This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. In our own gallery survey (November 2017), a third of visitors say that they come to the gallery for emotional or wellbeing reasons. The gallery has long been an oasis of calm in a hectic and industrious city and can be a haven of peace and tranquillity (well, most of the time because, to be honest, the Atrium has the acoustics of a public swimming baths). It is a place where people can take time out from daily life for the quiet enjoyment of the collection and exhibitions.
However, stigma still surrounds our attitudes towards mental health. Research shows that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem at some time in our lives and stress is a key factor in this. Anxiety and depression affect nearly one fifth of the UK population and men are less likely to seek help for them than women.
I suffer from depression. Working part-time as a Visitor Services Assistant at the gallery helps with that and has become a part of my self-care/wellbeing routine. Working with a friendly team in a public-facing job allows me to move the focus away from myself. And, as many visitors have suggested, being surrounded by so many works of art, the gallery can be a great place to work. Although, as a colleague pointed out, spending so much time by yourself in the galleries, as we do, if you do go through a period of stress or anxiety in your life, then the job can give you far too much time to dwell on it, which can negatively impact your health and wellbeing. You need to find a way of coping. That’s where I find mindfulness helpful. Even on the busiest days it’s not too hard to incorporate moments of mindfulness in front of a painting.
The gallery’s current And Breathe… exhibition in Gallery 11, with a selection of paintings co-curated with mental health groups and school pupils, is specifically dedicated to quiet contemplation and mindfulness. I find myself drawn toward Untitled 1973 by Albert Irvin, with its strong primary colours almost hidden by a warm wash of Custard Yellow (at least that’s what I hope the label on the paint tube says). The large scale painting fills your vision and you find yourself peering through a yellow fog at obscured details lost to view by energetic brushstrokes; hints of coloured shadows and suggestions of form. Being in front of this painting is the perfect place to quieten the internal dialogue (that ceaseless running chatter that goes on in your mind 24/7, like your own personal DVD commentary) in much the same way as the bright curtain of foreground wash attempts to blot out the profusion of colours and brushstrokes beneath it. As an experiment, try looking at this painting without even thinking of the words ‘yellow’, ‘red’, ‘orange’, ‘green’, or ‘blue’, however briefly. Go on, sit down. There’s a sofa right in front of it. I even plump the cushions regularly (I’m probably the only one who does, so if you find a freshly plumped sofa, you know who to thank).
Louise, our Health and Wellbeing Manager, has also recorded several short mindfulness sessions that are available in the gallery through a smart phone. If you find them useful, you might want to come along to one of the longer volunteer-led Take Notice and Mindful Marks sessions during the week.
So, if you had to pick one painting in the gallery to spend some quality time with, which one would you choose?