CoolTan Arts: Mindfully Creative
| Ed Harkness |
CoolTan Arts was founded in 1990 in a disused suntan lotion factory in Brixton. The factory, squatted by artists, provided a venue for not only art studios and a café but also CoolTan Arts’ first workshops and exhibitions. The artistic environment offered a safe haven for those who felt socially isolated as a result of being unemployed, homeless or long-term sick. Many of the artists who used the studios became aware of an otherwise invisible group of Londoners who were experiencing mental distress and not having their support needs met by social services or the medical establishment. Living on the margins of society, these artists recognised that education and gainful employment were, for many, a million miles away. Slowly though, it became clear that the creative processes they were familiar with could have a positive effect on the mental well-being of those around them. Their friends and family and other passers-by began to benefit from ad hoc art, music and poetry workshops and CoolTan Arts was born. To this day CoolTan’s core belief is that mental well-being is enhanced by creativity.
CoolTan Arts was not the first organisation to be born in squatted premises, nor of course was squatting a new idea at the time of CoolTan Arts’ birth (it is a tradition almost as old as England itself). What is interesting about CoolTan Arts is that it has outlived a number of premises and segued successfully into life as a registered charity. The proliferation of squats tells us a great deal about the state of the economy and current domestic politics; similarly, the proliferation of independent mental health organisations speaks volumes about the state of the psychiatric establishment. Although Thorazine and other neuroleptic drugs were being introduced as early as the 1950s, it was not until later that we began to take them for granted, that millions of people began to be prescribed ‘miracle-drugs’ in place of care and therapy. It was CoolTan’s early participants who began to make their own decisions about what made them well, some choosing art-therapy in place of medical treatment, some combining the two. CoolTan Arts found that it could offer something that the medical establishment could not: the freedom to explore what makes us better, the ability to shape one’s own method of recovery.
In 1996 after a number of venue changes, CoolTan was finally evicted from the Dole Offices on Coldharbour Lane. The then participants decided to set up as a registered charity to provide low cost, non-vocational education to anyone with mental distress. From experience they knew that these provisions had kept a core group of people out of hospital in the past and believed that, extended to a wider audience, these services could greatly benefit others in the future. The founding members of CoolTan Arts were aware that mental distress was a key factor in keeping a huge amount of creative, intelligent and capable people out of work and further education, and they knew that aiding their participants’ recoveries through creative means would help these people to become valued members of society. In 1997 CoolTan Arts was granted registered charity status and set to work turning their ideas into practice.
In 2002 Michelle Baharier won a MIND Millennium grant to run a women’s art group for those who experienced mental distress, trauma and post-traumatic stress. At the time a committee still existed but was without a home and struggling to continue without a building. The trustees decided to take a gamble and with just £1000 rented a railway arch from a private landlord at a cost of £3000 per annum. At that time no one knew where the rest of the money would come from but nonetheless decided to make CoolTan work using their knowledge and experience of D.I.Y culture and their belief in their ability to affect positive change in their community.
Today CoolTan Arts works with well over a thousand participants and volunteers annually and provides bespoke workshops in creative arts, poetry, digital arts and media, film-making, podcasting, textiles and fashion, and I.T. Its self-advocacy course is the first in the UK to be run by and for people with mental distress. CoolTan works with between six and ten volunteers who gain valuable transferable skills that have enabled 74% of them to move on to employment and college. CoolTan’s flagship project The Largactyl Shuffle walk (named after Chlorpromazine, an early anti-psychotic drug whose side effects included a restless, shuffling walk) continues to break down the stigma surrounding mental distress through a programme of monthly walks. It encourages and empowers people with mental distress to train as walk leaders and sustain their well being though further training, project planning, management and public speaking. The walks happen every third Saturday of the month and carry a different theme each time (for example, this June there is a midnight walk to celebrate the summer solstice). Last October comedian Arthur Smith joined the sponsored walk and together £7,000 was raised for CoolTan Arts.
As an extension to our South London Walks and inspired by the late David Morris, disability advisor to the Mayor of London, CoolTan Arts has been chosen to lead a series of guided cultural walks in and around the Olympic site in East London. The motivation for these walks is to involve the local community in the constant and often unsettling changes occurring around them as a result of the Olympic Games. The walks are being lead by local people with experience of mental distress and allow the community to have their say about the changes and impact that the Olympic Games have brought to their local neighbourhoods.
CoolTan Arts is now based in an old linseed oil factory on the Walworth Road and has a public art gallery where we exhibit both CoolTan Arts projects and those of other people and community groups. CoolTan Arts is proactive in taking the work of participants to wider audiences and has exhibited at and collaborated with many outstanding galleries and institutions including The Heywood Gallery, The British film Institute, London Alternative Fashion Week, South London Gallery, Westminster Pastoral Foundation, Tate Modern and Morley College. The CoolTan Arts poetry groups have performed at a wide variety of events and are available for hire. They have produced a number of poetry books, and our Women’s Poetry group is working towards a new publication out this August. The recent Food for Mood project run at CoolTan has a new recipe book about to go to press with a forward by our celebrity chef Rosemary Shragger. The recipes in the book explore a wide range of global dishes donated to us by our participants. The women’s only textile and fashion group recently took part in Alternative Fashion Week’s catwalk show with their Dickens-inspired collection entitled ‘Rags tags and a velvet gown’. The collection showcased the group’s unique use of recycled materials and batik processes.
CoolTan participants’ recent work has been inspired by the legacy of Charles Dickens, his own mental distress and his rise to fame. Dickens spent his formative years in Southwark; whilst his father and family were residents of the local Marshalsea debtor’s prison, his time in the borough is said to have deeply influenced his moral compass. To celebrate Dickens’ bicentenary CoolTan Arts will be working with volunteers and participants to create a newspaper broadly based on Dickens’ novel the Pickwick Papers. The paper will be a chance to research, create and publish their own work and will give them a further insight into the work of Charles Dickens. The finished product will be distributed locally and an exhibition will be held at Southwark Cathedral later this year.
Currently no one can escape the climate of economic uncertainty — cuts to NHS funding have had a catastrophic effect on our participants, throwing many of them into times of extreme hardship. Out of 96 participants last year, 79 people lost all of their services, and of these, 12 people went back into hospital costing the taxpayer quadruple what they would have spent on social care. The current government spending cuts to mental health support prohibits prevention, recovery and sustained well-being for those who experience mental distress. It is well known that social isolation is a critical factor in the development of mental distress and the erosion of mental well-being, and if service users are prematurely downgraded from a critical or substantial rating they may be discharged from their care-team and in turn lose their ability to take part in inclusive projects such as CoolTan Arts.
In 2012 CoolTan Arts is faced with many tough decisions: where previously they were able to run workshops that were free at the point of use (due to core funding through the NHS), they are now reliant on the personalisation scheme. On paper this process chimes with some of CoolTan’s core beliefs as it is a system whereby those in receipt of mental health services can craft their own care-plan and choose what makes them well. In reality, however, the process has proved bureaucratic and time-wasting. For more than a year CoolTan has been waiting for its core participants to receive their first payments. This has dug deep into the charity’s reserves as it has been forced to run workshops for free rather than cancel them. Many participants who were eligible to take part in CoolTan’s workshops previously have not been granted personal budgets and can no longer take part in the social and creative pursuits that make them well. Many participants have been granted personal budgets but not been granted enough money to pay for the workshops they had previously attended. All this paints a bleak picture of the future as, without this creative outlet many participants’ health has already declined, and many more could deteriorate in the future.
CoolTan Arts believes that this approach to mental health care is short-sighted and for this reason they are struggling to provide pan-London services to men and women experiencing mental distress whether they have access to personal budgets and direct payments or not. CoolTan aims to aid peoples’ recoveries, continue to support them into the future and work with NHS professionals and social workers to ease the strain on valuable public services.
CoolTan Arts continues to believe that mental well-being is enhanced by the power of creativity. Art improves lives by providing dynamic, positive, non-medical environments where people can expand and fulfill their aspirations.
Ed Harkness is Administration and Community Involvement Officer at CoolTan Arts.
If you would like any further information on CoolTan Arts or would like to make a donation please contact us for further info.
CoolTan Arts runs the Largactyl Shuffle Walk every third Saturday of the month and a Sponsored Walk on 20 October 2012. Sign up now!