November brings a darkness that can be either full of magical curiosity or a miserable start to an endless winter. Of course, both and neither exist. We turn up to these states in the manner that suits our current personal narrative. On my arrival at Madlove I was immersed in self-centred gloom. Another visitor reminded me that the St Helens motto is Ex Terra Lucem (light out of the earth). Like miners leaving the pit, we create moments of light that generate solace in winter. We are lucky if we find a beacon that welcomes us and helps us to feel safe. We crave it. Approaching the Madlove space felt like a moment of finding light when I needed it.
Creating ‘welcome’ is difficult. With the Madlove Take Over, an arts festival for mental health, artist James Leadbitter and Emily Gee and the Heart of Glass team have created a space of welcome with the subtlest of touches, transforming a former Argos unit in a centrally located shopping centre. Here is a place that embraces you as an equal and offers a space of sanctuary. This is not the world of the clinician, the rule-maker or any of those who might set out to manage us. This is a place for humans to see each other just as they are. A place where empathy is given with fierce integrity. After watching one of the screened video works, ‘The Suicide Chronicles’ (Joanne Lyne, Angela Samata and Lisa Vint with Mark Storor, 2019), a visitor talked about ‘wanting the earth to take you’ in the context of bereavement through suicide. Where do you go when you want the earth to take you?
I often find artistic work about mental health difficult. It can be so distressing that those of us with any experience of being unwell can’t access it. Or – as bad – utterly patronising; seeking to ‘fix’ us in a way that removes our agency or creates a false understanding that being well is a final destination. As a woman chatting about the space put it: ‘You sometimes just need permission to get it off your chest’. No need for hysteria or any fixing there.
Darkness is not separate from light in Madlove; mental health is not a dichotomy here. This once monochrome shop space in St Helens is much more nuanced. It holds a ‘safer space’ by giving us written guidance on entry, creating a forum for discussion, giving our bodies soft places to land, designing the environment with attention to detail, curiosity and cheer, and providing us with a carefully, individually brewed cup of tea. Whilst we’re there, we can engage with the ‘darkness’ if we want to. We can look at a series of re-imagined Mr Men figures that explores the systems that keep us ‘unwell’ (Dolly Sen), we can watch films about losing those we love to suicide (‘The Suicide Chronicles’), and we can practice being listened to in the cafe (a work by Lois Weaver and hosted by members of St Helens U3A). We can also read poems about feeling well (or not) in a poetry book initiated independently by a local man, who states, ‘I’m just showing the people of St Helens a kindness’. All of this co-exists. To borrow from Rory Pilgrim’s work, this space is ‘a system of care and kindness’. No sugar pills, just genuine, difficult, beautiful, messy human connection.
This project feels critical now. The failures in mental health ‘services’ are well documented. But in Madlove there is a more pressing message about the quality of social spaces (physical, virtual and emotional) so absent from our mainstream discourse. Or put more simply by a woman who came to chat: ‘It’s hard to find someone who really understands you’. A culture of animosity, polarity and separation between people creates environments in which it is easy to feel distressed and isolated. One man said that coming to ‘Madlove’ was ‘the first time they’ve ever felt welcome in a place’. Is that really the best we can do? In reminding us that healing comes in part from shared humanity, Madlove offers us a well-lit, gentle and determined way forward.
Sarah Bailey is a writer and consultant based in Lancashire.
Madlove Take Over is an arts festival for mental health initiated by Heart of Glass, 1-30 November 2019, 11am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday in the old Argos store, Unit 2, The Hardshaw Centre, Church Street, St Helens, WA10 1EB. This review is kindly supported by Heart of Glass.