Case Studies has been devised by Norwich University of the Arts in conjunction with Change Minds, a partnership between the Restoration Trust, and Norfolk Record Office. It is part of Scaling Up Change Minds, a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Central to the Change Minds project is access to the resource of Dr Hills’ Norfolk County Asylum Books held in the Norfolk Records Office and Norwich Millennium Library. Change Minds engages local people and online visitors in the stories it reveals through a fascinating investigation into local heritage, mental health and identity.
In this exhibition you can see the results of Year 2 BA (Honours) Fine Art students from NUA, who have used these archives and made alternative portraits that represent just a tiny number of the people documented in the asylum records. Through engaging in this project, the students have developed historic and cultural research skills using the asylum casebooks, they have visualised and re-imagined biographical material and experienced a sense of existential purpose evident in their artworks. NUA students have enjoyed several weeks to explore this project, but Case Studies can be adapted into a shorter experience that can be just as rewarding. So, the next step in NUA’s Case Studies, working alongside Change Minds, is to devise a short, self-contained creative workshop that improves the wellbeing of people identified as experiencing mental health issues and low income. NUA students represented in this exhibition now have the opportunity to draw from their experience and help launch Case Studies to the wider community.
Disappointed in Love
Oil on board
Disappointed in Love is a portrait of Robert Gunns, the son of a farmer, who at age 33 was institutionalised in Norfolk County Lunatic asylum in the year 1880. His was one of the first faces I saw when looking though the Case book recording the occupants form June 1887 to March 1880. I was stuck by his eyes and felt that his presence radiated such sadness. Although I found his case illegible, I felt that the reason for his admittance (the title of this piece) was enough for me to paint him.
I enjoy the prospect that these people, the working class of the late 1870s and 1880s, who would never have been able to afford a portrait and were only photographed because they found themselves in this unique circumstance, are now almost 150 years later being portrayed and remembered. I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to pay tribute to these forgotten faces.
The Wrapper Dress
This dress is a response to one of the patients in Dr Hills’ casebook, her name was Elizabeth field. She faced many difficulties before entering the asylum. For example, after the birth of her first daughter, she showed signs of post-natal depression, as well as the death of her sister-in-law who she was very close to. I wanted to focus on some of the behaviours she exhibited while at the asylum. For example, she would meticulously rip her clothes due to her anxious and “restless” state. At the time this was quite significant as clothes were very valuable items so this would have been seen as very destructive. I wanted to replicate the dress she would have worn and what it might have looked like due to these behaviours.
I am primarily a sculptural artist, so this was new and ambitious territory for me. Elizabeth spent 3 years in the asylum and in the photograph of her taken when she leaves the asylum, she looks quite different. It seems she has perhaps used fashion, makeup, and hairstyles as a form of self-care.
Trapped in the Birdcage
Watercolour paintings on watercolour paper, metal birdcage
Trapped in the Birdcage is a piece inspired by Dr Hills’ Casebooks, focusing on the different patients featured. The choice of a birdcage as my container to display the paintings was driven by symbolic value. The birdcage is meant to represent the mind and soul, with a bird usually inside this would suggest an unhealthy, trapped soul. Instead of the usual bird inside, I have created fragmented portraits of certain patients, focusing in on certain details of their faces such as the eyes. This generates a disjointed appearance, but you can still tell who they are which I feel holds further symbolic value to the feelings and experiences around mental health, the feeling of a loss of identity and not feeling completely like yourself. I used the existing interior of the cage as a method of hanging the portraits, which helped in generating this interesting layering. I have paid close attention to painting the portraits and used watercolour to better achieve an old as well as delicate appearance.
Mixed media (painting, film, reflection)
My heart broke when I saw the photographs of patients and read the personal details recorded in the tomes in the Records Office in Norwich. To reflect my feeling, I decided to pay homage to our forefathers, whose life expectation was so very different from my own. Even the process of being photographed on arrival must have been traumatic, the camera must have looked a strange piece of equipment. I decided to paint portraits using the photographs as reference, purely to get closer to the subject. However, through the process of painting the portraits, I was inspired to make a small film.