All in the mind

The links between creativity and mental wellbeing are long established, but complex. Some of the participants in this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival talked to Susan Mansfield about what making art means for them
Not Alone Collective, Truth to Power

It’s hard to choose which aspect of Out of Sight Out of Mind is most remarkable. It could be the fact that the exhibition brings together some 160 artworks over three floors at Summerhall, in Edinburgh. Or that all of them are the work of people with lived experience of mental ill-health. Or that this gargantuan show is curated by a team of ten who seem to work together in an atmosphere of calm and mutual consideration.

Out of Sight Out of Mind is a respected annual exhibition in its own right and one of the biggest shows in this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF). Stretching through most of October, the Festival is a platform for performances, exhibitions, workshops and discussions, for presenting work, challenging perceptions, campaigning for change and generally exploring the overlap between creativity and mental wellbeing. This year’s theme is Revolution.

Amy Donegani, Untitled
Amy Donegani, Untitled

Visual art is a central element, from an exhibition presenting the important work of British outsider artist Mary Barnes, to a show by grassroots activists the Not Alone Collective, challenging the status quo on mental health treatment.

While the connections between creativity and mental health are well documented, they are rarely straightforward. Art can be therapeutic, challenging, cathartic or a struggle, a way to have your voice heard, or to express your most intimate thoughts for yourself alone. Or it might be none of these things. But, for some, it is a lifeline. Artist Christian Robb, who is taking part in Out of Sight Out of Mind this year for the second time, says: “For me, art is my only saviour, it’s the only place where I get any kind of solace.”

Robb works in a range of media, from detailed drawings to expressive paintings made with oil bar and now also photography. He says: “I can do very detailed draughtsmanship but I find it irritates my mental health because when you’ve spent 17 hours doing fine lines, you start to feel anxious because you can ruin it. In terms of painting, my favourite is oil bar. I work fast, painting with my fingers, it makes me feel I’m a kid playing in mud.”

Another member of the planning team, Alan Armstrong, started making art after being diagnosed with autism and ADHD four years ago. He says: “I’ve navigated myself into being an abstract artist since the diagnosis. It seems that the imagination and creativity was unblocked after I started taking medication to control the ADHD. I’m so excited about this exhibition, I’m buzzin’ like an old fridge!”

Armstrong makes canvases and sculptures from plastics which would otherwise end up in landfill. He says: “When I’m producing these pieces of art, I get this sense of calm, this sense of belonging. That moment will transcend into a better mindset during that week or that month.”

Lauren Stonebanks has been a member of the planning group since the exhibition started 11 years ago, as well as being a regular exhibitor. Over the years, her work has included repurposed clocks, a series of Barbie dolls expressing aspects of her life, and even a kicked-in front door. This year, she has made a scale model of a guillotine, in keeping with SMHAF’s Revolution theme.

She says: “I find that when I put art in the show, it explains things [about my life] to people better than things I can in words. People say that after interacting with my art they understand things they have never understood before.”

Out of Sight Out of Mind is run by a volunteer planning group, supported by advocacy organisation CAPS. Pam van de Brug, Arts as Advocacy Manager for CAPS, says the show has no agenda, no single message to communicate. “Some people’s artworks are about mental health and others are about all sorts of other things, their views on politics, or the view outside their window, or they could be part of existing art practices.

“We don’t select the artworks, and all the art is curated equally, so a small pencil drawing made by someone who has never made art before will be curated with the same care as something else which is made by a practising artist.

“We don’t tell people why they should take part, and they take part for all sorts of reasons. You might have something to say to the world. You might just like the idea of being in an exhibition at Summerhall. It’s all about the people who take part, we just create this platform and make it as good as we can.”

Artwork by Jamie King
Artwork by Jamie King

Natalie Kemp, 'L'Alba'
Natalie Kemp, ‘L’Alba’

Meanwhile, Don McJimpsey, arts co-ordinator and project lead for the exhibition Inside Outsider at Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Edinburgh, is aiming to address a particular set of misconceptions around mental health professionals who have themselves experienced mental ill-health.

A trainee art psychotherapist at Queen Margaret University, who has lived experience of mental ill-health herself, McJimpsey came up with the idea after doing a presentation on the subject, and has put the show together with the support of the organisation in2gr8mentalhealth CIC. All those taking part are professionals – counsellors, psychologists, social workers and others in related fields – who have experienced mental struggle.

“This is a difficult area for professionals to be open about because they fear their fitness to practise will be questioned,” she says. “I wanted to see if we could contribute to challenging this false belief that only certain people can develop mental health difficulties. I hope that can lead to systemic change, where the lived experience of practitioners can be valued and we can use that to help people coming into the service for support and care.

“I hope it will challenge the view that mental ill-health is located in ‘the other’, because it can actually happen to any one of us, regardless of the status we may have in society. My view is that it is a normal part of being human.”

“I wanted to see if we could contribute to challenging this false belief that only certain people can develop mental health difficulties.” Don McJimpsey, arts co-ordinator

She believes visual art is a powerful way to explore these ideas. “It can evoke emotions and senses which the written word can’t do. I also feel that it can be safer than the spoken word, because words can be heard as something different from what was intended. Art opens up more questioning, more wondering, more curiosity.”

Artwork by Tim Kirman
Artwork by Tim Kirman

The power of the image is also key to Graham Williams’ project, Talk, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which aims to encourage conversations about mental health, particularly between men. Williams, who is a photographer and graphic designer, has suffered from anxiety and depression since his teens. “In the last couple of years I’ve turned a bit of a corner. I started to feel better within myself, and wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone, do a project that could help some other people along the way.”


He began to make photographic portraits of men with lived experience of mental health difficulties while listening to their stories, and posting the words and pictures on Instagram (@talkportraits). Now, a selection of these will be exhibited for the first time, and Williams plans to continue the project.

He says: “I only started talking about my own mental health about a year and a half ago, and I realised how much of a help it can be reaching out and chatting to someone. It has been such a cathartic process just to meet these guys, to talk, create this safe space for people to open up. It has been a bit of therapy along the way!


“These things are spoken about more now, which is good, but there’s still that stigma, men feeling that they have to be the man in the house, not show emotions. A recurring theme through the project is guys saying they bottled stuff up for so long because they couldn’t talk about it. We’re going in the right direction, we just need to keep talking.”

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has a wide-ranging programme which also includes workshops and resources for those with lived experience of mental ill-health. SMHAF, Oct 4-22, across Scotland, see; Out of Sight Out of Mind, Oct 10-29, Summerhall,; Inside Outsider, Oct 11-19, Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Edinburgh; Talk, Oct 13-29, Scottish Storytelling Centre (in collaboration with the Scottish International Storytelling Festival)

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