Artful Asylum

Benjamin Rostance and Peter Gascoigne, drawing from Peter’s Asylum, 2021.
Photograph by Underhill Creative @underhillcreative

Struggling with mental health can significantly affect how an individual develops and functions at school, home and within the community. Aside from the symptomatic effects of mental illness, the overarching stigma around mental illness and neurodiversity, makes the need for empathy and education about mental illness imperative. Learning disabilities and mental health conditions are both neurologically-based processing problems. Both a holistic and scientific approach to treating mental health and supporting neurodiverse learners is essential in many integrated societies, where individuals are suffering from a lack of equal, equitable and accessible healthcare and educational opportunities and resources.

On a personal note, I have been living with OCD and pure-O that has affected me for as long as I can remember. At the age of 6, I was officially diagnosed by a mental health professional and began treatment via medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. One main reason for me being diagnosed was because of the difficulty I was having at school. Initially, I had trouble finding solace and success within the school environment. The typical structure of the curriculum and social scenarios between my educators, classmates and myself, made school a stressful and regressive space prior to seeking treatment. Despite my aptitude for academics, my OCD distracted me from many of the educational tasks at hand. I have been blessed to have such patient and skilled teachers (including my mother, aunt and grandmother) who recognized the need to differentiate the course content and social atmosphere inside and outside the classroom, so that I could thrive as a student and grow as a person. To this day, I have had to develop strategies for managing bouts of severe OCD and intrusive anxious thoughts. Making and viewing art is generally cathartic and calming at once. I recently recorded a candid video in my studio (watch it here) where I discuss the impetus behind a body of work that I call Brainy/Out Damned Spot. Making work about my own mental health experiences helps me express my abstract thoughts and feelings in a manner that is explicit and helps others understand what I am going through.

Art is both a strong coping mechanism and medium for addressing mental health related issues. The myriad of combined art and mental health initiatives and frameworks, is indicative of artistic immersion being helpful for many different people who struggle with mental health and learning disabilities. Furthermore, studies have shown that when art classes and activities are included in school curricula, students are more eager to come to school and perform better in all their academic subjects (see: Bowen and Kisida, 2019). When art is included in mental health and medical treatment, it also has significant benefits on our overall well-being (see: Stuckley and Noble, 2010).

Peter’s Asylum in situ within King Edwards Park, formerly the site of Sneinton Asylum.
Photograph by Underhill Creative @underhillcreative

Benjamin Rostance is a working class artist from the United Kingdom. His art communicates personal and collective concepts and experiences related to healthcare and our social, physical and cognitive well-being. Rostance recently completed a collaborative work of art called Peter’s Asylum as part of the Nottingham Asylum Project at BACKLIT gallery in Nottingham, UK. The project features work by several artists like Rostance who explore the historical humanitarian aspects of the Sneinton Asylum, the first psychiatric county hospital in the United Kingdom. After operating for 90 years, Sneinton Asylum closed in 1902. It was reconverted into boarding school and later redeveloped as a public park, which is a contemporary staple and source of respite to the local community. The Nottingham Asylum Project setting plays with the meaning of the word asylum. The dated use of the terminology, refers to an “institution offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill.” More aptly, the word asylum has an intersectional meaning. It is at once an environment, a state of mind and a state of being that seeks to protect and nurture our safety and positive development.

Peter working on Peter’s Asylum. Courtesy of Benjamin Rostance.

To create, Peter’s Asylum, Rostance collaborated with Peter Gascoigne, an artist from Nottingham who identifies as having a learning disability. Through intimate conversations and artmaking activities, Rostance prompted and encouraged Peter to produce a uniquely personal visualization of the Sneinton Asylum. Rostance and Gascoigne already had a working relationship prior to this collaboration. Rostance’s profession outside of the arts is in healthcare as a support worker, and Peter is one of the individuals that he works with in that setting. Rostance’s experience in providing differentiated practical and emotional support to individuals was integral to the activities that culminated in the creation of Peter’s Asylum. The project ensured that Gascoigne’s support plan was being followed, while empowering him to communicate deeply critical and creative insights about mental health and what good self and communal care might look like. Rostance reflects that “The aim of the project is to effectively demonstrate how modern care work and techniques are used to support people with a learning disability in the modern age.” He is hopeful that Peter’s Asylum “highlights and celebrates the progress made in the care sector when juxtaposed with the practices undertaken at the Nottingham County Asylum during the nineteenth century.”  

A major step in the progression for better and more humane care, comes from experiential education initiatives. Rostance’s work with Peter is significant of a learner-centered and holistic approach to finding an empirical solution that profoundly communicates a complex issue like neurologically-based processing problems. Through researching past and present practices of mental health care in the UK and using art to respond to what they uncovered, Rostance and Gascoigne present a positive and reassuring approach for expressing our intersectional identities and the need to develop differentiated support and care for one another.

You can read the step-by-step process that Benjamin Rostance and Peter Gascoigne undertook and watch a video documentary of parts of the process in action.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bowen, Daniel H. and Kisida, Brian. “New evidence of the benefits of arts education.” Brown Center Chalkboard, 12 Febuary 2019.

Stuckey, Heather L, and Nobel, Jeremy. “The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature.” American journal of public health vol. 100,2 (2010): 254-63. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

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