‘It’s human to break down’: Dalston art therapy centre Studio Upstairs celebrates 30 year milestone
- Credit: Studio Upstairs
Dalston art therapy charity Studio Upstairs empowers some of the most vulnerable in our society through making art. Co-founder Claire Manson tells Emma Bartholomew about its origins 30 years ago and how she’s thrilled it still exists.
Studio Upstairs was set up by Douglas Gill and Claire Manson in 1988 to combat the “revolving door” phenomenon, whereby psychiatric patients too vulnerable to work or study are discharged from hospital - but soon readmitted after another break down.
“The idea was to invite people away from the identity as a psychological patient into the heart of the artistic community,” explains co-founder Claire.
“People could be people, and respected for what they made, regardless of the extremeness of their psychological experience.”
Studio managers were professional therapists but also artists in their own right, who worked alongside the clients.
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“We worked hard on the language as a way to keep alive these particular relationships. We used to have a bundle of quotes, like “we met through art” and “all life can be framed within art”,” said Claire.
“It is a very different notion isn’t it, rather than being treated as a psychological patient and going to day hospitals and always being treated and being kept in a particular role.”
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Claire, a trained potter had been working as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital, and met Douglas Gill on an arts therapy course, who invited her to help set up the charity. The name was a pun for the fact they set up on the top floor of Diorama Arts, which was like a “legal squat” housing many artists and musicians. Studio Upstairs was founded on the principles of R D Laing, who set up the Philadelphia Association in the 50s to challenge established ways of thinking about and treating mental illness.
“We started from nothing one day a week,” said Claire. “The idea was that a lot of these things aren’t mental illness but social illnesses. We felt in the tradition of non-residential therapeutic community that it was a question of introducing people to their humanness.
“It’s human to break down and experience extremes of emotion and psychological states - so how do you make that ordinary and speak about the emotional as an ordinary thing? That’s where we were coming from.”
She continued: “In the tradition of psychotherapy on a sliding scale you become psychotic or very depressed and people are marginalised by their experiences.
“But we can all experience extremes of psychological experience. We all have psychotic parts. We have paranoid bits of our personality, and some of us are more sensitive to that. We might have a more nervous jumpy system or inherited a tendency towards something. We really believed that we are all in this mess together, except some of us don’t completely lose the plot.
“Some people could sit with their face to the wall and draw and draw and draw and have their work respected, even if their way of relating might cause others anxiety.”
There was never a time constraint of how long a patient could attend the arts studio.
“We were accused at one point of being “very 70s”,” said Claire. “The funding is really tight now.
“We were in a political and social environment where the voluntary sector was respected, before the time Margaret Thatcher brought in the competitive contract culture. Our first members came via the dole queue, and the social workers were really happy they had somewhere they thought their people would do well in.
“I’m sure the studio has kept a lot of people out of hospital but that’s not taken into consideration now when the local authority decides whether they fund something.”
While many art therapists at the time didn’t approve of client exhibitions, Studio Upstairs encouraged it.
“There’s a whole convention in psychotherapy about the work being confidential and not for public consumption, but we say it’s up to you what you want to do with it.
“Why shouldn’t people be respected and go out and compete in the art world? Not just put any work up but when it’s ready to be seen.”
An exhibition at Stour Space from December 13 to January 13 celebrates the past 30 years, showcasing work from past and present members.
“I think we were revolutionary and I suspect Studio Upstairs still is, but I suspect funding is getting in the way of being able to operate,” said Claire, who stepped down as a trustee two years ago.
“Douglas and I are thrilled it still exists. I wanted it to go on and on and on, and it still is.”