Professor Victoria Tischler is Professor of Arts and Health and Head of Dementia Care at the University of West London. She is a Chartered Psychologist and a trustee of Paintings in Hospitals. Victoria joins our 60 Years, 60 Voices series to share a personal story of discovering the therapeutic power of art...

Two distinct, separate, yet interlinked encounters decades apart inspire this blog post.

When I was 19 and still a student, I experienced an epiphany on a long stay psychiatric ward at the Gladesville Mental Hospital in Sydney, Australia. It was an asylum in the traditional sense, an imposing and intimidating place, with beautiful architectural features disguising the regime inside. These included huge heavy doors that unlocked as you entered and locked behind you, and nurses like jailors, with huge bunches of skeleton keys swinging from their belts. Opened in 1838 as the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum, it was built on the banks of the Parramatta River where people arrived via an underpass so they couldn’t be seen on admission. The sandstone buildings housing the wards were surrounded by moats to prevent escape. Although the moats were no longer filled with water, I witnessed patients walk round and round and round the perimeter, ad infinitum.

Apart from this circular path, and smoking, and sitting, and the daily routines of the wards, there was a distinct lack of activity of any kind. It was numbing, physically and mentally. I sat alongside one young man who I was told was entirely mute. His fingers and feet moved constantly - tardive dyskinesia (TD) caused by the antipsychotic medication he was prescribed. Early in my studies, with little clinical knowledge and even less experience, I felt helpless as to what to do. My (then) secret love for art combined with a sense of desperation, and a need to fill the space between us, compelled me to offer the man some paper and pencils. I laid the materials on the table in front of us and I began to draw. After some time so did he. I watched astounded. He drew a bust of a man in profile in the style of a master Surrealist. The back of his head took the form of a chest of drawers, with each drawer opened to reveal an image of an angel, a numerical formula and a bird. I watched him as he drew, suddenly still and focused. In that encounter, I discovered the therapeutic power of art.

Salvador Dali, City of Drawers, 1936

Salvador Dali, City of Drawers, 1936

I kept that picture for many years, now sadly lost in my travels. That formative encounter in many ways transformed my career trajectory to my current role as Professor of Arts and Health, directing a programme of research that focuses on creativity and mental health.

More recently I volunteered in a winter homeless shelter near my home in London. I have watched aghast as seemingly more and more tents appear all over the capital, providing shelter for rough sleepers. The contrast between extreme wealth and abject poverty is stark in London. Volunteering my time in a shelter made me feel less hopeless. I also wanted to tackle the ‘othering’ that occurs - where those experiencing homelessness are marginalised by being viewed as a ‘subclass’ of citizen, an out-group to our in-group. Almost every day I walk straight past many people begging for money or food or sleeping rough. Many people attending the shelter seemed to know each other, they sat in groups and several told me about the camaraderie of the street and how they looked out for and protected each other.

Adolf Wölfli, Schähren=Hall und Schährer=Skt.Adolf=Ring, 1926

Adolf Wölfli, Schähren=Hall und Schährer=Skt. Adolf=Ring, 1926

I noticed one man sitting alone, day after day. I made several attempts to speak to him, offering to make him hot drinks and asking if he was hungry. For a few days, he waved me away and avoided eye contact. I persisted and finally, he looked me in the eye and said ‘do you like art?’ I quickly found some paper and pencils for him. Just like the episode decades ago at the Gladesville Hospital, I sat astonished as I watched him deftly cover the page with complex monochrome scenes from the Gambia (his country of birth), juxtaposed with London street scenes, annotated with symbols and signs, some clear, other indecipherable, each with its own meaning and origin. One seemingly nebulous and recurring ‘blob’ turned out to be a mango seed. The entire page was swiftly covered, a la horror vacui - fear of empty spaces. Such a device is often witnessed in the work of untrained or outsider creators such as the polymath Adolf Wölfli, one of my favourite artists. ‘You’re an artist’ I exclaimed and he smiled broadly. Since then, we’ve formed a friendship and I have introduced him to a world of art that embraces neurodiversity and to an art collector who is exhibiting his work. The newly discovered artist is delighted and creating his work with increased gusto. I am reminded that art has the power to effect change and to transform lives, communicating a world beyond words.

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Prof. Victoria Tichler is Professor of Arts and Health and Head of Dementia Care at the University of West London. She is a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Mental Health. Victoria is leading several projects to develop evidence for arts and multisensory approaches in dementia care and she is Executive Editor of the Arts & Health journal. Victoria is also a trustee of Paintings in Hospitals. Victoria is on Twitter (@victischler)