Arts Week 2017: Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

The Adamson Collection is, in every sense, a remarkable archive, encompassing a vast and varied body of work that spans both five decades of asylum history and myriad approaches to artistic practice.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, curated by Dr Heather Tilley and Dr Fiona Johnstone, features painting, drawing and sculpture selected from some 6000 art objects, all produced under the guidance of pioneering art therapist Edward Adamson (1911-1996) by residents at Netherne Hospital in Surrey, a long-stay mental asylum, between 1946 and 1981. As part of a launch event a panel discussion was held in Birkbeck Cinema, where therapists, curators and artists alike shared their insights into Adamson’s life and legacy.

David O’Flynn from the Adamson Collection Trust and Val Huet from the British Association of Art Therapists spoke respectively about the development of Adamson’s work and ethos; the process of securing and displaying the collection – a task fraught with challenges, curatorial and conceptual – and about Adamson’s continued relevance to art therapy today.

Adamson defined himself not as a therapist, but as an artist; despite being instrumental in the foundation of the British Association of Art Therapists, he did not align himself with any one theoretical position. Adamson was an independent thinker who maintained his identity as an outsider as an act of affinity for those whose work he inspired and preserved.

Initially engaged at Netherne as a researcher into the relationship between mental illness and creativity, Adamson’s job was to encourage patients to produce work for clinical analysis. However, after the study ended in 1951, he established a studio where residents at Netherne were allowed to paint freely. He came to believe that making art was therapy enough; that creative expression could provide people with a bridge back to themselves. Working in this way Adamson amassed a staggering amount of material, writing the artist’s name and date of completion on the back of each piece, and so preserving not only the art object but the personal narratives of individuals otherwise anonymised by institutionalisation.

In exhibiting the work he collected, Adamson believed he could reengage the artists with a society that excluded them, and challenge pre-conceived ideas about the capacity of the mentally ill to contribute meaningfully to culture. As Val Huet emphasised in her talk, Adamson’s lasting impact upon contemporary art therapy was in situating “art at the heart” of therapy; extending artistic agency beyond the borders of allotted therapy time. As continued cutbacks to mental health budgets put pressure upon this practice-based approach, a reassessment of Adamson’s pioneering work becomes more topical, timely and, potentially, radical.

Beth Elliott, a trustee of Bethlem Gallery, and their artist-in-residence Matthew, spoke about the development of artistic practice inside the institution, and the unique pressures, restrictions, and surprising affordances of the clinical environment. Matthew’s description of his own process, together with the slides of his vibrant and luminous artwork, was a clear argument for the persistence of practice at the centre of therapy, demonstrating how art within the asylum can be an imaginative escape, a tool for navigation, and a strategy for resistance.

Invigorated by the talks, people headed towards the Peltz Gallery where the work of eight artists is on display, including pieces by Martin Birch from whose arch drawing of Adamson the exhibition takes its title, and Gwyneth Rowlands, whose eerie and arresting painted flints were my personal highlight of the exhibition.

It is worth noting that this is the first time the artists have been named in an exhibition; their work attributed to an individual with a unique aesthetic outlook and approach, not shown as an undifferentiated mass of “asylum art”.  From Mary Bishop’s bold blocks of Constructivist colour to Rolanda Polonsky’s intricate, spooling pencil drawings, the work defends its right to be considered first and foremost as art. This exhibition asks us to consider the meaning of the phrase “outsider artist” and where in that description the emphasis should be placed.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways interweaves a diverse array of narratives – personal and medical. It is an insight into changing psychiatric practice, a celebration of Adamson’s work, and also a testament to eight unique artistic visions and histories.

Fran Lock is a poet and practice-based PhD student in her first year at Birkbeck

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Mr A moves in mysterious ways

L0075005 The Foetus / Rebirth. RIC23, Adamson Coll

Helen Grieg, The Foetus / Rebirth. Credit: Adamson Collection/Wellcome

Dr Fiona Johnstone, Associate Research Fellow in Art History writes on the new exhibition, which will showcase early art therapy from psychiatric patients. The exhibition will be shown from 15 May – 25 July 2017, at the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts. 

This summer the Peltz Gallery will host a historically significant exhibition of works from the remarkable Adamson Collection, one of the world’s largest collections of artworks made by psychiatric patients. Titled Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, this exhibition will be the first time that the Collection has been displayed since its recent acquisition by the Wellcome Trust.

For almost three decades, Edward Adamson was engaged as ‘art master’ at the long-stay British mental hospital Netherne, in Surrey. His initial role was to facilitate patient involvement in a scientific study investigating the relationship between mental illness and creativity, published by Netherne’s Medical Superintendent Eric Cunningham Dax as Experimental Studies in Psychiatric Art in 1953. When research ended, Adamson chose to remain at the hospital, establishing an open studio where residents could come and paint freely. A pioneer of British art therapy, Adamson was deeply committed to the healing possibilities of creativity, and often remarked that simply making the short journey from the ward to the studio could have a beneficial effect on patients.

Over the years Adamson amassed a vast collection of patient artworks, including drawings, paintings and sculptures. After he retired in 1981, some 6,000 objects were relocated to a temporary exhibition space on the Rothschild family’s estate at Ashton Wold, and then moved to storage in Lambeth Hospital following Adamson’s death in 1986. Most of the Collection was physically transferred to the Wellcome Library in 2013, and formal custodianship agreed in 2016.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways has developed out of a series of events hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Medical Humanities: two reading group sessions, which included a meeting led by David O’Flynn, chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, and a discussion of Framing Marginalized Art (Karen Jones, Eugen Koh, Nurin Veis and Anthony White, 2010), a text which explores the ethical and curatorial complexities of exhibiting art therapeutic materials; and a screening of the award-winning essay film Abandoned Goods (dirs. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson, Fly Film, 2015) which traces the evolution of the Adamson Collection from clinical materials to revered art objects.

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

Thea Hart, Child and Doctor. Credit: Adamson Collection/ Wellcome

My co-curator, Dr Heather Tilley and I were fascinated by the potential challenges involved in exhibiting these works: should they be ‘framed’ as art works, historical documents, clinical artefacts, or all three simultaneously? We were also intrigued as to how we might settle on a unifying theme. The Adamson Collection interweaves a number of narratives, including the history of the post-war mental institution, the development of psychiatric practice in the UK, and the origins of art therapy as a profession. It also tells a range of individual stories, including that of Adamson himself, and of the people who produced work under his guidance. How would we be able to do justice to all these perspectives, especially within the relatively small space of the Peltz Gallery?

Ultimately we decided to ‘frame’ the Collection by focusing on the work of eight selected individuals, chosen for their distinctive visual styles and particular histories. By presenting these makers as artists, rather than as un-named and undifferentiated psychiatric patients, and framing their objects as artworks, we have aimed to highlight the aesthetic, personal and historical dimensions of the collection, whilst remaining sensitive to its medical and therapeutic contexts.

We hope that this exhibition will be the beginning of a continuing conversation about the ethical and legal complexities of exhibiting the Adamson Collection (and indeed art therapeutic materials more generally). This summer the Wellcome Trust will host a series of public workshops examining these very issues, focusing on topics such as the naming of patient-artists, accessibility, and the efficacy of the label ‘Outsider Art.’ (N.B. at time of writing dates and details of these workshops are still to be confirmed – keep an eye on our exhibition website for further information).

The exhibition will be also accompanied by an exciting programme of contextual events at Birkbeck, including:

  • A launch event and private view will be held on Thursday 18th May as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.
  • Curator’s tours will as part of London Creativity and Wellbeing Week.
  • A legacy event titled ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ will be held at Birkbeck in the summer of 2018.

For more information about the exhibition, please visit the Peltz Gallery website.

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