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 paint pictures.

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 the plunge.”

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 situations.

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.