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.
Exquisite Corpse, or Cadavre Exquis, to give it its original French title, started out as a surrealist writing game in 1920s Paris. The name comes from a line in one of the original games: “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Penned by Andre Breton.
It’s quite simple really, you just write a sentence and then fold it over (leaving part of the sentence uncovered) and pass it on. The next person carries on where you left off. Obviously, you need a few people to do it. Four is a good number. At the end of the page, or whenever you feel like stopping, unfold the paper and read it as one complete piece. I can guarantee you it will be surreal.
You’ve probably already played the pictorial version of the game as a kid, (or with your kids). It’s the same principle – you draw the head and shoulders of a person or creature then fold it over. The next person draws the torso and the next draws the legs and feet.
I remember playing this game in a restaurant in Dublin once. Me and three friends/colleagues went for lunch at one o’clock and left at two. Not an hour later, but 13 hours later. (We had dinner as well.) We didn’t play the game for the whole 13 hours, but it did wile away the time between blinis and Bellinis.
Why am I telling you this? Well, you should try it. It’s fun. I’ve played it at various arts groups over the years and it’s always gone down well. And, because a colleague of mine played it recently with her flatmates and I thought what they wrote was brilliant so I wanted to share it with the class.
“The clouds above parted, like the Red Sea, revealing the beautiful, chiselled face on the moon. The man who lived a monochrome and solitary life. The lonely lifestyle of a duck on water; the only ripple on the pond. What a privilege it is to revel in the wonder of nature – and forget, for a second, the pain of being alive. In contrast the joys make it all worthwhile. I sit on the edge pondering what I dreamt about last night. The shapeless figure slipping through the doorway, watching me sleep. I dream of my own life, of starting all over again, and doing everything the same. In monotony I finally found peace. Then I woke up. The crushing weight of reality on my eyelids, as I wrench myself from the dark. The worst thing about me is that I’m afraid to open my eyes again, to look up at the dark side of the moon, shining judgement down on me. I thought only Jesus could judge what was right or wrong, but this proved me “wrong”. Everything in my life had led to this point. It was the most important moment in all my time. I finally did it – I took a deep breath and forgave myself for the choices I made whilst just trying to please others. I should have just prioritised myself, it seems like everyone else does. I can’t be like everyone else – or do I risk becoming a shadow of my former self. Oh, how I miss how I blossomed in the sunshine. Now I wither as the Seasonal Affective Disorder gets to me. I should get a lamp. Something to light the way, from the darkness of which I crawled.”
There were nine muses in ancient Greek mythology. Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, they were the divine inspiration behind human artistic and scientific endeavour. Calliope is probably the most well known, she is the muse responsible for inspiring heroic/epic poetry. Erato is the inspiration behind love poetry.
Because I love art, a couple of years ago, I promised myself I would do some form of art every day. Whether it be a few lines of poetry or prose, a sketch, doodle or a painting – or even taking a photograph. I think I do two types of art – conscious and unconscious.
When I consciously do something, I think about what it is I want to paint, how I want to paint it, materials, medium, etc. And I have an image in my mind’s eye about what I want to achieve. Invariably, I am slightly disappointed with the finished piece because it never lives up to the ambition of my imagination. The enjoyment was in doing it in the first place.
The second type is my unconscious art. I pick up whatever is at hand and just express myself without thinking about it. Whether it be in words or brushstrokes. I tend to get more satisfaction out of this kind of work because I don’t have any preconceived standard I was hoping to meet in my mind.
And it is this work that I sometimes question whether it is actually ‘me’ who is doing it. Or, rather my unconscious connection to the rest of the energy of the universe that my own sub-atomic particles are inextricably linked with. My Divine Muses, if you like. I am merely a conduit to put the marks on paper, canvas, or pizza box lid. (My muses do like a lot of pizza.)
Yeah, I’m aware that all sounds a bit pretentious and hippy-trippy, but you can’t escape the fact that our subconscious selves have an awful lot to say if you only let them speak.
Anyhoo, here’s what the muses wanted me to say recently…
I am very passionate about the act of ‘doing’ art being the most important aspect of it, rather than the end result. I see the benefits of this in patients with mental illness all the time. Yes, it can be insightful, but it doesn’t have to be. It can just be mindful, cathartic, meditative, expressive. And most importantly, you don’t have to be good at art to do it – it’s about the process, not the result.
Because, when you open yourself up and let the muses in – be they divine, subconscious, or Earthly, that’s when you really feel the joy of doing art.
The exhibition is called ‘Stockport Together Again’ and was curated by Arc and Stockport Council to showcase the creativity of Stopfordians during lockdown.
The exhibition was opened on September 25th by Arc’s Artistic Director, Jacqui Wood and Stockport’s Lord Mayor, Adrian Nottingham. And runs until the 14th November. So, you still have a couple of weeks to get down and see it if you’re in our neck of the galaxy.
Whilst I have selfishly only included my own work in this post what really came across strongly about the work on show, was how bright, colourful and optimistic it was. Which was slightly surprising given the theme of the exhibition.
Each piece is 12″ x 12″ and done on the inside of a pizza box lid. (I ran out of canvas during lockdown.) Fortunately, I had elasticated pants for my expanding waistline. The frames are 16″ x 16″. They are done mainly in acrylic with some elements of soft pastel and collage.
The significance of the dates on this last one is they are the date my mother was born and the day that she died earlier this year. I think about her every day. The flower petals in the paint are from the arrangement on her coffin.
Anyway, these nine portraits represent some of the art I produced every day during lockdown.
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.
Looks like I’m back on track for my quarterly review. Which is a bit tardy really, as I used to try to do a couple of blog posts a month. That’s the price of working in a hospital for a living, eh.
I still do art every day mind. (It’s a promise I made to myself a couple of years ago.) Now, when I say ‘art’, it can be doodling for 15 minutes, writing a piece of poetry or prose, taking photographs, or starting a painting.
And the reason I made myself that promise is because art is the thing I enjoy doing most. The key word there being ‘doing’. So I just concentrate on the process of doing art rather than the end result. Obviously, it’s nice when the end result turns out to be something you’re pleased with, but that isn’t the objective. The only point to it is to be lost in the process of doing something I love. I think they call it mindfulness nowadays.
Some people might achieve the same pleasure from meditating or gardening. For others, it might be walking in nature or reading. Whatever it is you love doing, try to make time for it – even for ten minutes, you’ll feel better for it.
Right then, what’s all that rambling got to do with these scribbles then? Well, I was getting ready for work one morning and I had about 15 minutes to spare, so I did a quick sketch with a felt tip pen. I then went over the lines with a paintbrush dipped in water so that the ink bled. And this is what came out. So I did a few more over the next few days and I was quite pleased with the process and the result. I appreciate they won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I don’t like tea anyway, so there. I prefer fresh coffee.
A common theme in these pictures (and a lot of my other work) is that the person who is the point of focus is reacting to something unseen that is out of the image and it is up to you the viewer to wonder what that might be.
The last one I did, (which is the one at the top on brown paper), took a little bit longer because I thought about it a bit more and used soft pastel as well as ink and water.
Top tip: the coarser the paper, the more the ink will bleed. If you’re doing it on fine paper it probably won’t bleed much and you’ll just have a soggy drawing.
I had meant to do a quarterly review of what I’ve been up to on the art front so far this year, but being a tad lackadaisical, it’s now become triannual instead.
That said, there’s absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that I’ll do another one in four months time. So, this could be a biannual triannual quarterly review. Or, an annual biannual … you get the picture.
Speaking of pictures … here are just a few paintings, collages and drawings I’ve done thus far in 2021.
I usually post my stuff more frequently on Instagram if you’d like to keep up to date and follow me on there @milligancroft
Hope you’ve enjoyed looking at some of my work.
The joy of making art is in the process of doing it rather than the end result. You just get lost in the moment of creating.
I wholeheartedly recommend it. Particularly for those struggling with mental health issues. But obviously, you’d don’t need to be mad as a box of frogs. You can just enjoy it for its own sake.
Remember, kids, Art is Medicine.
(And can be quite addictive.)
P.S. Why is it ‘mad as a box of frogs’ and not ‘mad as a box of cats’, or something?
I can’t imagine frogs being that unhappy in a box. They’d probably quite like the darkness.
A box of cats though, put enough of them in there and all hell would break loose. There’d be claws and fur everywhere.
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.