As part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, the University of Glasgow hosted Rebirth and Revolution: the Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes to mark the artist and mental health campaigner’s centenary year.
At the launch of the exhibition, a panel of experts gave a series of talks to contextualise her journey in art and recovery, from its beginnings at R.D. Laing’s controversial therapeutic community at Kingsley Hall, and how her legacy continues to have an influence in the present day.
Listen to this podcast by Talking Heads volunteer Sarah Visser, which uses audio clips from the event to explore the long and winding road that is the history of mental healthcare and how Mary’s story can inspire the use of creativity to promote recovery.
Listen in on the Conversation: A Creative Revolution in Mental Healthcare
Sarah Visser is a Talking Heads volunteer living in Glasgow. Having recently graduated with a Masters in Neuroscience and Mental Health, she is pursuing a career in the mental health field and is interested in the intersection of art, environment, and mental wellbeing.
Sarah: The history of mental health care follows a long and winding road with many obstacles faced and missteps placed along the way. In the 18th and 19th centuries asylums were the main model of mental health care propagating the stigma that mentally ill individuals were a danger to society and should be kept, locked away. These were places of isolation and confinement often subjecting the patients to cruel treatments that provided no real benefits or support for recovery. Over the course of the 1900s research about the brain began to provide some insight into disorders of the mind, causing a shift in the treatment of mental illness. This was the context during which Kingsley Hall was founded in 1965, a time when radical movements were taking place over all aspects of society including mental health care.
Founded by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, Kingsley Hall is often described as a radical experiment in anti-psychiatry. It was a psychiatric treatment community that aimed to revolutionise the model of mental health care, vastly different from the asylums of decades past. Freedom, meditation and therapy were embraced in place of confinement, anti-psychotic medication and inhumane brain surgeries.
Therapists and patients alike inhabited Kingsley Hall, although there were no locks on the doors and residents could come and go as they pleased. Mary Barnes was the first of such residents at Kingsley Hall and perhaps its greatest success story.
Mary was born in England in 1923. She grew up to become a trained nurse working in hospitals in Egypt and Palestine during World War Two, and continuing her nursing career in London after the war. In 1952, she experienced her first mental health crisis and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was then that her journey through mental illness and recovery began.
This journey would lead her to seek treatment at Kingsley Hall in 1965, where she discovered her artistic talents. It was through her art and creative expression that Mary found a path to recovery, painting her experiences living with mental illness. After leaving Kingsley Hall in 1970, she became a respected artist and mental health activist, traveling the world accompanying her art exhibitions with lectures about her experiences and the benefits of mental health care. She later moved to Scotland where she continued to paint prolifically until her death in 2001.
As part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, the University of Glasgow hosted a carefully curated exhibition of Mary’s works, entitled, Rebirth and Revolution: the Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes. At the launch of the exhibition, 100 years after her birth, a panel of experts discussed how Mary’s story can inspire the use of creativity to promote recovery in modern mental health care.
The panelists included, Professor Victoria Tischler, a chartered psychologist and Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Surrey; Dr. Cheryl McGeachan a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow; Dr. Alan Beveridge, a retired psychiatrist and picture editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry; and Dr. Drew Walker, an artist researcher who created Falling Up Together, a charity that works within an innovative model of therapeutic health care. Professor Victoria Tischler introduced the exhibition:
Professor Victoria Tischler: When I saw Mary’s work, I was immediately struck by the emotional intensity of it. The strong symbolism related to mental breakdown, to recovery and to the power of human connection, and the distinctive, heavy application of paint with her fingers.
The exhibition, Rebirth and Revolution uses Mary’s creative output from her time at Kingsley Hall, the genesis of her rebirth as an artist. The exhibition and its associated events aim to introduce Mary and her work to a new audience and to remind others of her importance as an artist, a writer, and as a mental health activist.
Mary said that her art restored her and brought her back to life, and through her creativity she was transformed from a patient into an artist. She also used her art to raise awareness of the importance of creativity to her own mental health and wellbeing, and also advocated for its use for others, which I think was truly revolutionary at the time and remains so.
Sarah: The relationship between creativity, mental illness and recovery has a long history, of which Dr Alan Beveridge gave a brief overview:
Dr Alan Beveridge: In the 18th century Benjamin Rush an American doctor, sometimes called the father of psychiatry observed that sometimes people, once they became mentally ill, showed creative powers that weren’t obvious when, they were well. So people were aware towards the end of the 18th century, about a possible link.
In the 19th century some asylum doctors took interest in the role of art in mental illness. And although the asylum was usually portrayed as an oppressive institution in Victorian times, there were some asylum doctors, as I say, interested in the art of their patients. And in Scotland, there was W. A. F. Brown at Dumfries who encouraged patients to paint. He felt it helped them in their recovery.
In the beginning of the twentieth century a Swiss psychiatrist, Walter Morgenthaler, wrote a book length account of a psychiatric patient, who was very disturbed and needed an awful lot of care in the asylum until it was discovered if he was given art materials he became much more settled, and then he devoted the next few decades of his life to creating this vast world, both in art and music.
And Dr. Leo Navratil, who wrote a book in 1965 called Schizophrenia and Art, in which he maintained that schizophrenia itself had an inherent creativity, and this creativity was the seeds of recovery.
Sarah: It’s clear that creativity can be a powerful tool in mental health care. But how exactly can art help in the process of recovery? Each of the panelists provided a unique perspective to help answer this question. As Dr Cheryl McGeachen explained:
Dr Cheryl McGeachan: Art in this form, you may call it outsider art, therapeutic art, or any kind of term that you might want to use, has an acute ability to offer a way in to understand the lived experience of the worlds that they inhabit. And this, in my experience of working with such pieces and with such collections, is particularly vital for our understanding of mental ill health.
Mary’s work is an important example of how art and the process of creativity can offer a way into understanding the most challenging lived worlds of mental ill health. Particularly in relation to Mary’s experiences of severe or enduring mental ill health, which is often still marginalised and rarely accounted. The vivid and raw nature of her work gives access to the pain, suffering and challenge that mental ill health and the complex processes of recovery can bring, and also sheds an important light on the varied spaces and places where art of this kind is being produced. And these insights into such spaces where art, creativity and mental health collide have much to tell us about the wider landscapes of mental health care, such as the fractured nature of our health care systems and the alternative forms of therapeutic and caring relations that take place.
Sarah: Professor Tischler added some insight from her own work:
Professor Victoria Tischler: There’s growing evidence from my own and other people’s research that a range of art forms, from painting, music, poetry and drama, can improve our mood, our memory, our attention, and speech fluency. Participating in cultural and artistic activities can also reduce social isolation and provide a conduit to communicate difficult or traumatic experiences.
Art can be used to raise awareness of healthcare conditions and also to reduce stigma, which is still, sadly, really important in terms of mental ill health. My own research focuses on the mental health of older people and I can report really promising findings. Working with those with dementia in care homes and clinical settings in terms of providing cognitive stimulation, reducing responsive behaviours such as wandering and calling out repeatedly, and enhancing communication between those with dementia and those who support them.
Sarah: But as Dr Beveridge explained, the therapeutic benefits of art are different for each individual.
Dr Alan Beveridge: I think you’d have to have the caveat that it doesn’t work for everybody. For some people, getting involved in their inner world of artistic visions can be difficult, it can be disturbing.
But for a lot of people, especially, we’re talking about people who maybe have not created anything before they became mentally ill, it can be a source of purpose, a source of dealing with inner demons, or making sense of things. It can sometimes give a person a position.
Sarah: Dr Walker discussed how creativity and recovery do not always follow parallel paths, relating his own lived experience to Mary’s:
Dr Drew Walker: I find important synergies between Barnes and myself in the following ways: the power of hope, healing and recovery through art, overcoming a personal mental health crisis, the sharing of stories of personal mental illness, advocacy in the mental health and social care field, and the championing for a process integral to one’s treatment, and the importance of nature within art practice. However, unlike Barnes, I absolutely couldn’t create any art at all during the intense three years of my illness, living every day through the unremitting, grueling nature of it. Moreover, none of the 20 medical professionals who treated me explored the connection between the art process and my recovery.
Sarah: This is an important critique of the current model of mental health care, which is vastly different from that which Mary experienced in Kingsley Hall. In the decades since Kingsley Hall shut its doors, scientific research has greatly improved our understanding of psychological illness, leading to the development of modern medications to treat their physiological origins in the brain.
While this has greatly increased the standard of mental health care for those living with mental illness, there’s still a persistent collective sentiment that something is missing. In the well intentioned fight to validate and substantiate these invisible illnesses, has the therapeutic model become too clinical? In the struggle to make space for the science of mental health, have we left any room for the arts?
As Mary exemplifies, creativity can have an immense positive impact on recovery. But although Mary was a success story of Kingsley Hall, many of the treatment practices there were controversial and are now understood to be unethical. Dr Beveridge considered this:
Dr Alan Beveridge: Kingsley Hall was a brave experiment at the time when a lot of psychiatric hospitals were oppressive, authoritarian institutes. But I think that we could also acknowledge the flaws with Kingsley Hall in that the notion of regression therapy, where the patient is allowed to supposedly regress and in, in Mary’s story, she regresses to a baby, really, and smears feces over the walls as people know. And it’s from the smearing of faeces she developed painting, finger painting, and moving on from faeces to paint. But, of course, this created difficulties for other residents in Kingsley Hall with the walls covered in faeces, and there was a debate at the time about what should be done, if anything, about this.
Sarah: Mary’s own therapist Joseph Burke has talked about bathing her, feeding her with a bottle, and hitting her as she continued through regression therapy.
Dr Alan Beveridge: These are practices that we can see why they might have arisen, given the culture. But I think they do raise ethical questions, and I don’t think it’s a kind of therapy that people would happily continue today.
Sarah: If Mary had been treated within today’s therapeutic model, would she have discovered her identity as an artist? It’s impossible to know of course, but it’s important to consider how her creative journey to recovery can help revolutionise modern mental health care. Dr McGeachan highlighted this point:
Dr Cheryl McGeachan: Mary talks about buried selves and the excavating qualities that creativity can bring. And it’s here that I believe revolutionary moments can be found by being braver, bolder, and more attuned to unearthing the stories of lived experience from the creative remains that exist in volumes across the margins. And by really valuing their contributions, we can understand so much more about what it really means to live with mental ill health. And with this unearthed knowledge, we can begin to generate, I think, really hopeful futures of mental health care and research that are built upon these creative foundations that Mary and others have given us.
Sarah: So how can we make room for art in modern mental health care? And what does a holistic therapeutic model look like? Dr Walker based his PhD research around this very question after discovering the Gugging House of Artists, a unique community in Austria.
Dr Drew Walker: The House of Artists is a small scale psychiatric facility where 12 patients live together as a familial group of self-taught artists in a system of holistic processes, transformative community, and socially integrative creativity. They are known internationally as the Gugging Artists. And my PhD focused on Gugging’s processes and structures that support the long term development of recovery lifestyles for people with chronic mental illnesses who have no particular background in art.
Like Barnes, being encouraged to create art in the accepting environment of Kingsley Hall, but to a far greater extent, patients in Gugging experience total immersion within the artistic community. Gugging’s four decades’ long practice has the potential to reassign both the role of art in society and that of society in art. Gugging encompasses a mutually restorative model that is both unorthodox and innovative and I believe that this would deliver unexpected benefits to community and society in Scotland.
Sarah: Inspired by this model, Dr Walker designed a therapeutic methodology called Falling Up.
Dr Drew Walker: Falling up uses multiple modes of creative, and analytical processes to conceptually and visually interrogate art, mental illness and recovery. And in December, 2021, I set up a charity called Falling Up Together (SCIO) to prove the Gugging model for wider dissemination. And this charity facilitates the process of Falling Up Living in Art, directly inspired by the philosophy of Gugging. And every day I work across the full spectrum of well being by mentoring artistic collaborations within culturally integrative structures, the vast majority of participants are self-taught artists.
Sarah: While there’s still a long way to go, innovative therapeutic models like Falling Up and the Gugging methodology set a precedent for holistic mental health care, integrating modern medicine with the long-established relationship between creativity, mental illness and recovery. And, as the Rebirth and Revolution exhibition launch so aptly exemplified, spotlighting artists like Mary Barnes is vitally important to create a space for these discussions to begin, planting the seeds of revolution for the future of mental health care.
Thank you to Professor Victoria Tischler for curating the Rebirth and Revolution: the Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes exhibition and for moderating the panel discussion. Thank you to the panelists for the discussion and to the University of Glasgow for hosting the event.