Rift #4 – being and not being ‘normal’

Flirting with a painting-by-numbers set and ending up with a subversion in soft pastels of Van Gough’s Starry Night opened one of those mental doors that might have stayed close without considering how Van Gogh’s panoply of disorders could have contributed to his psychological state. These days, so many of them would have been teased out by careful observation and treatment, leaving only the clearest candidates, if there were any, to explain his visual and auditory hallucinations. He was thought of as mad, a schizophrenic who needed sanctuary in an asylum. But he was being poisoned by the lead in his paints, he had untreated gonorrhoea, he abused alcohol, he had stomach and gut problems, he was affected by Meniere’s Disease, so not surprisingly he was also acutely anxious and prone to self harm. Remove all that and we might find he was not mentally ill at all.

And this is the rift – the idea that some people are ‘mental’ and the rest of us aren’t. That this is somehow intrinsic to them and therefore not our problem but also a thing to be scared of. We’re long past the nature/nurture argument, I think; the idea that you’re born that way or conversely, that everything is caused by your environment from conception onwards. The feeling now is that, while there may be a genetic nudge for some people, much of what happens is related to the impact of your early years experience.

Van Gogh is a remarkable case study in this regard, although his fate was the result of ignorance rather than wilful misclassification. People didn’t understand the ways all of his disorders impacted on each other and the eventual picture. No pun intended there but actually, where would he have been without his demons? I recall a man with epilepsy telling me he deliberately omitted his medication before going to a rock concert because it took the edge off the experience. For him, headbanging with everyone else was worth the risk of a seizure. Other people have managed their bipolar disorder in a way that allows them to ‘fly’, hopefully without plummeting into despair, because they feel they’re at their most creative at that point.

This is about recognising that ‘normal’ is not as common as we might want it to be, and that ‘disorder’ is only a disorder if it causes the person distress or puts them at risk.

15th May and I have one of my ‘paintings-in-waiting’ up on the easel. It’s the primer-washed half of an earlier painting, repurposed for its texture; and with what’s left of three sheets of labels once the labels are removed stuck to its surface. For no good reason other than curiosity, I have dribbled gloss varnish down from the top and I will probably dribble more when that layer is dry. I expect these to generate variably resistant surfaces for paint, the primer taking up more pigment than the gloss. I have no clear idea of where I’m going with it yet but just writing this account has brought what was right in front of me into focus. The gaps are where labels once were and labelling has been at the centre of a diagnostic system that has often crippled those it categorised. The question for me at this point is whether I’m going to fill the gaps with label-specific imagery or make something with a more conceptual bent.

While I’m considering this, I’m also considering how the animation software can be applied to the edges and patches. The opportunities for greenscreen imagery seem obvious. Increasingly, I find I ‘grow’ paintings like plants, not always knowing what seeds I’ve sown or what the oddity is that I’m nurturing. Watch and wait are the watch and wait words.

Images via Google search are of Darenth Park hospital, Kent; St Lawrence’s Hospital in Caterham; the Bethlem Royal (Bedlam) which ended up in Beckenham, Kent; and the Royal Earlswood in Redhill, Surrey. All of them housing some 2000 ‘patients’ often for life. The captions refer to ‘colonies’ and ‘imbeciles’.

The collaged images are prints from a google search relating to some of the more offensive terms used to describe people with intellectual disabilities or who have a mental illness, alongside some from popular, in one case very unpopular, imagery. Most refer to the Victorian institutions built to house ‘the insane’ and the ‘mentally deficient’, all of which I have worked in at a time when they were still inhuman places with 80 bed wards and no privacy. This began to change in the early 1980s and I was privileged to be part of a team bringing people back into the community. There are many stories here and these will either inform or overload this piece of work.

Placement of the images, some of them cut or torn apart, is deliberately fragmented and contained within the windows made by the label surrounds.

This is a first pass using PhotoMirage animation. There are some interesting effects to be made by crossing directions of motion and freezing certain areas so that they don’t move. I’ve only just realised the difference between this brush tool and another that places stop marks around sets of arrows, and I’m not even sure I can articulate it yet!

Lines of movement and frozen areas. These can all be edited out, changed, shifted. Making marks and masks to create or inhibit movement is a different kind of painting but requires arguably as much attention to detail, a view about overall impact, and appreciation of your ‘materials’ and how they work.

This is the result of soft pastels subsequently painted in with water. Because the surface has a great deal of gloss varnish on it, there is scope for reducing and manipulating these marks.

After wiping off some of the pastel with a damp flannel, I used an acrylic pen to outline the ‘windows’ and also pick out key features in the images of the people. I’ve followed the lines of the overlapping label grid and also some of the gloss drip tracks, some of this resonating with the bar codes on the label sheet. Had attitudes to people with mental health difficulties and intellectual disabilities not changed, I’ve no doubt someone would be considering the advantages of QR codes by now, bar codes being so last century.

The new strips of text, fragmented and some of it oriented vertically or placed discontiguously, are from two previously unpublished short stories, each drawing on experience working in mental health settings.

I have added a further layer of gloss varnish with a view to addressing the background or context for all these people in their historical cells with no way of knowing they have neighbours.

Adjustments made in PhotoLeap.

This is very dramatic, completely changing the tone into something much more urban and sinister. The additional glitches fracture the image in ways that could possibly be replicated in the physical object by collaging sections of photographed layers.

18th May. Yesterday’s work changed the nature of the primary image completely by emphasising the windows through which the collaged pieces are peering and making them look increasingly like cells. Using my go-to technique when I have a gloss surface covered in paint, I scrubbed some of it off, added more, deepened some colours, and arrived at the end of the day with something that reminded me of a plan for a video game – tracks, and rooms, and probably challenges that get you access or keep you working on finding the next level. The new spaces also brought to mind comics with the action largely confined to boxes but often leaking out to interfere with the next box or even the next page. And as if that were not enough, there seem to be bricks there with dirty gutter water running through worn channels in the pointing. There’s a lot that I like about it and although I know it will be a good basis for a video with greenscreen projections of the old photos, I want it also to stand alone.

The mess around the windows is deliberate. I’ve used paint peeled off my palette and glued to the surface as a raw symbol of the party flags and open days that hid the horrors behind the doors of these places. One woman told me she had been tied to a post for three days in the middle of the ward for throwing a fork. I saw a man being given his soup, main meal, pudding, and cup of tea all at once in the same bowl. Toilets were lines of holes in a plank across a constantly flushing drain. The life expectancy of someone with Downs in the 1980s was 25-35 years, an improvement on the early 1900s when it was around four. People in posh frocks came to visit once a year and only the ‘trained patients’ were allowed anywhere near them. So much wasted talent and life force. And this, showing what we’ve deliberately stifled, is Sarah Gordy, actor, giving a TEDX Talk in 2013:

So these are the windows; the rooms in the game, the levels you need to achieve to advance and from which so many were excluded; inhumanity masked by pretty flags and cups of tea.

The appalling gala days, which had been essential fundraisers for these places before the NHS took over the responsibility but which often carried on afterwards out of habit and patronage, must have settled in my mind next to the pack of union flags on the tiny sticks you skewer cheese with that I’d bought with a view to making something less ordinary for the forthcoming Jubilee. My lane is going big on this with the full road closure, a band, and games, so a bit of arty partyness feels obligatory and I have paper plates and cups too. I was mulling this alongside the No/rmal piece and …

The flags mark the British institutions that perpetrated the warehousing of thousands, moving from the Victorian farms with a work ethic that suited many to the desolate places with no direction and no way of leaving. Often the staff were as trapped as the residents, working barely overlapping A and B shifts that covered night and day and with no real sense of doing much more than keeping people alive to put screws in boxes. No wonder there was brutality in these places.

I may drape some fairy lights over it tonight to ice the seedy cake.

This is the PhotoMirage workspace with motion (blue arrows), stop boundaries (red squares), and freeze areas (red block markings).

I discovered the feather option in the freeze marker. At its finest setting, it makes marks like scratches so you can use the large marker to freeze then use the eraser version to scratch moving parts into it, or use the fine feather to make tiny frozen areas in the midst of movement.

And with lights …

This is Banksy’s Dismaland and I really really like it! The photo was taken in the dark with just the LED lights and the iPhone13 camera’s automatic low light adjustment. The lights and sharply defined flags are, as I’d hoped, incongruous counterpoints to the grimy unstimulating conditions of the institutions in their later days, and represent the disconnect between those conditions and the fund raising open days.

It’s important to remember, though, that they were still people’s homes and, like the men from Darenth Park we finally listened to, they had attachments and sometimes valued roles. One man had been an assistant in the mechanics’ shop and he was the only one who knew how to fix another resident’s electric wheelchair in their new residential home. He missed his unpaid job. Another was part of the hospital’s fire service.

Value also came from less palatable sources, like the men who refused to do their own cleaning and cooking because that was work for ‘low grades’ and they were ‘high grades’. These places had been towns; isolated communities who made their own fun, found their own place, and lived their own lives with little intervention from the outside world, and when we came along to bring people ‘back’ to places they had sometimes never lived, offering shiny new homes and independence, it disrupted their entire social hierarchy and way of life.

Cropped and tidied up round the edges in Paintshop Pro.

This is the finished video, a dark piece with the images used in the collage appearing through one or more of the windows via greenscreen. The audio is Sgt Wise, licensed by Epidemic Sounds and downloaded in stems so that I could choose parts rather than the whole musical composite. I wanted something ostensibly cheery to reflect the open days, but with the capacity to be slightly hollow, so I picked the whistled melody and the drums, kicking the drums in a little after the melody and leaving them on their own towards the end, which is deliberately sudden. Normally, I merge and blend transitions across images and sounds to make these move smoothly, but there was nothing smooth and blended about life in these places so transitions are abrupt. The audio also makes for a repetitive drive and that too is deliberate, a reflection of the tedium many residents and staff felt as the day’s routines ground along year after year.


*Many of the labels now regarded as offensive were once medical terminology and some have fallen so far away from their original application – idiot, cretin, and imbecile, for instance – that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone objecting to them.

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