To mark the opening of Rebirth & Revolution: The Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes, Kirsty Anne Watters sat down with Dr Cheryl McGeachan to discuss Barnes’ legacy as an artist and her experiences as a resident of R.D. Laing’s radical experiment at Kingsley Hall.
Mary Barnes was an artist first and foremost but she was also a woman who lived with schizophrenia and experienced psychosis, amongst other symptoms, a fact that is interwoven throughout her work. At Kingsley Hall, much of the focus was on recovery and “rebirth”, an idea which was explored throughout the controversial experiment.
“Life is creativity”
“Life is creativity,” Dr McGeachan muses near the start of our interview. A poignant statement that I feel captures the essence of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.
Dr McGeachan is a human geographer at the University of Glasgow, studying the lived worlds of mental health, in the past, in the present and in the future.
I began our discussion with a question about Mary Barnes’ connection to Kingsley Hall and what it means to her and the world of mental health.
Mary Barnes, she admits, was always “on the margins” of her work. Much of Dr McGeachan’s research centred around R.D. Laing as a psychiatrist and central figure to the experiment. This meant that her reading about Barnes and her creative work often covered the most extreme stories (such as Barnes painting using her own excrement). “I find that quite, quite shocking but within the context of Kingsley Hall being this revolutionary space, which actually was quite an ordinary space, but it has all these extraordinary stories.”
“It wasn’t really until I started to see the kind of artwork that [Barnes] was producing, that I felt really connected to her,” she says.
“I felt really connected to her.”
This year the theme of the festival is ‘revolution’. I ask Dr McGeachan if she thinks we need a mental health revolution and what would this look like?
“Yes.” she answers, firmly, adding, “Do I think we’ll get one? Yes”.
Breaking down stigma can be hard.
We discuss how the reality of long term mental illnesses is that they are not going away and how people with those illnesses navigate the world. “I think we could make those interactions kinder, more caring and more accessible,” Dr McGeachan affirms. This, of course, needs buy-in from the people in power. Dr McGeachan agrees stating, “A political revolution is needed”.
I then moved on to my favourite topic of discussion; what is the correlation between art, creativity, and mental health recovery? Mary Barnes really drew attention to this through her paintings and work with psychoanalysts.
Ever the academic, Dr McGeachan informed me that there have been studies that have shown that a lot of the connection is down to socialisation and finding community through artistic endeavours.
There’s also something around making art to “get things out”. Art can be therapy as well as self-expression. “Sadness and suffering can be shared. And I think once it’s shared, there’s a big sense of relief”.
For Barnes, art was a salvation and helped her to move toward recovery. AgaWe again discuss the creative nature of human beings; in a world not set up for creatives, art is able to add aspects to ourselves we can’t express elsewhere. She emphasises art as a tool for survival stating “We all have to survive, don’t we? We have to.”
“We all have to survive, don’t we?”
Moving on to the exhibition itself, I ask Dr McGeachan about the themes of crucifixion, resurrection, and Mary’s deep connection to nature. Is nature, for example, linked to recovery?
“I think people are often grounding themselves in that sort of earthly sense of who they are, when everything’s too hard to hold on to, nature is still still there.”
Artists, like the residents of Kingsley Hall, often work with what they have in front of them, painting, for example, what they saw out of the window. We see this in art time and time again.
“Recovery is a rebirth”
As a person with bipolar disorder, I can attest that recovering from a period of mental illness feels like being reborn. Perhaps why this theme is so prevalent within Mary Barne’s work, as seen in the exhibition.
When is Mary’s time?
Finally, I ask Dr McGeehan, how widely does Mary Barnes’ work influence the scope of mental health and art in her centenary year?
Mary is an iconic figure but for many she remains unknown. More often than not, she is talked about through the lens of her therapist, R.D. Laing and Kingsley Hall.
Dr McGeachan agrees that the medical model around mental health means Mary Barnes and her art have often been sidelined. “I think for me having a display that’s all about Mary, all about her as a woman as an individual with lots of different facets to our character is really inspirational.” We agree we would like to see more stories like this being told, as the power of lived experience cannot be understated.
There’s been more coverage and awareness of Barnes’ life and legacy in her centenary year – but we hope that this is just the beginning!
Kirsty Anne Watters is a writer, mental health volunteer and policy assistant from Glasgow. She has bipolar disorder and often uses her writing to help cope with her condition. You can find more of Kirsty’s work on Instagram.
Rebirth and Recovery: The Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes
Visit this exhibition of Mary Barnes’ work at The ARC, University of Glasgow, daily until Saturday 21 October.
There is also a special online event to celebrate this programme, featuring Elena Carter and Melanie Grant, from the Wellcome Collection; playwright David Edgar, psychotherapist Ephraim Rosenstein, and the exhibition’s curator Victoria Tischler.
Image: Rebirth & Revolution: The Life and Legacy of Mary Barnes at the ARC (c. Ingrid Mur)