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Camille Walala, Nightingale Project. Photography by Andy Dunn.
28th July 2017

The Nightingale Project: Q&A

Once in a while you come across incredible people doing very special things. The Nightingale Project is one such initiative.

The Nightingale Project was founded in 1998 and aims to brighten up hospitals with music and art. The project does this by staging temporary exhibitions in waiting rooms, as well as commissioning artists to create bespoke works for permanent display. It also works with musicians, organising live concerts for hospital inpatients. The project began at the South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre nearly two decades ago and has since spread to numerous other sites across London. Among the participating artists are Quentin Blake and Stirling Prize-winning architect Will Alsop.

Its latest commission is a mural by Camille Walala that will wrap around the walls of the reception area in the Park Royal Centre for Mental Health in London. The commission is untrodden territory for Camille. Instead of her signature bold colours, Camille has developed a more muted colour palette.

The project’s co-director Dr Nick Rhodes indulged us with some lengthy answers to our questions so we’ll leave him do the rest of the talking. Here’s the Nightingale Project, as well Camille’s mural, in Nick’s own words.

How did you come across Camille and her work?

I happened across the Splice Building in Shoreditch and was instantly attracted to it, so started to look out for more of Camille’s work. Stephen Barnham (fellow director of the Nightingale Project) and I felt that she would be an excellent artist to collaborate with, so we have been waiting for the right project to approach her about. We work with CNWL NHS Foundation Trust in brightening up hospital sites, and currently the Trust is undertaking some refurbishment at Park Royal Centre for Mental Health in Brent: the reception area there struck us as the perfect space to let Camille loose on!

Camille Walala, Nightingale Project. Photography by Andy Dunn.

What about Camille’s work makes it a good fit for the Nightingale Project?

It's fresh, contemporary and optimistic. NHS hospitals tend to be institutional, old-fashioned and drab, and Camille’s work is anything but that, so for that reason she is a good fit. Bland, unimaginative design is soul-destroying, and we want our hospital projects to be the opposite: uplifting and life-enhancing.

Tell us a little more about the mural Camille is creating?

The design is actually a wrap-around mural, on all the walls of a square reception area, creating a complete environment. Camille often uses bright, primary colours, and we challenged her to come up with a palette that was softer, because of the enclosed nature of the space and the fact that people often arrive in a mental health unit feeling emotionally vulnerable, so we did not want it to feel too brash, but to afford a cheerful but gentle welcome to the building. Camille herself feels she is breaking new ground with this softer palette – less primary colours and more coral pinks and mint greens.

Murals have the advantage that they can weave their way around doorways, light fittings and so on, and have perhaps greater impact in some large spaces than pictures in frames. We have hung many sequences of framed pictures in hospital corridors, and they can work beautifully, but a mural has the potential to address you across a huge hallway where you would barely notice a smaller work of art.

Even while Camille and her team have been working at the centre, we have been struck by the number of patients and staff who have said, “Wow! This is uplifting!” or “This makes me happy!” – so we think Camille's work is having the desired effect!

Camille Walala's work in progress for the Nightingale Project. Photography by Andy Dunn.

Why do you believe that art and music are so important to a hospital environment? 

Hospitals can be depressing places. Especially in mental health centres, people can experience a dislocating anxiety that they are divorced from the real world, that they have entered a separate reality where they are somehow less valid as human beings. Art and music communicate humanity and a message of valuing. One young woman approached one of our units, on her way to see a psychiatrist for the first time in her life, and feeling (as she told me later) a sense of fear and deep reluctance. Then when she walked in and saw the lively and colourful exhibition that we then had on our walls (by illustrator Jonny Hannah), she said to herself “Wow, this is a cool place!” The art instantly transformed her mood: she felt welcomed, and was straightaway more relaxed and less worried about seeing the doctor.

I think we can all relate to this whether we are talking about hospitals or anywhere else: environment affects your mood. Think about how you feel in certain work spaces, shops, restaurants or houses. Colour, light and design elements have the potential to either lift or depress your mood. Very important to think about this in hospitals when people are already in some form of distress when they arrive.

Is there any reason for particularly focusing on mental health hospitals?

Well, the first reason is that I am a psychologist, so mental health is my field. But there are in fact several reasons for this. First of all, people using our services still say they experience a stigma associated with mental health issues, so we do not want to echo that sense of stigma by working with them in bleak and depressing environments that seem to say ‘This awful place is all we think you are worth’. In addition, mental health issues can require long-term care. For example, if you need inpatient admission in mental health, your average length of stay is far longer than it would be in an acute general hospital. Our view is that if you are staying for a while, then we as clinicians have an even greater obligation to make it feel homely rather than soulless and institutional.

Camille Walala's work in progress for the Nightingale Project. Photography by Andy Dunn.

The selection of artworks previously created for the project is incredibly diverse. When commissioning artists, what do you look for in terms of style or aesthetic? Is there something that patients respond particularly well to?

Patients need something that enriches the environment, takes them out of themselves, and gives them a lift. But these goals can actually be achieved in a variety of styles. We like artists to know something about the people who are using the space that their work is going to be displayed in. They are likely to create something different for, say, a women’s ward in an adult psychiatric unit than they would for a Child Development Centre. 

We have often used images of nature, which have a universal appeal. For example we have worked a lot with illustrator Jane Ray, who painted images of birds and trees, implying growth, recovery and freedom. Patients in hospital have responded very positively to these images, irrespective of where in the world they come from, which suggests that nature has a very broad appeal. But also Jane’s work has a magical, dream-like quality, which I think stimulates the imagination, and there is a certain amount of engaging detail in them, which is helpful if a patient is staying in hospital for an extended period, because it continues to offer some interest. Having said that, we do not restrict our projects to a narrowly defined aesthetic or a limited range of subject matter – indeed Jane’s work is strikingly different from Camille’s!

The Nightingale Project's work with Jane Ray on Vimeo

You are a clinical psychologist as well as co-ordinator of art and design projects. Does having such a first-hand insight help when it comes to commissioning artists?

It helps immensely, because I know the ward environments well and have spent so much time talking to people about what they are struggling with. The other director of the Nightingale Project, Stephen Barnham, has an arts background, which has of course combined well with my healthcare background in developing a project which brings art into health settings.

Camille Walala's work in progress for the Nightingale Project. Photography by Andy Dunn.

Are the works always created especially for the project and if so, how do you work with artists to decide upon the final piece/pieces? Do you brief them or do you collaborate together to work out what fits the space best?

We show the artists the space and enter into a discussion that includes the Nightingale Project team, the artist or designer, the patients and the healthcare staff. So, yes, it’s a collaborative process. We feed back to the artists as we go along to refine the ideas that they are working on.

You tend to only commission high-profile and established artists. Why is that?

Well, it’s not quite true that we only commission high-profile artists - some of our collaborators have been less well-known. But whether they are established or just starting out, we are constantly on the lookout for talented people whose work we think will enhance a hospital environment. So we have worked with Quentin Blake and Will Alsop, but also with some young artists who have recently left college.

Some of the artists we have exhibited have been known for something other than visual art, such as the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who in private was a good painter, and the composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who made beautiful collages for his own pleasure. We were the first to exhibit these artists’ work, so I guess we like to surprise people. But whether they are well known or not, we believe that aiming for good quality (rather than, say, cheap, mass-produced reproductions) means users of our services readily feel a certain pride in the environment of their ward or clinic, which lifts the spirits in an important way.

How is the Nightingale Project funded? 

We are a charity and have to fundraise for each project. We are actively looking for sponsors who would like to support us with our forthcoming plans. Anyone who would like to support us or find out more, please contact me on nick.rhodes@nhs.net.

www.nightingaleproject.org | @nightingale_project


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