We are Rainbows: Things to consider when working with artists with mental health problems

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By Emma Louvelle

Emma Louvelle is a South-West-based improviser, choreographer, dancer, collector and creator of images, objects and text. She was Outside In Artist of the Month for August 2017 – you can read our interview with her and see some of her artwork here. She is currently exhibiting her work in Outside In’s touring exhibition, Alternative Visions: Undiscovered Art in the South West.

This article is split into three parts:

  • ‘Why we are rainbows’
  • ‘Things to consider when working with mental health performers/participants/subject’
  • ‘Things to consider generally when it comes to art and mental health’


Part one: Why we are rainbows

So here’s the thing, I’m a rainbow. In fact all of us are rainbows, obviously we are not literally rainbows but we are all comprised of a multitude of colours; every human is a unique work of art. This is not just physically, its internal and surrounding, our histories, our beliefs, our passions, our emotions and many more facets that shape us as unique. Our rainbows run beyond the spectrum of those we see in the sky, there can be neon pink, turquoise, a deep chestnut brown and grey and many, many, more. Some can be blindingly vibrant others can verge on sludge shades, as when your paintbrush is dirty and you mix it up in one of your colours on your palette. Personally I like a lot of these colours when painting; they tend to bring depth.

We are all united by the fact that we are all unique.


Pallet Masterpost by Otakumutt

So two of my colours are artist and someone with mental health issues, on their own neither defines me, but they are strong colours that often run into each other, often there is an unintentional blending.

As an artist I can make work about anything I choose for any audience, my art does not have to address my mental health unless I choose. And if I choose this it will not be due to the persuasion of others or attempts to pigeon hole me. However, recently I have chosen this pathway where my art and mental health spend some time travelling together; this current blending is intentional.

For this work I have concentrated on performance, a melting pot of dialogue, dance, singing and performance art. I have had two residencies, working with other artists who also have experienced mental health issues. From these work shopped residencies a performance piece, ‘Tea with Lyssa’ has evolved alongside a workshop for others and so far there has been a question and answer session after each performance. In these talks my aim is to use words that are known not unreachable, a trait sadly uncommon in the art and academic worlds. Language can separate, create unneeded boundaries, I do not want to place myself as an expert; I am not. Nor do I want to grandiose what I am doing with ideas that only those with a background in art academy could understand. This work is not a place to flex intellectual muscles.

It has not been easy and I have made mistakes but I am a great believer in what a former teacher of mine called “mistakeology”; for here we learn, find and sometimes the mistakes turn into what was needed. I also believe in what another teacher told me, teaching without TEACHING. This is about allowing a two-way flow, I can learn from you and you can learn from me. It is an approach more akin to being a gentle guiding hand that can move with wherever the work goes.


Credit: Yuri Vasnetsov

Why I have taken this path was the result of several experiences:

  • The artist who thinks they are a guru.
  • The artist who thinks they are a therapist and that they can heal their participants.
  • The companies who come to work with those who have experienced mental health to mine stories for their work, without the health support structure needed for those who have stories to tell; stories can be triggers. Trauma cannot be dug up for the sake of art without a safety net.

I have encountered all of these scenarios and decided to try and seek something that is new.

I have abandoned straight line narratives as I feel they fail to capture what many of us experience. The conventional narrative such as I was ill and then I got better and other versions that follows the pattern, a, b, c, d, e, f, g and so on in a straight line. There has never been a single straight line in my life: it zig zags, swirls, races, stagnates, collapses and soars. I wanted to create a sense of what was in my head and the others I worked with without laying it out in an exposing paint by numbers way.

Process over product always, is a bit of a mantra of mine. Product is often tied to money or organisations and the criteria they need to fill, automatically inducing unneeded stress from the outset. The irony here work that concentrates on process often ends up with the best art/products.


Credit: Yuri Vasnetsov


Love and peace, Emma Louvelle


Part two: Things to consider when working with mental health performers/participants/subject


  • Teaching without TEACHING. There is a distinction here; it is about avoiding a pedagogical hierarchy of teacher/student, a guide as opposed to leader.


  • This seems obvious but still needs stating: just because you have mental health issues does not mean that you are stupid. Patronising even if coated in kindness and good intention is still patronising/ belittling.


  • Avoidance of binaries – yes/no, right/wrong. This also translates into subject matter and creating; there is comedy in the tragic and beauty in the ugly and vice versa. Nothing is ever one thing, just as humans are never one thing. We create depth by allowing multiples to exist alongside each other.


  • To create structure that is both supportive and flexible, a metaphorical body of water. It holds but is translucent, (there but invisible), it moves, with the group but also can allow for someone to move away and still fill supported and part of the group.


  • Artists are not therapists nor should have a guru complex. Remember that you are not there to delve, expose scars nor heal by intention (that if to happen as part of the process will occur for the individual in their own way). The work can have great therapeutic value but if it evolves, its growth should be organic. The artist/guide does not know more than the performer/participant but they will probably know different things.


  • Asking people to tell relive trauma, experiences in a narrative fashion can trigger and cause serious damage. These experiences will be there no matter what and do not need excavation with archaeological precision, dusted off and shown to everyone in re-exhumed glory. Narrative, verbatim, working from detailed experience has a place, but not in such a setting. Such work creates lines not fluidity.


  • The individual is encouraged to stipulate their boundaries if not by themselves, then via support workers. In addition, there is a responsibility on those guiding the process to recognise, be aware of people’s boundaries, and allow them to exist without blocking participation.


  • Everyone there is an individual, there is no universals when it comes to mental health. There are highly likely scenarios but never golden rules of interaction/diagnosis.


  • Process over product. Concentration upon product/performance is often about ticking boxes, funding, artist ego, organisations saying look we did this and often creates un-needed pressure from the outset. The irony is that be concentrating on process any product that emerges will tend to have more weight.


  • Health before art. This seems obvious but occurs constantly, often connected to the desire for product.


  • To aim towards a process that works by unfolding with plenty of room for access. Establishing points of entrance into the work from within, from outside, from each other. This is not a piece of paper with lines of writing unfolding but the many petals of many flowers.

Work in process showing of ‘Tea with Lyssa’, Arnolfini 2017


Part 3: Things to consider generally, when it comes to art and mental health 

  •  1 in 4 people will experience some form of mental health issue in their life.


  • Mental health is like physical health – you can have a period of mental ill health, you can be prone to re-occurring bouts of mental ill health and you can have mental health issues that are with you for life.


  • The arts sector needs to avoid presenting ‘the presentable face of mental health’. Often artists who identify with having mental health conditions and who can access funding and arts opportunities come from highly supported environments (e.g. a bi-polar person from an educated white middle class supportive family)  or one end of the spectrum. The arts sector needs to recognise current avenues into the arts ecology are not accessible for many with mental health.


  • Artists need to avoid promoting a romanticised notion of mental health. The idea of the tortured artist as an artistic norm. Mental health is not fashion.


  • The connection between poverty and mental health cannot be over-looked. 


  • The connection between addiction and mental health cannot be over-looked. 


  • In this country, you are four times more likely to be sectioned under the mental health act if you are black; this cannot be over-looked and shows institutional racism as a factor alongside other reasons. (At a recent day at an arts festival devoted to raising awareness of mental health, all participating artists where white and mainly middle class).


  • Prisoners’ mental health cannot be ignored. 62% of male and 57% of female prisoners in this country have personality disorders. 46% of female prisoners have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. 49% of female prisoners and 23% of male prisoners suffer from anxiety and depression. These figures are from the Ministry of Justice but do account for undiagnosed prisoners.


  • Estimations suggest that around 70% of people accessing homelessness services have mental health conditions. Here we have to remember that this figure does not cover anyone who is homeless and not accessing the services.



If you’d like to write a blog post, please email the Outside In Communications Coordinator, Sophie:  sophie.buck@outsidein.org.uk

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