Tucked among a group of imposing Victorian NHS buildings in Tooting is the Phoenix Unit, a secure psychiatric rehabilitation unit for people diagnosed with schizophrenia. The unit houses up to 18 adults at a time. For most of them, the modern-looking two-storey building, with its pastel walls, laminate floors and NHS signage, will be home for at least a year, and most likely longer.
For the past few months, Tim A Shaw and Niamh White have been working with artists and designers including Assemble, Nick Knight and Gavin Turk to transform the unit’s communal spaces with bespoke installations and photographic prints.
Aimee Parrott’s mural for the women’s lounge at Phoenix Unit, inspired by Matisse’s Dance. Parrott also installed plants in the room and created handmade curtains to match the existing sofas. Lead image (top): Photographic wallpaper by Mark Power and Jo Coles. Images were taken within a one-mile radius of the unit and show a mix of found objects and local trees and buildings. All photographs by Toni Hollowood, courtesy of Hospital Rooms
In a women’s lounge, RCA graduate Aimee Parrott has painted a large mural inspired by Matisse’s Dance in flesh tones and soft shades of blue. Artist Sophie Clements has installed a striking series of images for the games room, which show cloud like forms frozen in time while outside, landscape architect Joh Bates has built a pergola to provide shelter from the rain. She has also planted a colourful scented garden, with climbing roses and geraniums accompanied by annotated illustrations explaining how to care for them.
Sophie Clements series Shall I This Time Hold in the Phoenix Unit’s games room captures the idea of trying to hold on to a fleeting moment.
Clements’ images were captured using bullet time photography (filming simultaneously from different angles using various cameras) to capture the shifting forms
White and Shaw started working with the Phoenix Unit after speaking with a medical director at South West London and St George’s NHS Trust. Both have friends who have been sectioned, and after spending time in mental health units, the pair felt they could use their expertise in creating and commissioning art to improve environments for staff, service users and visitors. Before recruiting artists, they made over a dozen visits to the hospital to get to know its residents and hear more about what people wanted from the space.
Each artist was tasked with transforming a different area (10 artists took part, including Shaw, transforming 10 different spaces). Shaw says he wanted to give each room a distinct identity and make the unit feel more welcoming.
“It was important to remember that for users, this is their home – most people will stay for a year and a half, some people a lot longer, so there was a real push to make some of the spaces more domestic and stop them being so clinical,” he explains.
Joh Bates’ pergola in the courtyard of Phoenix Unit and illustrations of plants in the garden, created by Genevieve Johnson.
Installations are sensitive to the function of the space they are in – in a quiet room, for example, where people go to think, relax or sleep after taking medication, Michael O’Reilly, an apprentice scenic painter with the Royal Opera House, has painted a series of 3D effect trompe l’oeil artworks directly on to the pale yellow walls. Contemplative scenes include a cat gazing out at the moon, a bear looking up at a honey pot and a dog snoozing in a kennel in the rain.
O’Reilly spent three weeks painting in the space – Shaw says residents would often chat to him through the window, offering suggestions on colours to use in his paintings. “There are so many small details – he’s painted a different texture on each painting, so one looks like it’s an old hessian, because he knows people spend a lot of time in there … and they’ll notice all those little details. It’s a really thoughtful way of looking at the space,” he adds.
Aimee Parrott and Michael O’Reilly working on their installations for the Phoenix unit. O’Reilly spent three weeks painting the quiet room. As well as painting a large mural, Parrott has transformed the women’s lounge with plants and handmade curtains to match the sofas
An equally thoughtful installation is a photographic wallpaper in the relatives room, created by documentary photographer Mark Power and artist Jo Coles. The room is one of the first people encounter when they enter the unit while they wait to see family and friends – as White points out, it’s a transitional space and one that can feel quite daunting, but Power and Coles have provided a welcome distraction with images of found objects, buildings and trees in the local area. Images were taken within a one mile radius of the unit, and include shots of punctured tennis balls, Victorian terraces and discarded jigsaw pieces. “Some of the service users have two hours leave each day so they would be familiar with that area,” explains White. “It creates a talking point – something separate from the situation, so it’s quite a stimulating and distracting environment…. It’s also about finding a beauty in things that are often overlooked.”
Other installations include a series of landscape images by photographer Steve Macleod, which hang in a central corridor, and a wooden noticeboard created by Assemble, used to display the week’s schedule under the heading Our Meaningful Day. In the dining room, Shaw has painted a series of brightly coloured squares and rectangles which will be used to frame artwork created by residents. (He and Shaw have been running creative workshops and will continue to do so every couple of weeks).
One of Michael O’Reilly’s ‘trompe l’oeil’ paintings for the unit’s quiet room
O’Reilly’s contemplative artworks reference vintage illustrations and travel posters. Artworks appear 3D but were painted directly on to the wall, ensuring they are both hygienic and long lasting
One of the most intriguing artworks in the unit is by Gavin Turk and shows a pair of eggs, with one balanced on top of the other. “Gavin’s work is probably the most simple in terms of its execution – it’s such a simple, visual thing but we were really excited to have the piece in there and were surprised by how quickly it opened up some really interesting conversations,” says White. It even inspired one user to create her own artwork representing herself as an egg – “She’d never made anything before, and when she described it, it was so honest and thoughtful and moving. Seeing these things around them has been an important experience for everyone,” adds Shaw.
Artworks were created on a limited budget: the project was funded by Arts Council England and Morris Markowe League of Friends of Springfield University Hospital, with paint donated by Dulux and Liquitex and printing done by Metro Imaging. Installations also had to meet health and safety regulations, meaning they had to be durable, fireproof and wipe clean, with no visible fixtures, ligatures or sharp edges. But beyond the safety guidelines – and obvious restrictions around showing violence, death or anything that might induce anxiety or paranoia – Shaw and White say there were few limits placed on imagery. Artworks are deliberately thought-provoking and aim to reward repeat viewing. Clements poignant images, for example, capture the idea of trying to hold on to a fleeting moment, while O’Reilly’s aim to tell a story and Turk’s is left open to interpretation.