Art of the matter

In recent years art, drama and other types of creative therapy have
proved valuable to many people with mental health issues. In fact
service users and care workers have often found that emotional
suffering can act as a drive to creative expression.

But formal therapy is not the only approach that can be taken with
the healing power of the arts. Uniquely, at two studios in London
and Bristol, mental health service users are treated simply as
artists, their work simply as art. The Studio Upstairs was founded
in 1988 by artist Claire Manson and psychotherapist Douglas Gill to
provide art and drama facilities outside the realms of psychiatry
or any kind of formal treatment.

Manson argues that the arts world illustrates the impossibility of
a simple distinction between health and mental illness. “It’s a
funny paradox. If you have a breakdown you can be seen as invalid,
as outside the social discourse. But if you are scooped up and
brought into the art community, which is full of breakdown, you
come to a very precious commodity right at its heart.”

From the beginning Manson and Gill emphasised the value of
community and this is nurtured as much as the artwork itself.
Psychotherapist and London director Tom Bradshaw says the creative
and social aspects of the studios go together to support a natural
healing process. “Someone who’s had a breakdown might feel cut off,
dead inside. Coming here is about expressing yourself, becoming
more alive and involved with other people.”

Visiting the London studio, the sense of warmth and friendliness is
palpable. Studio member Paula Kusner says: “It’s a comfortable
community. It goes through the ups and downs that all communities
go through, and we work them through.”

Manson says treating people as artists rather than as patients is
key to the atmosphere and some members draw a contrast between The
Studio’s ethos and their experience of mainstream services. James
Hardy says: “It’s hard when, for years, you’ve constantly got
doctors saying you’re ill. I try not to think of myself as ill, as
a mental health service user. I see this as a place to enjoy, and
it is therapeutic. The people here are just normal people.”

Despite its philosophy of non-intervention and of a natural
therapeutic process, the project maintains a strong relationship
with its funders. Manson believes that the authorities recognise
the importance of The Studio’s complementary and separate role in
the artistic community.

The value of The Studio’s independence is emphasised by member
Giampiero Loffredo: “I’ve become very sceptical about psychiatry,
psychology and psychotherapists. I find it difficult to discuss the
problems. Perhaps it’s me unable to express myself properly, or
them unable to provide the answer. I prefer getting my therapy like
this, just by talking, enjoying people and art.”

Some members are referred as part of their mental health care plan
while others self-refer. Experience ranges from those who have not
picked up a paintbrush or acted since childhood to professional
artists and performers. Performances and exhibitions, which are
billed without reference to mental illness, have been held as far
afield as St Petersburg.

Manson and Bradshaw dismiss criticism that their approach to
therapy is unable to show hard results. Healing is illustrated,
they say, through the development of people’s work. In drama, it
might appear through the playing of new roles or the expression of
different emotions. In artwork, through the use of stronger
colours, or perhaps the lowering of walls or the appearance of

Manson also points to a marked drop in demand for clinical care by
studio members. Mike Hawthorne testifies to this: “It stops people
breaking down to the extent that they can’t function and have to be
in hospital. It’s helped me stay out of hospital.

“It’s had a stabilising effect. The routine stabilises your life,
it doesn’t leave you at the mercy of what may be lurking in your

Although many mental health projects share similar values, Manson
believes there remains a need for such arts facilities throughout
the country. But there are no resources for expansion, falling as
The Studio does between conventional grant-making categories.
“People ask: ‘where’s the therapy?’ Well, it’s wall-to-wall

Kevin Snow is a government communications officer. He has
written this piece in a personal capacity.

– Contact the Studio at

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