Sat 28 – Sun 29 October 2023
by Penny Hallas & Susan Adams

The Art Lab was the culmination of A Private Land project, featuring 2 days of co-produced, collaborative art including sculpture, video, painting, drawing, animation – and events featuring performance poetry, music and projection. Having an Art Lab rather than an exhibition felt like the work was live, a workshop, generating collaborative activity and conversations, a work in progress. We offered free refreshments to visitors while they looked around, there was also a relaxed area with sofas, books, things to do, or just sit, talk or contemplate.

The chosen venue was the Muse in Brecon, which had the advantage of being familiar to many of our participants from Brecon and District Mind, and also just a lovely characterful and friendly place, usually used for clubs and music nights. Some of the 155 visitors stayed for the majority of both days; people came mainly from a 30 mile radius, but also from Bristol, Cambridge, London, Newport, Cardiff, Hereford and the Midlands. Most moving was the way people came especially to share their stories and memories – of their own or loved one’s experiences of care at the old Mid-Wales Hospital and elsewhere.

After you entered the space you were faced with an off-kilter arch that Susan had made with
drawers from various chests, reflecting the heaps of moldering furniture inside the old hospital when it was abandoned. It could be that the arch echoed the grand portico of the Mid Wales Hospital, entry through which must have been a terrifying experience for some. Also that the inside of a drawer – in this case, painted with imagery – feels like the only space allotted you that feels private when you entered the hospital as an inpatient.

We wanted many of the artworks to invite interaction and a feeling of playfulness instead of the detached contemplation that visitors to art exhibitions might expect. We also wanted our art to be seen on a par with our participants and the work intermingled. Rather than the solidity of walls, rickety support structures formed from rusty reclaimed reinforcement rods held much of the work, perhaps echoing the fragility of the collapsing Mid-Wales Hospital and the experiences of those who lived there.

People took down and spun the thaumatropes – disks that rely on persistence of vision to come to life – that Susan and Mind members had made. Though playful, the optical toys also feel uncanny and disquieting because they offer a glimpse of something that isn’t really there. (Click here to see a few spin). The disks were partly inspired by our visit to the Powys Archives where we saw the 1900-1923 records of those admitted to the Brecon and Radnor Asylum, many of which were accompanied by circular photographic portraits. They were also inspired by the card games played at Mind meetings we joined, which eased social interaction and helped people feel relaxed.

Our participants were so generous with their time and creativity, extra to the workshops; artist and poet Eve Thomas produced photo-works, poems, and made jam from blackberries growing at the Mid Wales site for the Art Lab. Other participants made free-standing sculptural works and wrote poetry. We were very honoured also to have recorded conversations with two individuals who were treated at the Mid-Wales, and these were quietly playing at opposite ends of the room.

Penny drew over 75 portraits inspired by the photos we saw in the archives. These were mounted on recycled manila folders with redacted details of previous contents, to try to give a visual equivalent to institutional record keeping. At the centre of the structure was a video made of the 130 flower slides made in our workshops.

One of the activities offered in our workshops was weaving with nettles, brambles, briars – plants that are slowly taking over the grounds of the old Hospital. Often seen simply as weeds, they have a protective role and have been highly valued in the past. Penny combined the weavings with large works of her own to create sculptural pieces, suggesting sometimes shelters, and sometimes traps. The hope was that this would offer a kind of parallel experience to Art Lab visitors and this in fact happened with people temporarily inhabiting and animating them. Some people found them spiky and felt off-balance whilst others found them comforting, like the nests children make in bushes. One person said that his was a voluntary admission, but that he wouldn’t be staying in for long.

On 2 television screens people could sit and watch an absorbing 30 minute video in 6 chapters reflecting Penny’s personal experiences through the project and something of how she chose to position herself in relation to its complexity and multiple challenges. Lyndon Davies provided a hauntingly beautiful sound-piece, amplifying and carrying the narrative. To see and hear a tiny clip, click here.

A sculptural piece by Susan involved a little blanket clad theatre atop an Edwardian what-not from which emerged woven willow tubes and horns. The little theatre is based on the stage in the dining hall at the Mid-Wales Hospital, the blankets for her a recurring metaphor, reflecting the dichotomy of comfort and restraint, or care and control. In the theatre a pencil drawn animation played, looking at cycles within nature and the irony of the ‘butterfly’ design of the hospital.

The Saturday evening event wasn’t like a normal art opening, it felt like the heart of the Lab, with people really focusing on the experience of being there. We had performative events interspersed by periods when people could refresh their drinks and continue conversations.

The poet Angela Morton spent time in the Mid Wales hospital and wrote about her life during periods of mental illness and experiences in the hospital. Her daughter, Becky was going to read from Angela’s collection the Holding Ground, (the collective press 2002) but our dates coincided with a trip away, so she liaised with close friend and colleague, poet Graham Hartill, who read for her, shared his own memories of Angela and reflected on her poems. Her grandson musician Gwyn Daggett and creative partner Beth Flynn played some of their new material, it was beautiful.

Eve Thomas began and ended the evening with reading poetry and speaking from the heart about mental health challenges. Well over £100 was raised for Brecon and District Min

The following day in the afternoon we held a talk and feedback discussion, about 25 people came along, including Brecon and District Mind members, Stella Man and Cerys from Glenside Hospital Museum, psychotherapists, curators, historians, artists, participatory arts workers, a psychoanalyst and doctor. During the discussion we learnt that the books we had to fight so hard to see at the Archives were almost discarded when the hospital had closed – the attitude had gone from extreme carelessness to hyper vigilance and restricted access.

Afterwards people stayed to look around at the artworks and the discussions continued in smaller informal groups. Like everything during the Lab weekend, there was a feeling of energy in that so many interesting ideas were shared in a short period of time with a buzz of potential for what could be.

Here’s just a little of the feedback we received about A Private Land and the Art Lab:

‘I was so impressed to see so many people come through the doors and share their stories reflecting on the old Mid Wales Hospital ruin in Talgarth. It felt so valuable and necessary to take this time to talk about the hospital and the people who lived, worked and died there.

Taking part in this project has been so affirming for me. It’s made me certain that I want to pursue a career as an artist as much as I possibly can. This was the first time I’ve ever stood up in front of a room full of people and talked about my art processes and shared my poetry – and the feedback I received was invaluable. I’ve gained some interesting insights about my work, and the confidence to seek out this kind of experience again. Massive thanks to Susan and Penny who created the project and let me be involved – you supported and inspired me throughout.’

‘I feel a deep resonance between the works here and my own lived experience as someone impacted by mental health issues. Privacy, emotional intelligence, confidence and self expression explored and shared here in a nurturing space has been profoundly affecting. Thank you for this unique experience facilitating the unfurling of much of my vulnerability.’

‘LOVE this so much – the art feels really alive and so many different elements. Immersive, intriguing and fascinating reaction and response to a place – its history, stories and its demise. The way the artists have involved others in the creative process including at the exhibition itself is great – the slide making is a huge hit with my son! Thanks.’

‘An emotive exhibition which captured the negative and supportive lifestyle of people in the hospital.’

‘Evoked so many memories of people we have known and loved.’

‘We really enjoyed this show and loved the way it had interactive parts! Wonderful! Hauntingly Beautiful with a dose of playful innocence. Loved it! ‘

‘Thank you so much for the experience and the opportunities brought by this event. Words are not enough.’

‘A Private Land’ stretched my thinking, so many threads spinning on conversations had and not had. Thank you.’

Resources and links

PEAK cymru

Talgarth Museum

Glenside Hospital Museum

Bethlem Gallery

Outside In

The restoration Trust Change Minds Project

Mendip Hospital Cemetery

High Royds Hospital website, Talgarth page

The role of Arts in Improving Health and Wellbeing

The Wales Arts Health & Wellbeing Network (WAHWN)


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