Works Like People II by artist Tom Ellis is a series of site specific artworks commissioned by national arts charity Paintings in Hospitals, ahead of Tom’s forthcoming show The Middle: Tom Ellis at The Wallace Collection, opening September 2016. In this blog Lucy Wells, Inclusive Arts Manager at Bromley by Bow Centre, takes us through why the project is important to the Centre.
Here at the Bromley by Bow Centre we are very pleased to be a partner in the Works Like People II project with the Wallace Collection, Paintings in Hospitals and three other GP practices around the city, and to play host to one of the remarkable paintings by the artist Tom Ellis here in our GP waiting room. Incorporating ways to bring art and people together in and through our services has been a long and enduring commitment for us an organisation, and so being invited to be part of this project fits perfectly into that vision.
So to give a feel for the context in which this artwork is being experienced here is a little bit about us….
We are a community health and well-being centre in Tower Hamlets, sitting in the shadow of the iconic towers of the city of London, we are nestled between the concrete business of the A12 and a series of tower-block housing estates. This area of East London is often labelled one of the ‘most deprived’ in the country with significant inequality, high levels of unemployment, child poverty, poor housing, limited green space, complex public health issues including higher-than-average levels of poor mental health and social isolation.
However, here at the Bromley by Bow Centre we see that although this community might be perceived to be deprived, it certainly isn’t deprived of vitality, vibrancy, diversity, creativity and energy.
Springing up out of the community over 30 years ago, everyday the organisation supports families, young people and adults of all ages to learn new skills, improve their health and wellbeing, find employment and develop the confidence to achieve their goals and transform their lives. At the core of the Centre’s thinking is our belief in people and their capacity to achieve amazing things.
The organisation’s mission is to address and support people’s immediate needs while tackling deep-rooted causes. We do this through providing a range of integrated services to support each individual person find the best way for them to live well and build a positive future.
These services and activities support over 2000 people a month and include debt and welfare advice, financial capability, digital inclusion programmes, health and social care provision, adult learning, training and employment support and social enterprise incubation.
We work in close partnership with housing providers, schools, charities and other stakeholders. The most significant partnership of all is of course with our on-site GP practice and associated Health Partnership who we work with in an entirely integrated way; we believe that we are holistic beings and we need to take a holistic approach to our health and to the health and wellbeing of our communities.
From its beginnings the arts and artists were integral to how the Bromley by Bow Centre shaped and delivered much of its work. We have worked with artists, ensuring they have workspace made available in exchange for community workshops and community engagement. We continue to look for opportunities to connect artists, people and spaces through delivering projects and programmes embedded within our community development, health, learning, and social services. Recognising the power of art to be transformative is one of our key beliefs and this bringing together of art, artists, services and community has created a truly unique and significant organisation.
Now, as then, we recognise the distinctive value and capacity for genuine, relevant change that art can bring to community life, including health in its broadest sense. Ironically though, it is often in communities that struggle with the negative, damaging effects of inequality that face the most complex barriers and lack of access to arts and culture. Despite the ever-amassing wealth of evidence that tells us how utterly important art is to our wellbeing, it is communities that perhaps need art the most that it is hardest to access or find. The paintings that Tom Ellis has created in Works Like People II reflect something of a similar tension; they touch on a universal human awkwardness of the problematic need to find creativity in difficulty. The painting on the wall of our waiting room subtly asks questions about how we navigate our place in a world of difficulties, the sense of inadequacy this can bring, and yet still we are required to be present and to respond. Despite its substantial size (it is large!) the painting almost feels tentative; it has sense of unfinished-ness and even the very physicality of the painting coming up against the physical domestic public space (it wraps itself around a radiator), calls us to consider how two domains and two seemingly opposing feelings can, should and need to collide and connect.
Of course it is important to act with acute sensitivity when placing artworks into a context where the audience has not actively chosen to experience it, plus it is a context in which people are potentially very vulnerable, may be in pain, experiencing anxiety or stress. We know that there is strong evidence for art to act as a distraction, as a soothing mechanism in environments such as GP surgeries and other clinical spaces, and here at Bromley by Bow Centre we most certainly adhere to the belief of creating beautiful spaces and positive physical environments to support the work we do. And undoubtedly the aesthetic of Ellis’s work is soft, beautiful and playful.
However, it is perhaps unusual to find artwork in the environment of a GP surgery that carries an underlying, murmuring discourse of difficulty and tensions, but this is I believe, significant; it suggests that the work does not just perceive its audience to be patients but complete, wonderfully intricate, whole human beings.
It quietly offers both challenging questions about society and humanity (as good art should!) as well as a soothing distraction; it does not patronise its audience by shying away from complex questions hidden within the work whilst giving its audience something gentle, caring and even fun!
Public spaces need art – art which strikes an accessible and congruent balance between kindness and challenge. And placing such art in the context of a knowable and indiscriminately experienced space like a GP’s waiting room, away from a structure designed space of an art establishment such as a gallery, makes the work more pertinent and more exciting.
By Lucy Wells
If you’d like to know more about the Bromley By Bow Centre and its history click here.