‘Gather’ was the chosen theme for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2022. Bringing people together has always been vital to our work. We use the arts to connect communities, reduce social isolation, and challenge mental health stigma.
After two years of social distancing, though, what does it mean to gather? Does it mean something different now? How does sharing a space affect our mental health and our experience of art? And when we can’t – or choose not to – come together physically, how else can we gather in a way that is inclusive?
To explore these ideas, we commissioned five artists to create new work that could be exhibited online. The commissions range from a downloadable knitting pattern to short films about LGBTQIA+ mental health and living with a serious chronic health condition.
The commissioned artists are Jo Chukualim, Esther Rutter, Catherine Grosvenor, Drew Taylor-Wilson, and Bibo and Brian Keeley. Explore their work below.
About the Artists
Jo Chukualim is a visual artist whose work interrogates the idea of identity and its connection with psychology and mental health. Jo will create a series of photographic images featuring figures coming together in a series of positions inspired by dance. Jo says:
“For me, ‘to gather’ means strong emotional connection. It means to feel safe and to feel heard. In recent years, I experienced more intensely what it means to gather in public spaces if you were from a marginalised group and it deeply affected my mental health. At the climax of this emotional breakdown came the pandemic, so there’s now very little desire to be around people physically just for the sake of it. The number of deaths I’ve witnessed in my family in such a short space of time means that I feel more emotionally connected to those I love. Worrying about their wellbeing almost consumes me so there is a lack of energy for anything that’s not ‘filling my cup,’ so to speak. I hope to inspire the viewer to embrace what gathering means to them right now, whatever it may look like, and be open to what it represents for others.”
Esther Rutter is a writer, knitter, and knitwear designer based in Fife. Esther will deliver a complete, illustrated, and graded knitting pattern, including information on the context and history of knitting techniques used and practical guidance for making the garment. During the festival she will spend a day facilitating online engagement with the pattern, using Instagram, Twitter, and the free-to-use craft website Ravelry. The pattern will remain free to download after the festival. Esther says:
“‘To knit’ literally means ‘to bind together’, and as a writer, knitting historian and knitwear designer I am fascinated by the ways knitting not only builds communities, but is an accessible and widely practiced art form that has a 200-year history of being used therapeutically in the treatment of mental illness. My design will be informed by my own experience of mental illness – which included being sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric hospital – and will therefore reflect not only Scotland’s knitting heritage, but also the material culture of Japan.”
Catherine Grosvenor is a part-time writer and full-time parent, based in south-west Scotland. She will create a short film to accompany a piece of creative non-fiction which explores her shifting ideas about the countryside and the positive and negative effects it has had on her mental health. Catherine says:
“Many people think of the countryside as a place of peace and refuge. But it can also be isolating, harsh and unforgiving. When I moved here a few years ago, I became badly depressed. But as well as the isolation, the nature here has its own kind of gatherings to offer – of rooks, of trees, of spring flowers. I’ve come to find comfort in these things. The countryside also gives me space to gather myself – my thoughts, my courage, my strength – as I try and find the right balance of solitude and company for myself. I hope my piece will be gentle, kind and encouraging for others who may be going through difficult times.”
Drew Taylor-Wilson is a theatre director, playwright, facilitator, and co-director of Sanctuary Queer Arts. Drew will create a short visual film with poetic text about what it means to gather in safe spaces when those spaces are under threat, inaccessible or closed due to lockdown. Drew says:
“The mental health of queer people during this period of isolation has dipped horribly and I count myself within that demographic. I want to make a film that looks at what it means to gather, the safety you feel gathering in queer-centric places, and the impact the pandemic has had when these spaces to gather have been closed, when they present absolutely vital sanctuaries in such a dark time.”
Bibo and Brian Keeley make work rooted in the shared experiences of Brian’s critical illness and heart transplant in 2013, and the impact this continues to have on their lives. They will create a short performance-based moving image work exploring presence and absence, belonging and exclusion, and their continued sense of disorientation and anxiety at a time when gatherings are being re-normalised in ways that they are excluded from. They say:
“Brian’s vital medications suppress the immune system to prevent organ rejection. But this leaves the body vulnerable to infections which for most people may be insignificant but for him could lead to life-threatening complications. This became more acute during the Covid-19 pandemic and was further increased after the introduction of vaccines because the powerful immuno-suppressing medications also inhibit the efficacy of the vaccines. So, with potentially little or no protection from Covid-19, despite having four vaccination doses, there is no end in sight for those who are immuno-compromised. To avoid putting Brian at risk, both of us continue to observe very strict Covid-19 safety measures which increases our sense of marginalisation and isolation.”
Gather is supported by Creative Scotland.