital. When Shaw went to visit, he said, he was immediately struck by “how inhumane” the ward felt. All the walls were painted the same dull white, and there were only a few tatty posters for decoration.
“It felt like the environment was doing the complete opposite of what you’d want it to,” Shaw added.
“It’d make you feel unloved and unwanted.”
Once they had the idea, it took almost two years to persuade a hospital to work with them, Shaw said, with some hospital administrators raising safety concerns. The artists were easier: Shaw and White emailed some they knew, and messaged others out of the blue. The couple could only offer a nominal fee — a few thousand pounds, at most, paid with funds raised from donors — but Shaw said most artists they approached agreed to take part after they were assured the project aimed to create “intellectually stimulating and challenging work.” (Hospital Rooms pays for the artists’ materials, as well as technicians to install the works.)
Now, Hospital Rooms has more secure funding, including donations from some major art-world institutions. Last spring, Hauser and Wirth, the commercial gallery, committed to raising $1.2 million for the organization by 2025 through regular auctions.
Some of the artists involved said they had personal reasons for taking part. Biswas said she felt a duty to help Britain’s National Health Service at a time when it was suffering from funding cuts. Alvin Kofi, a portrait painter, said he knew people who had been treated in institutions such as Springfield. “These places have to feel like home,” he said.
Biswas said she was also sure of the benefits, and had heard similar feedback from nurses. In 2017, she painted a tropical landscape in a ward for women with Alzheimer’s, and was told afterward that patients chose to spend much of their time in that space, because they found it so soothing. “I find it really profound,” Biswas said, “that these works provide a sanctuary space, a space of hope and a space of connection.”
A few weeks before she began work on the Springfield mural, Biswas went to the hospital and led a workshop for five patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, partly to show them a design and get their feedback. In the session, Biswas showed them how to paint a night sky, and the patients spent an hour carefully making their own scenes, brushing blue, yellow and red paint across thick paper, and using stickers for stars. “Oh, that’s gorgeous,” Biswas said to one patient as they worked. “I love the energy,” she said to another.
Annalise, a patient who asked The New York Times not to publish her last name to protect her privacy, said she loved the paintings and murals on the ward. “In here, you can be very trapped in your mind,” she said, but art was “a distraction, it’s expression.” She sat back in her chair and admired her work. Once the paint was dry, she said, she would put it on the wall in her room.