With an alternative and unorthodox approach to mental health therapy, we meet the rule-breaking duo behind Outsider Gallery
In an unassuming corner of Hornsey, two therapists are leading a quiet revolution to change the way that mental health care is provided, talked about and seen. From the ground floor of the Clarendon Recovery College, last week they launched Outsider Gallery, London’s first mental health art gallery. Every piece of artwork and all of the music that is played in the space was produced during therapy sessions run by Ben Wakeling, a self-trained art therapist and Jon Hall, a former record producer-turned-music therapist. They work both in hospitals and at the centre, providing voluntary therapy sessions. As Jon explained, “We're really trying to get people back on track once they've had an episode in hospital and they come here, to help them to start looking at getting their lives back together – that's where music and art can help.”
Armed with brushes, the pair, along with the help of friends, colleagues and filmmaker Molly Manning Walker, have transformed former therapy rooms into a carefully curated gallery space, with self-portraits, sculpture, and guerilla-style London Underground art filling the frames. Their work has caught the attention of the NHS, who are now funding a year-long project for the pair to provide mental health care provision to young people who might not otherwise be able to gain access to support, “It's going to be about helping people to feel that they can achieve something in their lives and get them back on track”, Halls explains. The gallery itself, as Wakeling qualifies, grew separately – “It’s all beg, borrow and steal, convincing people to take our cause”.
Below, we speak to the pair on the growth of their project, the changing nature of mental health therapy and the incredible impact of Outsider Art.
What were your backgrounds before you came into art therapy?
Ben Wakeling: I was hospitalised in Birmingham years ago and I came back into London and applied for a job working in a centre which supports mental health, to try and help (patients) eat and drink. I'm quite compulsive with my drawing and I ended up drawing on the walls. Within five minutes a few patients crowded around and we were all engaged, which then the staff weren't too happy about – "who's this guy just drawing on my walls?!" (laughs) And there was a guy who was trying to set up something independent but using their facilities, so I went from getting the sack within one week to being employed as "hanging out in the art room", and that built into me getting to draw on walls, and the turnaround, the engagement level, was really high.
Jon Hall: That's when we met. I'd been a record producer, then in a band, and I retrained as a music therapist working at the centre. We found it a really fun thing to do, to get people to come along and do art and music at the same time – some would find music perhaps a bit tricky, they might find it easier to start painting on walls, so we developed this way of working with people through music and art.
Ben Wakeling: That was two years ago and that gave me self-awareness into my history and acknowledging it. I'm not sure why but I took the label, and (decided) "yeah, mental health's fucking awesome." So I started painting it everywhere, going on the streets, just celebrating it rather than being so ashamed of it or not understanding it, which led to wanting me to exhibit people's work. It's all untrained people, people trapped in their own monologue, so for me, it was such a pure way of drawings being done. They're not calculated like other art movements, they didn't understand what they were doing and you can't (say), “I really want to put the work into an exhibition" because they'll just be talking at you about King Charles and being his best friend. They're in their own story and it's constant. And some of those outcomes, whether it's music or art-related, visual marks, are so beautiful and I really wanted to start framing the work, hanging it up and telling my mates. The more I got involved in the arts, the more distant I became from art movements. I didn't realise at the time but there isn't a mental health gallery in London or a dedicated space for mental health.
“It’s all untrained people, people trapped in their own monologue, so for me, it was such a pure way of drawings being done” – Ben Wakeling
When did the idea for the gallery come about?
Ben Wakeling: Years ago. I think late 2013. I came out of hospital in 2010 – that was two years of my life that I don’t even remember. I went to recuperate in France for a while and started working in this centre in Haringey.
Jon Hall: But what’s great (is) you just ran with it, you just made it happen. There are people talking about how nice it would be maybe to do that, but when you came along you just did it.
Ben Wakeling: Yeah, there was a group of people that accessed that service and I either stole frames or tried to convince people to give me a bit of money to buy frames so I could frame their work and give it to them as a present. When I say stole, maybe I shouldn't say that! (laughs) There was one guy that I worked with and I gave him his painting behind glass in a frame and I was like, "yeah let's hang them up on the wall.” The staff were giving me shit for trying to hang them on the wall and I was like, "ahh I might as well just fucking open a gallery." It just sort of spiralled out of control really quickly. And Jon, he's always backed me and when I met him we started working together. We're quite separate, but I think that's what's good because we've got different pieces so we fit really well. We hang out in one big open room, people playing the drums, people playing the guitar, there's music playing and there are people drawing on the walls and people drawing on themselves. And there was that special moment where I knew that a gallery should come and that I need to work with him to keep that relationship going.
How do you decide what's going on the walls?
Ben Wakeling: No one's being cut, so everyone's got something. Everyone's included.
Do they get a say in what's gone up?
Ben Wakeling: To a degree. But I think that's where the curation comes in.
Jon Hall: We work with so many people and there have been some fantastic things but you've got to get people's permission.
Ben Wakeling: Which is so much red tape, and it's probably for a good reason – a reason I don't understand. I just want to show it all to the public, so there's a full picture of the ecosystem of mental health and their specific therapeutic journeys.
How would you define this art style – would you call it street art?
Ben Wakeling: Within art movements, people understand what they're doing, if you're going out to (do) some street art, you get your permission and plan it out, and your drawing's very considered. (If) you're a fine art student or an abstract student, they're wanting it to look a certain way and (have) a certain effect, "that brush stroke's got to go there", but I think with a patient in psychosis it's an outpouring, it's an uncontrollable, manic urge, so I suppose watching someone in psychosis either make marks or make sounds, is very uncontrollable, unconsidered and it's just an outpouring.
Molly Manning Walker: It's really magical, isn't it?
Ben Wakeling: I think that is so moving because, as I said, with that individual in that state of mind, you can't engage with them and talk about their work or upskill them or try and teach or train them, they're just in their monologue.
Jon Hall: How that feeds into music is sort of interesting because sometimes people can connect through music, and I think what's been amazing about doing the work that I do, the staff and carers, when they see them singing and playing and videos, for them it's an amazing, uplifting feeling (that) it isn't such a gloomy story, you know?
It's uplifting for the people watching, or for the ones doing it?
Jon Hall: It's uplifting for everybody actually, for the staff, the carers and the patients themselves, just to see their well-functioning selves.
Trying to get them to tell their story is (a) way of perhaps unloading it and putting it into a container like a song, so perhaps they become a bit more removed from that so it's not inside them, torturing them.
For some of them is it the case that they didn't realise they could do that, it's the first time they expressed themselves in this way?
Jon Hall: Some of them, yeah. You get lots of people who enjoy rapping and singing – especially young people – but you do find people in hospitals who haven’t sung before and start singing and go "oh, I'm actually quite good" (laughs). A lot of people perhaps hear their voices and look at themselves on camera and might initially think "oh, I hate myself", but because I’ve had a lot of experience producing sound I can give them an experience that feels good.
“With a patient in psychosis it’s an outpouring, it’s an uncontrollable, manic urge, so I suppose watching someone in psychosis either make marks or make sounds, is very uncontrollable, unconsidered...” – Ben Wakeling
Is it a similar thing with the art therapy as well?
Ben Wakeling: No – I still don't understand my process and why at all it works and why the NHS are employing me and now giving us money! There’s a game – especially with non-verbal or someone who's very subdued, I’ll stick a big sheet of paper or put out materials in my paint and chalks – I won’t say anything. I'll sort of engage; I'll look at them and I’ll make a mark on the paper, whatever I’ve picked up I’ll put down and I won’t say anything and won’t do anything until, hopefully, they get the idea of picking up something and making a mark. It’s tit-for-tat – like chess but without pieces or rules: we build up until we had the papers covered or the walls covered or until they sit down or go away. That was spontaneous as well, I think we were on a pavilion and there was one guy who was quite troublesome in many ways and I just stared at him and there was a big bucket of paint and I just dipped it in, went like that on the wall (motions a brushstroke) and everyone was like (gasps) "he's drawing on the wall!" – it’s a clean wall you're not supposed to paint, but I don't give a shit.
Jon Hall: Certain things happened at the centre that we won't mention...Ben came in and he just started drawing on the wall. A lot of the people looked as though they didn't want to engage in what we were doing but something about what he was doing broke the ice and helped the relationship to develop. So, perhaps you haven't named the skill, but it's quite phenomenal how it works.
Ben Wakeling: I just like painting on everything without asking! (laughs)
Jon Hall: It sounds like he's putting himself down, he knows what he's doing but perhaps this whole idea of how to engage with people who are very hard to reach is something that really can't easily (be) explained, it's just something that is built through people just trusting and being comfortable.
Ben Wakeling: Trust is a big thing, building the relationship. There’s a lot of hurt people in the system, emotionally.
I was interested whether people perceive (your work) as different from "official" art therapy?
Ben Wakeling: Yeah, certain schools will see our practices as breaking the rules. I mean, we are breaking a lot of rules in a lot of ways – sharing the therapeutic outcomes to the public is a big no-no.
Jon Hall: I think there is generally a sense of a thing called ‘broader practice’ now that’s growing, and from that, it's an understanding that all art can in some way be therapeutic. A while back people (would) say "art therapy is this" or "music therapy is that", (now) there’s a broader understanding that's happening.
Do you get any bad feeling towards art and music therapy as a concept, any misunderstanding or people not quite welcoming the idea?
Jon Hall: I do find that generally, trying to talk about therapy is quite difficult. I think that’s a skill in itself.
Ben Wakeling: Where I’ve worked, I've tried to create an art studio. I don't have the lingo that comes with when you get trained.
Jon Hall: The exhibition at Moorfields I think was particularly good because you could explain to people what you did.
What was that exhibition?
Ben Wakeling: It was a series of paintings, or self-portraits, of me. I obsessively draw this nude ballerina figure, since quite early on, and then a few years ago my psychiatrist sort of led to the question: did I realise that it's a self-portrait? That really fucked with my head, for some reason. The paintings are quite abstract, expressive – it’s not like realism or anything – so this figure’s been in a lot of scenarios. After declining a lot of opportunities or to push forward with an art career, Moorfields (hospital) – one of the first Bedlam hospitals in London – approached me, and I ended up doing a show, just my own work, portraits of myself. We threw in the idea of me making my artworks blind and because I'm so competitive – I’m still able to create my normal work (from) so much muscle memory – I ended up creating all these works blind as well, which fed into Moorfields because it’s an eye hospital, and then someone’s mental health to do with being blind, as well.
“Perhaps this whole idea of how to engage with people who are very hard to reach is something that really can't easily (be) explained, it's just something that is built through people just trusting and being comfortable” – Jon Hall
Do the wall paintings at the hospitals stay up there? They keep them as they are?
Ben Wakeling: One of my ideas is like a therapy wall, so we have like a big place, a big wall that we're allowed to paint on. Within one sitting, they can fuck up the wall and make all their mistakes. People always say "I can't draw" and "I'm not good", and so they would do it. I'll take a photo, then I would blank it out and they'd come back again and start (again), learning to explore. That's one of (the) ways of getting them to a point of their portrait without them knowing. It's all very spontaneous, so there's no brief, it's not me saying “these are the certain colours” or “you have to colour in with these lines”...so in art therapy you would see it as a self-portrait.
Did they identify them as self-portraits?
Ben Wakeling: I want them to reach that point that (the) light bulb goes over their head and they have self-awareness about their condition; where they are, what's actually happening around (them). One person, he stood back after he finished, came back the following week: “it looks like me”. It's so moving because (when) they’re approaching it, it's just so spontaneous, so erratic, so quick and vivid.
And not touched by references or instructions.
Ben Wakeling: Yeah! People in psychosis are so uninfluenced. That's where the trained art academics would say, "yeah there's a bit of expressionism" or “it's like Art Nouveau”, or whatever. But they don’t know that. Everyone's painting their self-portrait, without realising that.
Another thing we were doing, I'd go around the tube, steal their advertising, bring it back to the wards and let them draw on the advertising. Then I'd go back onto the tube and put it back up, take a photograph and bring it back onto the wards. I'm not really allowed to do (it), but fuck it!
Has anyone tried to stop you?
Ben Wakeling: Yeah, a few people.
Have you found – with the sort of crossover between art and the NHS, both having funding cut – any difficulties in that respect?
Ben Wakeling: I really want to say yeah, but that's not the case. When I met Jon and then someone started looking into us, it just sort of seems to me like everyone keeps saying yes to us. To have an interview at Dazed is, for me, fucking amazing, I've been telling my friends! People seem to want to get involved and the NHS have just given us funding for a year's worth of work. To get money out of the NHS is the pinnacle. To get to that point we were supposed to (get) little pots of money from different places, and you get up to the big lottery and then the NHS. But they just came and said, "do you want to get money? Ok great!” So that is clearly the case for everything I see outside: services get cut, the NHS getting sold from under our feet, the government just seems to be cutting down every single thing in councils, markets are going, everything is just being chipped away and our culture is really being lost. But for some reason, the Outsider Gallery is working. Jon says it all the time, it's supposed to be knocking on people's doors for help and it's completely the opposite. People just want to come in and get involved. It's so fucking bizarre.
Jon Hall: It seems like it's kind of meant to be, somehow. We get support from psychiatrists, doctors wanting to help us.
Ben Wakeling: The CEO of the NHS sat down with us.
Jon Hall: She's really really into it.
Ben Wakeling: I was like "Hi, I’m Ben!"
But do you think that's because it’s a breath of fresh air for them, something that they either haven't been able to suggest or are bound by?
Ben Wakeling: Well I'm just enjoying the journey, I suppose.
Jon Hall: There are millions of therapists, but we've just been lucky where the CEO came into one of my sessions once and she said, "oh this is fantastic, this is exactly what we need", and she took videos and showed it at an NHS conference. We've just been lucky, really – right time, right place.
“The CEO (of the NHS) came into one of my sessions once and she said, ‘oh this is fantastic, this is exactly what we need’” – Jon Hall
I guess people are receptive to it if it's genuine, rather than you having some kind of agenda...
Ben Wakeling: I don't know why it's working, but it's really good that it is. It's hard work as well. When you work with a nurse who gets paid fuck-all money, who does 12-hour shifts dealing with very complicated people (there is) sort of next to no enthusiasm, so (our) idea was that everyone has to take part.
Jon Hall: I get them singing, they do backing vocals or play, and it's really interesting what that does. You sometimes find staff come along and I'll be recording someone singing, and I'd say “come sing”, and they won't want to do it because they'll be embarrassed by it. It really changes the dynamic, it's really interesting.
Do you think the (psychiatrists) being able to get involved in that and see their patients in a different light is helpful?
Jon Hall: Totally, yeah. I think it really does work a lot for the staff. Everybody who's a therapist knows that this kind of thing is beneficial, whether it's doing art, doing music or drama, they know it's beneficial. But what's really good about this is that you'll be able to show them the people they've got used to seeing as perhaps switched off people; to see them flowering like this is an inspiration to the doctors and the staff – that's what we've been told. So that was part of that whole thing and that was a three-hour session, it was amazing. But sometimes sessions are like that, (and) sometimes they can be like pulling teeth. They don't want to do anything, they're too traumatised or they're too upset.
Ben Wakeling: They've just had a fucking bad day. It's fine you know – it's normal.
Open Monday – Friday, Outsider Gallery is located at Clarendon Recovery College, Clarendon Road, London, N8 0DJ. More details can be found here. Follow @outsidergallerylondon