Mental Health Awareness Week: Esther Collins on life at home right now

Posted on 22/05/2020

On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, Esther Collins, our newly appointed Head of Learning, has written a blog on life, art and making, from her perspective at home right now.

Esther has also been leading on our creative kit bag campaign, which has seen hundreds of art kits sent out to people in our communities across Eastbourne. 

Over to Esther. 

Esther Collins, sketchbook drawing, 2020

We are – as we all know –  in unprecedented times. But what I have been struck, and inspired by, are the strategies we, as communities, have developed in such a short amount of time. 

I worked at Towner Eastbourne for less than a month in the building itself before we began to work from home. Yet, I came into a job where part of my role will be to work with a group who have been meeting and making work in the studio space every week for over 10 years. 

The Arts in Mind group I still don’t know well (some of them I haven’t met yet) but can only admire. They were established originally through GP referrals and importantly work collectively to generate a supportive social environment for each other to develop individually through a shared experience of mental health and well-being conditions. Yet once none of us could meet socially how would this group survive once it was necessarily dispersed?

Eight weeks later, the majority of the group meet for a weekly Zoom session. Some make work and some don’t. Some join just for a chat and some just join in to listen. Through the parameters of the same software packages we are all now reliant on they have formed a malleable, structured and yet intangible safety net. 

This is carefully and very sensitively crafted by artist and group facilitator Mandy Wax. Some of the group don’t take part and we hope to see them again once it is safe to return to regular meetings in Towner’s building. Yet, Mandy has managed to make some form of contact with every member and we can know they know we are still here.

I am also hugely in awe of the Artist Support Pledge right now, for responding so quickly to the immediate loss of income to thousands of artists with such a simple, practical proposition (inviting artists to sell artwork affordable to peers, and subsequently purchase another artists work with their profits). This is such a successful model for a form of circular economy which increases the visibility of artist practice that I can’t imagine it won’t continue once other forms of income begin to re-establish. And thank goodness. As well as Matt Burrows’ innovative scheme helping artists stay afloat financially it means at Towner we still have studios to visit, work being produced to put on display and artists to run our workshops and lead our projects.

I have been humbled by an artist who has been stuck in the Midlands during the lockdown. Isolated in a house away from her usual home and art materials, she is constructing a project exploring empathy through the internet. Instead of physical materials she will use generosity and listening as tools to curate a digital holding space for strangers. Connected by computers and phones the group will share responses to books, switching timeframes from the immediacy of the web to the slowness of reading and thinking before speaking.

During this time I am pleased to say I have also learnt, personally, to take care. I do this by keeping in touch regularly with my close friends. Importantly I have learnt to allow myself not to do things. To take breaks and not to keep to schedule.  Every morning revel in reading for solace and for nourishment. I am training both my hand-eye coordination and coping mechanisms through drawing exercises which enable me to think in and out of painful experiences whist I follow the outline of a stem or shape of a leaf. I am healing.

Ironically, one of the projects I was due to work on was about water and wellbeing and in the dawning of the new year, in our high hopes and positive outlook, myself and two other artists named it Buoyant 2020. This is now, like the year itself, on indefinite pause. Yet I am heartened that in a world of being separated, despite our vulnerabilities we are actually not that bad at sending out determined tendrils, reaching across distances, holding and supporting both unknown strangers and close contacts. It makes me hopeful that within our existing bodies (both in the physical sense, and groups of people) we have the potential and capacity, despite the collapse of familiar systems, to carefully construct a more buoyant future.