Scratch the Surface – Dialogue Festival Review

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Scratch the Surface – Dialogue was a mental health arts festival that ran from 30th Sept – 10th Oct, organised by The Pod and it’s arts collective; Collective//Pod

(A part of Coventry Council that supports people in their mental health recovery journey).

The aim of the festival was to celebrate the provocative and vanguard, and bought together a vast programme of cultural activists and arts organisations both local, national and international. The expertly delivered festival was sensitively executed and addressed many subject matters that can be seen as taboo, in an incredibly liberating way.

Prior to the event, we were lucky enough to get to know founder of the festival Christine Eade, an exceptionally inspirational woman, who has a host of awards under her belt, including; winner of ‘Woman of Achievement Award’ 2017, and Winner of UK Mental Health Best Practice Awards 2013, to name just a few.

We gained a sneak preview into what was in store and were blown away by the sheer scale of this impressive festival.

Curating Coventry were delighted to be invited by the Collective//Pod to participate in hosting the exhibition opening “An Audience with Wen Wu” at the CCCA, Fargo Village. Wen Wu presented a series of ‘Literary’ paintings – a series of five stunning realist-style paintings, which were on loan from the RifleMaker, London. We had the pleasure of interviewing her to delve into the themes she explores through her creative practice, and the extensive process she goes through as an artist before she arrives at her final paintings. Wen feels passionate about female spirituality and the empowerment that can be gained through tapping into creativity. In this series of paintings, the books were a metaphor for shelter, security and protection, yet also a regal symbol of the Chinese crown. It was an absolute delight to meet such an inspirational female artist.

The next event we attended was an evening at The Herbert Gallery with Sarah Chaney, research associate at the University College London Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, and Visual Artist Liz Atkin. Liz is a renown artist who campaigns to raise awareness of dermatillomania surprising common skin-picking disorder, thought to affect up to 1 in 25 of us. As part of her recovery, she creates “Compulsive Charcoal” drawings when travelling to work and back, to keep her hands busy. She gives these out to fellow passengers, explaining why she does it, breaking down the stigma attached to this condition. So far she has given away well over 15,000 free drawings. She now travels across the globe, speaking about what she does, and how the act of creating her art has become detrimental to her recovery.

On her bus-route to Coventry, Liz gave away dozens of her “Compulsive Charcoal” drawings, then when she arrived at The Herbert, she performed a live “Pouring Mountains” artwork – a drawing, painting installation which she now produces as a daily cathartic ritual, to ease her of her compulsion to pick at her skin. And what a beautiful piece of art this was – created in just 10 minutes, yet for Liz, she was so engrossed in the activity of creating this piece of art that it felt like she had been there for hours working on it.

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Following this performance, Sarah Chaney then delivered a really interesting talk on the history of self-harm in psychiatry. It was a real eye-opener to see how not even that long ago, so many mental health problems were simply brushed off as ‘hysteria”.

Liz was up next, discussing her creative practice, and went into more detail about how her art helped draw her out of a really difficult place, and has become the most vital role in her recovery. This was an incredibly powerful and moving talk. We had so much respect for Liz for openly expressing how it feels to be a sufferer of dermatillomania, and the journey that she has been on, and her road to recovery.

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After this we got to attend a private viewing on an exclusive collection of miniature flint sculptures, created by the artist Gwyneth Rowlands, on loan from the Bethlem Gallery. This fascinating collection was created during Gwyneth’s 50-year stay at the Netheren Hospital (a long-stay psychiatric hospital in Surrey). where she began to paint onto flint collected from local fields. The multifaceted nature of the stone became her canvas, in which she created intriguing faces and scenes of figures. The longer you look at each piece, the more you see – so interesting to view. This was an incredibly profound and thought-provoking evening.

The next event we attended was the opening night of the End//Begin – Dialogue exhibition, which presented the work of British contemporary artists Bobby Baker, Terence Wilde and Claire Margaret. This wonderfully curated exhibition took place at the City Arcadia Gallery, and exhibited a selection of the artists’ work, which again formed part of their recovery of mental illness. The exhibition also explored psychiatry as a discipline in itself.

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Bobby Baker’s work was a diary of her journey as a patient at a day centre, and portrayed her experiences of day hospitals, psychiatric wards, a number of drugs and treatment, and ‘crisis’ teams. Although harrowing, she delivers this with a certain tongue-in cheek humour documenting the highs and lows of her journey.

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Claire Margaret’s practice revolves around her own diagnosis of schizophrenia and how upon exploring the illness itself, through her artwork, she began to find a focus, which enabled her to help overcome it. She fearlessly accepted the condition for what it was, extensively researching it, and began to create drawings, which she used to help her communicate.

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Terrance Wilde again uses his art as a therapeutic practice “I draw as part of an on-going cathartic journey. Creativity sets me free from anxiety, trauma and obsession.” His work is a response to his current situation, and a beautiful collection of surreal black and white drawings gave you a snapshot into this liberating process he goes through as an artist. He currently works within the Occupational therapy department of The Royal Bethlem Hospital.

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The final event we attended was the private viewing of the UK’s first ever FilmZine – something to go down in history! “30seconds3minutes30filmDIAOLOGUE’. It featured submissions from across the world, as well as local talent, speaking of the art of ‘Dialogue’ and celebrating the vanguard. What an impressive showcase this was! A huge range of cutting-edge, innovative and often unconventional themes creatively explored, and cleverly directed by Baileyface Productions. We’re hoping an online version of this will become available to view, and would thoroughly recommend checking it out.

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There were so many other festival events which sadly we didn’t get the chance to attend, including; A collaboration with Room Art – “Incidental” – comprising of a live curation of music, art installation, video, theatre and dance resulting in an immersive experience across the arts. We were also gutted to miss artist Wolfgang Buttress’ ensemble BE which took place at Coventry Cathedral. This performance was a unique soundscape that featured the live-streamed sound of 50,000 bees from a hive within the Cathedral grounds, alongside a choir developed specifically for the evening. Those who I spoke to who did attend described it as “hypnotic”, “mesmerising” and “out of this world”. A real meditative performance that tapped into another level of consciousness. Also nationally renowned performance poet, John Hegley performed live at Fargo Village on 10th Oct for World Mental Health Day.

It was a delight to have something such as well-rounded, thought-provoking event happening in the city, so sensitively executed yet with such a celebratory nature. A quarter of the UK population are believed to experience mental health problems, so for many of us, the issues explored in this festival were very close to home. Yet this festival broke down the stigma of so many issues facing people today, and beautifully demonstrated the power of creativity on a journey of self-discovery, wellbeing and recovery. Well done to all who were involved in putting on such a vast, refreshing event, which will leave us talking for weeks to come. You’ve set the bar now! We can’t wait to see what the 2018 Scratch the Surface Festival will have in store.

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