Visit to BowHaven April 2019

The Art group at Bowhaven has been running for 5 years, ably steered and tutored over that time by Richard Blades whose dream it was and remains to give everyone the opportunity to find art and creativity as a form of self expression and respite from the burdens of mental illness. People come here to find a new way of looking at themselves and the world. The participants are from all kinds of backgrounds and are mostly local residents, either referred from their health care givers or signposted by other organisations.

Many of the people I spoke to on my visit to Bowhaven in April 2019 give a story of transformation. 'I come here feeling sad and I leave a lot lighter', says Martin who is working on a carefully crafted mosaic of a fish made of colourful stones on a bright red tile background. 'I was in and out of hospital for years and I haven't been there for a very long time now'. 'So what makes the difference?', I ask. 'We help each other', he replies. 'Everyone here really knows what it is to be in a dark place. And with all respect to the doctors, they don't always know that. For them it is just theory..'. He continues, 'We are all pieces in a jigsaw puzzle and we are meant to fit together'. A rather apt description for a man who makes mosaics, I thought. I can see what he means though. There are people here from different nations, backgrounds, genders and age groups all working harmoniously. Richard has deliberately cultivated a model which is universal and open to all, without divisions.

The atmosphere of acceptance and calm is soothing, Everyone at a desk or easel works away in their own space but at the same time, the space is shared and open. It feels very safe. Occasionally someone gets up to fetch something or make a cup of tea and stops to admire another's work, commenting with a word of encouragement or identification with the subject being painted or drawn. Ideas and suggestions can be shared without fear of judgement. This element of learning to give and receive feedback seems very important to the growth of self confidence.

Richard doesn't like to be prescriptive. 'If you ask everyone to all draw a single object, then you introduce an unhelpful element of comparison or competition. Those who are already vulnerable to self criticism quickly feel inadequate and shut down', he says. 'I like to foster an open view, where everyone choses their own subject and their own way of representing it. There is no right or wrong here'. Never the less, the artists are also here to learn and there was universal appreciation for Richard's watchful eye, his direction and teaching of fine art skills. 'It is about slow confidence building through trial and error,' he explains, 'about discovering their own hopes and dreams within their own journey to discover what is possible. Sometimes, they learn that if something goes wrong, they can paint over it or start afresh'. I remark that it appears to be a good metaphor for life and note that I am beginning to glimpse how the tangible action of erasing, correcting or reworking unhelpful elements in the picture also helps people have the confidence to rewrite their lives.

'It can be important to focus on one aspect from which other things can radiate'. For Steve it was about having somewhere to come and feel different from how he felt outside. A friend of his committed suicide and it tipped him into deep depression. Through the group, he slowly found a reason to see something positive in life. When I talked to him he was creating a poster to signpost the group. He showed me a beautiful mosaic he had already made for the same purpose. He seemed genuinely surprised that he had found it possible to be so creative but he was adamant that he wouldn't have been able to do this without this nurturing community.

Continuity is clearly also a vital ingredient of the positive effect on the artists. The regularity of the time, the venue, the participants, Richard himself, engenders a rhythm, a sense of stability in an increasingly unstable and often bewildering world.

More than one person I spoke to testified as to how the group had helped them stay alive during dark times. For all it is a highlight of their week, if not the highlight.

Finally I am taken by Chris to the gallery of work produced by the artists. These works are both hung around the centre and displayed outside in the foyer of the Community Hall which houses Bowhaven and a GP practice; a kindly juxtaposition of complimentary approaches to health and wellbeing. There is a wealth of human experience and expression here; paintings of animals, natural scenes, portraits and abstract works mingled together to create a display reminiscent of the Royal Academy's Summer exhibition. It is uplifting and humbling and I leave with a sense of joy at the triumph of the human spirit and the opportunity and beauty that can emerge from vulnerability and even pain when people journey together.

We should be less afraid.

Written by Naomi Beer, trustee

Read more about BowHaven here.

The Beer-Harris Memorial Trust (formerly The Dominic Beer Memorial Trust) is a registered charity in England (1155652)