Care and Control
Between Art and Experience – Jane Roberts
Rear Window Publications
1995 ISBN 0 9521040 3 2
© Jane Roberts
“I feel keenly the tension between the artistic forms within which
we have agreed to abide and the living material, borne to me by me senses,
my psychic apparatus, and my thought which has resisted these forms.” (Christina
Wolf, Cassandra, A Novel and Four Essays)
I use this quote not just as it may relate to Care and Control, but as it
relates to my experiences as both a painter and as a facilitator for others.
Nearly twenty-years has passed since a tutor at art school, baffled by my
abandoning painting for documentary photography and taking days off in order
to look after my next door neighbour’s children, exclaimed impatiently
that I would never make it as an artist unless I devoted myself totally to
it. He interpreted my problem as an historical one: as the female child of
a vicar he saw me as, both by birth and education, unable to single-mindedly
pursue art to the exclusion of all else. But, I try as I might, I couldn’t
square the circle of leaving one of the most deprived areas of London every
morning and arriving an hour later in one of the most privileged, just to
For the me, the problem was them, and is now, an ethical one. How does one
find or make a place for oneself as an artist, which combines the role of
an observer of society, operating in a self-reflective space with a practice
which serves the community in a very direct way? The danger which, I feel
my tutor’s approach brings in its wake, is of becoming so isolated
and self-referential within the art world that one no longer has time to
re-think or question one’s own subjectivity, or one’s sense of
oneself as an artist.
In 1992, my work was described as concerning itself with “things now
overlooked… they (a group of shells, an overgrown garden) invite us
into the world of the overlooked and it is here that we encounter important
questions about the nature of the world and ourselves” (Dawn Richards,
The Secret Life of Objects). Shortly
after this was written I started working at Hackney Hospital and I was, in
turn, invited into an “overlooked” world, the world of the old
and the mentally ill.
It seemed on the face of it like a simple case of mutually acceptable exchange.
The hospital had space and wanted input from artists and Janis Jefferies
and I wanted space to work in. And yet, it could never be that simple—it
was simply easier to think of it that way. This was particularly true for
me. A significant and traumatic event had recently happened in my life, which
had a profound effect on me on many levels. As is always the case, such events
shifted aspects of my life quite dramatically. But because we were to be
based in Medicine for the Elderly, I neatly side-stepped, if one temporarily,
the fact that Hackney was also a Psychiatric Hospital where the focus of
work is around traumatic events in people’s lives, and “took
Our position within the institution placed us on the fringes of the Hospital’s
routine and it was important that we remained “outsiders.” Being
neither members of staff nor patients, and not connected to either as visitors
usually are, we were free of the constraints that come with these relationships,
but we were also “free” of any clearly defined role. I found
this exhilarating. It was also terrible, tearful—to be there with no
schedule; no financial contract, no specified end product, no certainty of
interest beyond curiosity, no programme except what we constructed for ourselves,
independently or together, in collaboration with staff and users at the hospital.
We were leased a studio, but we had to make a space. A space that was both
public and set apart, roles which couldn’t be clearly defined but only
felt—a leap into ourselves and our work through the relationships we
were to make with the people and the place whose primary concern and purpose
is not the making of art.
Within the first few months, Janis’s and my different approaches to
the hospital had begun to develop. While Janis worked directly from the environment
making work about aspects of the institution, the metaphors it could yield
and its meaning for her, I chose to work with people who lived and worked
there. At the same time, I was making work using the subjects, which had
pre-dated my arrival there to mediate and process the experience.
I felt the intruder. I remember the hours I spent screwing up my courage
to visit the wards, to introduce myself –“I’m Jane Roberts,
an artist working in G2. There’s an open studio, would you like to
bring some of the residents? Can I come and visit you next week?” Sweating
palms, nagging doubts, how trivial making art then seemed in the context,
which now surrounded me. I took the shells into the studio. They looked very
small, very insignificant.
I visited the wards, I drew the shells, I drew the gardens, we held regular
open studio days. I waited and I listened. “What’s she doing?” “Large
drawings of shells!” Two nurses peer over the lockers into my part
of the space: “Come round, come in.” “They remind me of
home. Have you been to Barbados?” A frail old lady whose skin stretched
fine and thin across check and forehead; “I think, about the shells
at night, huddled together—they are my friends—I think about
my dear parents…” “Did you do this? Is it the garden?” and
with a laugh “You must be as disturbed as us!”… stories
of loss, of home, of family, of health, of identity.
A transformation of sorts had taken place. The physical space, the studio
(the ex-ward) was no longer a ward. It remained within the hospital, intimately
connected with it, however, it raison-d’être now lay outside
the immediate care of the sick. It had become a “transitional space.” By
leaving the “public” ward and entering the “private space” of
the studio, patients and staff were able to reclaim some aspect of their
own private lives and memories through interacting with us and/or our work.
The studio, which is both and neither home or ward, provided a safe place
to be away from “home” (the ward).
When the art workshop programme was established by Lyn French and me, the
transition between ward and community could also be experienced by the Psychiatric
Service Users. The studio is a place of work that is quiet and contemplative
and where they may spend time with someone from “outside” within
the safety of the hospital. In this safe space, they can, during the workshops
and in the company of someone who does not work with them, from a clinical
perspective, experience and address issues through the process of making
art, which may parallel those they encounter in their daily life and in therapeutic
This “transitional space” also provides me with a place, which
allows for a more regular and fluid movement between the internal and external
demands of being an artist, a critical context, which brings together both
the public and private aspects of making work. Distanced from the mainstream
of the art establishment, with its own very particular imperatives, it has
been possible for me, Lyn and Janis to challenge the split which the history
of art describes, between our roles as artists and the desire to develop
an art practice that could “claim to have deep tendrils in the life
of a community wider than that of artists” through our work within
the institution. There is the opportunity of forging a new social contract
and making personal experience something of a shared endeavour. The role
of the artist can then perhaps be seen as “clerk of their records” rather
than the privileged auditor of them.
It is perhaps ironic then, though not without its poetic quality, that a
year ago Rear Window entered into this “transitional space” and
I found myself experiencing, as an intrusion, the arrival of the “art
world.” Their arrival raised similar questions to those we had encountered
three years earlier. But, as they had come to produce an exhibition, the
question of “who was to speak for whom and how?” became more
important. The delicate balance between being inside and outside shifted
as the workload increased. Time to pursue my own work diminished and my role
as facilitator increased and acquired another dimension—that of translator.
With Rear Window and some of the invited artists, Lyn and I had to facilitate
the acquisition, by the workshop participants, of an unfamiliar visual language
for Care and Control.
At the same time, we had to ensure that the individual or authentic voice
of the workshop programme and its participants did not get lost in translation
into this new language. A more self-conscious quality became evident in the
workshops in response to the challenge of producing work for a curated show
and to the continual reminder of the “outside” no longer inhabited
only by friends and relations but by art critics, the gallery-going public,
and the community at large.
“There is and can be no poetics which prevents the living experience
of countless perceiving subjects from being killed and buried in art objects.” (Christina
Wolf, Cassandra, A Novel and Four Essays,)
I do not agree entirely with Christina Wolf on this, in my experience the
process of making art brings to life as much as it may potentially infer.
Nevertheless the form of visual language used may be insufficient to the
task, and the rhetoric surrounding it and the context in which it is seen
may indeed bury the living experience. Is it possible to want, or even proper
to expect, a “work of art” to do otherwise than at least bury
some aspects of the “living experience”?
How much do we wish to publicly uncover, reveal, or disinter and which of
the many possible visual languages we might use, do we chose or have chosen
for us? How much truth can we bear to give out or to receive?
Making art allows one to process and transform experience and yet one can
still fail to notice the immediate connection between significant events
and one’s responses to them until much later, long after the action
has been taken, the relationship formed, the piece of work made. And even
if one does not fail to notice one may chose to let it remain concealed in
my work and contained by the reality of the hospital to such an extent that
I “failed” to notice until I had been here some considerable
time that the first anniversary of the “significant and traumatic event” coincided
almost to the day with my first visit to Hackney and subsequent decision
to accept the offer of a studio.
For the past three years, I have drawn the gardens, I have run workshops
in the private-public space of the studio, contributed to this show, and
others with hospital users as both an artist and a facilitator and I have
continued throughout to draw the shells. I have drawn them still and failing,
spiralling out of control, huddled together and split apart, disappearing
and re-emerging. They have contained and mediated the interplay between personal
history and being a part of the community of Hackney Hospital.
“A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery
of an event—seen, remembered or imagined—… the contours
you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the
edge of what you have become.” (John Berger, Permanent Red.)
With thanks to Shirley Read for her assistance.