Friday is Library Day for patients on Arden Ward at Stepping Hill Hospital.
And, if you didn’t know already, reading is very good for your mental health. (Probably not if it’s by Piers Morgan or the Tory party manifesto, mind.)
Reading quality literature and poetry, however, is proven to alleviate stress and anxiety.
Quite serendipitously, I came across this collection of poetry by Mary Dickins entitled Happiness FM. I thought her poem, ‘How to administer a poem in an emergency’ was perfectly apt for the group. So, I thought I’d share it with you.
And here is the poem from whence the collection takes its name.
Of course, our visits to the library aren’t just about reading. They’re about social interaction and doing other mindful activities.
What Blackout Poetry actually is, versus what I think it is, could be two completely different things. I could Google a definition of it, but I can’t be arsed.
My interpretation of Blackout Poetry is where you take an original piece of text, then ‘black out’ the majority of the text to create a new piece of text. Kind of like what Mi6 does to official government documents.
I reckon folks got a bit bored of doing this after a while, so they started adding colour and doodling around the highlighted text to add a bit of spice to it.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, the original source material for my Blackout Poetry is a Harry Potter novel by J.K. Rowling. Now, before J.K. fans become apoplectic with rage for desecrating one of her sacred tomes, in my defence, the edition I had was damaged beyond use. (I.E. Some of the pages were waterlogged and were illegible.) Plus we had another copy.
As we all know, books are only meant to be read. Unless it’s a colouring book. In which case, you can, well… colour it in. Or a sketchbook. You can’t really read that either. Or a photography book… Look, the point is, I don’t advocate destroying perfectly readable books for the sake of art. Unless, of course, it was written by Piers Morgan.
The text you leave highlighted – or legible, doesn’t have to make sense if you don’t want it to. The point of this exercise is to practise a bit of mindfulness.
Just pull out a few words that speak to you then doodle around them. You can use felt tips, pencil crayons, watercolours, pastels, collage, acrylics, whatever you like.
You can do abstract shapes, geometric patterns or something more illustrative and representative.
Obviously, actually composing a compelling piece of blackout poetry out of existing text can be quite challenging, but that’s not really the purpose of this exercise. This is to lose yourself in the act of creating something new and different out of something that already exists. A creative springboard if you like.
The original text doesn’t have to be from a book either. You can use a newspaper or magazine. Or your granny’s will. Whatever’s handy.
I’ve done this mindulness exercise with patients at the hospital, adult art groups and children alike.
And remember, don’t worry about the end result, it’s the act of doing that’s important. Losing yourself in the process is the objective.
Now get out there and start ripping up your mam’s latest thriller.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the headline would be better suited to a sergeant major bellowing out orders to a squad of pertrified 17-year-olds before marching into a hail of enemy machinegun fire.
Thankfully, it’s not a post about being an automaton, but unleashing your creative unconscious.
It was the theme for a little art session I did at the hospital last week.
I do go on a bit about enjoying the process of making art rather than worrying about the end result of what you produce. This is one of those activities.
First of all, we made blank A6 booklets out of photocopy paper that I liberated from the nurses’ office.
Next, we opened the book to the centre spread and drew around our non dominant hand. We wrote a word in each finger. The first word that sprang to mind when I said these five words: A colour, a shape, a place, an object and an emotion.
Then we left that there. We’d come back to it later.
I had lots of bits of paper: wallpaper, gift wrapping, tissue, text, brochures, off cuts of painted pieces, old marbling samples, etc.
I asked participants to tear pieces of paper up randomly and stick them down with a glue stick. Don’t think about trying to make it represent anything – just do it and move on to the next page. Put down as much or as little as you like.
When you’ve finished, go back to the first page and look at it. Turn it around. Look at it from different angles. See if it suggests anything to you. It might, it might not. Embellish the images with felt tips (or paint). It may represent something, or it might be something abstract or graphic.
I’m a great believer in letting your unconscious have fun. In the same way that you don’t tell your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe, don’t tell your hands what shape to tear or what marks to make. Let your unconscious do it. Let’s face it, it’s done pretty well so far. If you’re going to trust it with running your organs I reckon it’ll be okay with a bit of gluing and sticking.
It doesn’t have to be all about images. If words spring to mind, write them down. Write a poem or a piece of prose.
If nothing comes to mind, just doodle.
Pareidolia is the term used to describe when we see images in things that aren’t really there. (Such as bunnies in clouds or a face on the moon.)
Try writing a Positive Log. Like it says, a Positive Log is not a ‘To Do’ list. A ‘To do’ list is something you put pressure on yourself to accomplish in order for you to feel that you have had a productive day. A Positive Log is a list of things that you have achieved that day.
If you suffer from a mental illness even doing the most basic things, like brushing your teeth or having a shower, can take a great deal of effort. So congratulate yourself for it. And take heart that you’re on the road to recovery. Before you know it, you’ll have built up enough strength and energy to start making ‘To Do’ lists.
Right then, remember the hand that you drew around at the beginning? Well, while you were busy gluing and sticking, your unconscious was juggling those words around. So, using the words as inspiration, I asked participants to write a paragraph using all five words. They didn’t have to be in the order they wrote them down.
There you are, a fun little activity to wile away an hour or two.
So, go and liberate some paper from the shackles of bureaucratic servitude from whence it is imprisoned in the copier tray and send it forth to the elysium fields of creativity.
At the time, all I could do was write a poem as I, like billions around the globe, bore witness to the calamitous event unfolding before us.
I felt impotent. I tried to sell prints of my poem for $1 online to raise funds, to no avail.
I wished I was something useful like a doctor or a nurse, or a rescue worker that could do something practical to help.
Then I thought of all the creative people I had encountered during my long career as an art director in the advertising industry and I asked them for help. The response was phenomenal. I got donations of works of art from all over the world to be put into an auction to raise money for the Red Cross who were working on the ground over there.
Less than a month later, we held the Japan Art Auction at Jonathan Oakes photography studio in Manchester, hosted by The Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. It was an incredible success and, thanks to a great many people, we raised quite a few grand.
A lot has changed in 10 years. As you can see by the photos in The Guardian link above.
Things have changed for me too. I am now a Nursing Assistant at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport.
And, whilst my poem did not raise a single dollar, it did inspire Austrian composer Albors Pascal Askari to write this hauntingly beautiful piece of music. All the proceeds from which also went to the Japan relief effort.
And, unbeknownst to me, my poem was on the English curriculum at several schools in London for a couple of years.
My last post was meant to be my last post of 2020.
But I saw something that I wanted to share with you.
I took someone to St. James’ hospital in Leeds the other day. Specifically, the Bexley Wing. Which is actually more like a hospital within a hospital rather than a ‘wing’.
What struck me initially is that they have an art gallery space in the atrium. Obviously, I took the opportunity to peruse the stunning work on display.
What was a little bit awkward was the fact that someone deemed it a good idea to place chairs all along the gallery wall. So, I often found myself standing directly in front of a healthcare worker, (who was taking a well earned break), gawping over their head.
I decided to take a few photos for posterity. And soon realised that the juxtaposition of the art on display and the resting workers/visitors oblivious to it, was art in itself. (Well, it was in my head, anyway.)
I think the fact that the majority of people are on their smart phones adds a certain amount of 21st century irony to the pictures. With the art behind them screaming “Look at me!”
Some people may know how passionate I am about the arts and their ability to help in the healing process. Whether that be mental, physical or general wellbeing.
Anyway, the atrium gallery is amazing. The work is amazing. The staff are amazing. And the NHS is amazing. So, all-in-all, well done, and thank you to everyone at St James’ Hospital, Bexley wing. (You are amazing.)
I came across this story of a girl the same age my daughter is now. She was born on the 15th August 1928 in Poland. And died at the tender age of 14 on 12th March 1943. When I say ‘died’, she was murdered in Auschwitz by the Nazis. Because she lived in an area of Poland earmarked for resettlement.
I was so taken by her image and her story – her absolute innocence, that I felt compelled to write a poem about her. To honour her tragically short life in some way. I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if I write a few pathetic lines of poetry 77 years later. But it matters to me. It could’ve been my daughter, but for circumstance. Or yours. It still could be, the way the world is going.
For Czeslawa Kwoka.
There’s this girl.
Her nose and cheeks are pink,
like she’s just come in from the cold.
She’s looking up at the camera
with fear in her blue-grey eyes.
Her fair hair is roughly shorn,
and she wears an over-sized
blue and white striped tunic,
held together with safety pins.
She doesn’t understand what they are saying,
she doesn’t speak the language.
So the Kapo beats her about the head with a stick.
Her lips are thin and cut
like they’re trying to still a tremble.
There’s a badge sewn over her heart
with the serial number 26947 printed on it.
She has a name though. It’s Czeslawa.
She is 14 years old.
The same age as my daughter.
But she looks much younger.
Like a terrified little girl.
She hasn’t done anything wrong.
Except, be Polish.
Probably typhus or T.B.
The cause is irrelevant.
She’s too ill to work.
So she’s surplus to requirements.
The doctor will see you now.
He’s going to inject a final solution
of phenol directly into her heart.
It will kill her in 15 seconds.
It’s not an exact science.
If he misses the ventricle it could take up to an hour.
The purpose of this, and my previous five posts, was to see if the type of art I have been producing during lockdown is markedly different from the work I was doing last year when I was suffering from poor mental health.
The first point to consider is the reason for my improved mental health in the first place. This was primarily, (but not exclusively), due to me giving up alcohol. I am 413 days abstinent at the time of writing. And I have never felt better. Both physically and mentally.
Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly become an anti-alcohol evangelist. Alcohol, like lots of things, is great if you use it properly. I didn’t. I misused it. I used it to self-medicate. To anaesthetise my perceived problems. The worse things got, the more I drank. The more I drank, the worse things got. In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see the trajectory of this coping strategy.
Now that I have given up drinking alcohol my mental health has soared. The first thing I noticed was my motivation to do things. (Which was sadly missing for the previous eight years or so.)
As a result of improved motivation, the second thing I noticed was just how prolific I was being!
But just because someone is producing a great quantity of work doesn’t mean that any of it is of great quality.
This goes back to the original question about the correlation of the type of art I am producing now versus last year. Yes, it has changed quite significantly. Has it improved? Well that is debatable and extremely subjective.
There is a lot of energy, emotion and raw power in some of the work I produced last year. You can see it here on Adieu 2019. But I am far happier producing the work I am today.
One of the questions I have wrestled with is not ‘is the art better?’, but ‘why am I doing it in the first place?’ The simple answer is – because I love it!
Since volunteering at Arc, I have learnt that the emphasis is on the act of doing rather than the end result. For me, creating art is about losing one’s self (or finding it) in the experience of manifesting something that didn’t previously exist. Being present. It is meditative, it’s cathartic, it’s therapeutic. Sure, it’s great if what you are producing turns out to be a masterpiece, but that isn’t the point of it. Also, I’d like to emphasise the ‘for me’ part. As I’m sure professional artists have a very different point of view to this. I am not trying to make a statement, merely channeling what I perceive to be my unconscious.
So, to summarise the summary:
Has my art changed since last year? Absolutely.
Has my productivity improved since last year? Ditto.
Has my mental health improved since last year? Immeasurably.
But, as previously mentioned, that is down to several factors: giving up alcohol, CBT, medication, art therapy and an amazing support network of health professionals, friends and family. Unlike the name of this blog, there has been lots of cavalry to the rescue.
And the most important question on your lips, I’m sure – what’s the significance of the illustrated symbols?
Well, they’re prophetic messages from an ancient alien civilisation dictated to me through my dreams.
Only kidding, I was just doodling.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing mental health issues, call your GP or self refer to your local mental health team, (usually based at your local hospital).
If things are a bit more urgent than that you can call the Samaritans for free on 116 123. Or call the NHS on 111, they will treat your illness as seriously as they do any other.
If you want to see more of my photos and artwork follow me on Instagram: @milligancroft